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Accountability in Hybrid Work

joy at work Apr 30, 2023

Written by Ed Cook

A growing tension exists between employers and employees. Many employers want their teams back in the office, while many employees are happy working at home. Employers highlight diminished culture and productivity with employees out of the office while employees shrug their shoulders and ask for evidence. The strength of the culture and the level of productivity seems fine to them, and their life at home is improved with less travel, or at least made manageable with kids at home and continuing concerns over COVID-19.  What gives? Perhaps just old-school Accountability.

New School Thinking for a Hybrid Work Setting

Parents impress upon their children to take accountability for their actions. Teachers demand that students take accountability for their work. Employers demand that teenagers take accountability for their jobs. Clearly, we hear about accountability at an early age and in many different settings.  By the time we become adult workers, one would think we would know what it means to take accountability, even with hybrid work. Yet, there are employers who snap images from company laptops several times a day to check if employees are working. Some employers check computer log-in records to see how much time employees spend on their computers each day.  

Understandably,  employers want to hold their employees accountable. But the research we have done on Joy at Work clearly demonstrates that accountability cannot be forced. It must be given and done so willingly. The difference between holding and giving is crucial in assessing if accountability is present. In a hybrid work setting, doing it wrong can be immensely damaging to the company culture. Joy at Work is diminished.

“Accountability is an employee’s willingness to be held to promises made that are expected of their role and of those they declare publicly.”

The Guide to Joy at Work by Roxanne Brown and Ed Cook

Parents, teachers, and coaches have tried to show us the value of willingly taking accountability for our actions. They might have demanded certain behaviors, but that’s because we were kids. The idea was to develop adults. However, organizations that use this model of holding employees accountable are treating their adults like children. They should expect childish behavior to follow.

Managing Up

In lieu of this kind of accountability, what can managers do? They can nurture trust. Trust is something that is given. The manager trusts an employee, thus allowing the employee to willingly be held to promises made. Nurturing trust is an act of vulnerability because it exposes the manager to risk. Risk that the work won’t get done as desired. Risk to the manager’s reputation. Risk to their career. But there is also risk to the employee as well. Risk to their reputation. Risk to their career. Trust and accountability are linked with each reinforcing the other and both contributing to Joy at Work.

“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
- Thomas Paine

This linking of trust and accountability requires action from both the manager and the employee. The manager must create a structure of safety around the employee so that the trust afforded them is not overwhelming if the needed work is beyond the employee’s current level of skill. One approach is called the Leadership Bubble. This giving of trust is no more necessary in a hybrid work setting than in any other. However, there is something for managers to do differently. Managers can’t rely on the easier communication method of the office drop-by. Managers must seek to communicate through the channels designed for hybrid work. Channels like email, instant messaging, Slack, and Teams are more arms-length. They are asynchronous and less rich in information which makes their use more challenging than a drop-by conversation.  

This is a significant management challenge. It requires planning as to how the manager will keep the team aligned while also staying in tune with the needs of the individuals on the team. One of those needs is how employees prefer (and are best at) taking in information. All too often, managers fall into the trap of assuming they have successfully communicated without any feedback that they have actually done so. A message sent is not the same as a message received. Managers should not attempt to hold an employee accountable when the employee is not clear on what they are supposed to do. 

For the employee, there is a way to think about this, as well. It can be described as Managing Up.

“Be the lens through which your manager can better understand the workplace.”
- The Managing Up Mindset from The Change Decision

An employee demonstrates accountability by declaring publicly that they will take responsibility for a piece of work. In doing so willingly, they provide their manager with a better understanding of what it takes for the team to succeed. When people talk about self-organizing teams, this is the dynamic required, a public declaration to do something. Being fully self-organizing is not always necessary for this dynamic to be valuable, but team members finding ways to advance the work and provide more understanding to the manager are key ingredients of all successful teams.

The Managing Up Self-Assessment

The combination of taking accountability and managing up are powerful ways to advance a team beyond the limits of the manager’s capability to make all the decisions. It is an exponential rise, but it takes work, as with any powerful technique. Fortunately, we all have experience in doing this albeit a long time ago. Remember when you were seven years old and laying out the roles in a game? Remember the conversation? Like in playing a game of football. 

You might say: “Ok, you three will be on this team and you other three will be on that team. Since I am the odd person, I’ll be 'all-time-offense' and switch back and forth.”

Another would jump in: “Since we have Mary and she is the oldest, we’ll start on defense.”

Then another: “I'll watch for cars and yell ‘game off’ whenever I see one so that we can get out of the road.”

In just minutes, you and your playmates would willingly take accountability for different parts of the game. Doing so was more engaging. You and your friends felt good about doing it. You would help each other out. Tell each other what you needed, paying attention to how your friends took in the information. It was never perfect but it was usually self-correcting. If a problem arose you and your friends would sort it out. There are lessons to be gleaned from this amazing interaction. Lessons that may help to push aside the accumulated baggage that adults can have.

Answering self-assessment questions can help employees see where they can contribute. It can help clear away some of the baggage.

  1. How are you and your team expected to contribute to the goals of the organization? What do you need from your manager for you and your team to be successful?
  2. What are your manager’s preferences for proactive communication? How can you keep your manager informed to ensure they have a great understanding of what’s happening with you and your team?
  3. What are you doing to anticipate your manager’s needs and expectations? How are you proactively taking care of your manager’s needs and expectations?
  4. What are you and your team doing to prevent your manager from trusting you? What are you and your team doing to encourage your manager to trust you?

This is not a one-way dynamic. The manager needs to engage and trust the employee to be held to a promise willingly. Together,  employees and managers can make their team a powerful unit that drives results for the organization, and do it in a way that grows Joy at Work.

Growing Joy at Work

Accountability and Trust are two of the ten dimensions of Joy at Work that we have found in our
Joy Research. Here’s how we define Joy at Work.

Joy at Work is employee willingness to:

Participate, commit, and be accountable


Belong and act with cohesion

Adapt and grow

Demonstrate respect

Act with integrity

Joy at Work exists when:

The company, leaders, and managers continually create the conditions and extend the invitation for employees to contribute in this way.


Employees constantly accept the invitation.

Growing Joy at Work, whether hybrid, virtual, or completely in-person, is not a one-and-done effort. It is a process that must be attended to each day, which means work. Significant work. The result is a team with significant capability that will grow in its ability to deliver as it grows Joy at Work.