Leadership in a Hybrid Working World: Culture, Connection & Communication

We hear from Chris Leach & Josie Gammell on hybrid working in the post-pandemic world.

Chris, I believe that you and Josie have just been involved in a project on this topic in collaboration with London Business School. How did that come about?

Chris: Josie and I both run independent executive coaching practices and have worked very well together on coaching briefs like this in the past. I was invited as an alumnus of LBS and now I’m part of their Alumni Career Coaching team to co-create a pilot leadership webinar aimed at senior executive alumni. It felt natural to bring Josie into the mix on this topic because she is a great communication coach and complements my background in finance.

So, what did you learn from this exercise?

Josie: So many golden nuggets came out of it! I don’t think that any business would have signed up to mass hybrid working as an experiment unilaterally, however, we were all thrust into the pandemic regardless. Collaborating with other leaders in this webinar produced some great insights into the challenges of adapting business models to suit current circumstances. With so many factors and permutations to consider, it provided the leadership cohort that participated a real opportunity to a) air & debate the challenges and b) share best practices in finding possible solutions from their collective experiences.

Chris: It was indeed a fascinating session. Hybrid working is not exactly a new concept for leaders to handle, but since the pandemic employees have experienced, en masse, the flexibility that hybrid working offers and quite reasonably want it to continue in some form. Subsequently, how can leaders – globally – maintain business effectiveness and cohesion while at the same time allowing employees greater flexibility in how they work? It’s a huge question. Hybrid working isn’t going away, so the difference between winning and losing in this new world order will be measured by the speed at which leaders are able to adapt their business models effectively. The upside of course is that, for agile leaders who can embrace this coming of (the digital) age, there’s a huge opportunity to listen, learn, adapt, and grow in spite of the pandemic.

In this new hybrid culture of work, if you had to put the main challenges companies are facing into distinct categories, what would those be?

Josie: Chris and I spent a long time researching and soliciting feedback on this question in preparation for the webinar. Thankfully, as you might imagine, there is also some great empirical research that has been done on the pandemic’s impact as it unfolds. From our perspective in the context of team leadership, the primary challenges boil down to three Cs: Culture, Communication & Connection.

  • How clearly is the Culture being defined & understood in your business?
  • How much is Connection embraced and encouraged within your business?
  • How much does the leadership facilitate open, two-way Communication at all levels and across the organisation and really listen to the feedback?

Chris: Yes, absolutely. It’s the combination of firm Culture also cast as vision & purpose; Connection, specifically in terms of active engagement; and effective Communication across the whole organisation from the top down which actively embraces the best of what technology can offer. The obvious challenge for leaders in a hybrid context is that the binds that tie individuals to the organisation are by definition loosened in a hybrid working world. So forward-thinking leaders are figuring out how best to better utilise digital tools to foster innovation & collaboration whilst retaining an acceptable degree of oversight over productivity & accountability.

Josie: And not just controlling productivity but increasing it by continuing to develop & upskill teams through formal and informal Learning & Development (L & D) activities. How can you best train your people when you’re not in the same room as them? What is truly going to work?

Chris: Exactly! One big conundrum across all professional services is how do we train our young talent in a hybrid context.

Really interesting. What are the implications of these findings for leaders going forward?

Josie: Great question, leaders are beginning to understand that, in moving forward, “one size fits none” and old styles of leadership are unlikely to fit the bill. Hopefully, they will adapt their style of leadership before they are forced to by the workforce voting with their feet. Currently, in investment banking (based on reports in the mainstream media), we’re seeing two types of leadership being played out in real-time. Some banking leaders believe it’s still optimal to “return” to a pre-pandemic business model. They’ve been upfront about requiring teams back in the office after Labor Day unless they are an active health risk. On the other hand, some other firms, notably in Europe, appear to be taking a more flexible & pragmatic approach about who might need to return to the office full-time or part-time and when. Which type of leadership will attract and retain the best talent? Only time will tell.

Chris: From our research, developments in the legal profession seem to be playing out differently from banking probably in part because the nature of legal work lends itself more easily to remote working than banking. From what we are seeing, the law firms are currently taking a more pragmatic view as long as productivity remains high and client needs are being met.

What have the leaders you have spoken to shared about this?

Josie: Well, that’s the beauty of hosting these webinars with senior leaders from a variety of locations and sectors; it invites a myriad of different perspectives and context is key. We are talking predominantly about knowledge workers who account for 1 in 5 workers globally but, for example, make up 60% of the workforce in the US. So, it’s a far bigger consideration today for corporate leaders in the world’s advanced economies than it is elsewhere.

Chris: In addition, the trends set by today’s Fortune 500 companies will be studied and in part incorporated into the global way of doing business in the coming years. This undoubtedly has wider ramifications for the planet and how we live and work. It’s a huge obligation and a massive opportunity at the same time for today’s leaders to embrace constructive change.

So, it seems like an almost insurmountable challenge to solve with so many considerations?

Josie: I think you’re right in so far that this challenge won’t get solved overnight – but let’s be optimistic! Good leaders stay curious, embrace calculated risk and set & articulate clear ‘SMART’ goals. They solicit advice & ideas. From these, they come up with creative solutions that fit their organisational purpose and then start implementing them. Of course, this may require some trial & error and you will need to embrace this risk positively from the outset.

Chris: A key factor going back to the three Cs is that the direction of travel within the organisation is clearly communicated, understood, and has collective broad-based buy-in from employees.

Josie: Absolutely. It’s not just what you say but how you say it, to whom and how often.

Chris: Yes. Communicating vision effectively is fundamental to a sense of shared purpose and leads to significantly higher engagement, whether office-based or hybrid. Picking up on Josie’s earlier point, knowledge workers are being paid to think for a living, so why not take into consideration more of their ideas. Since when did all good ideas emanate from the C-Suite?

You mentioned earlier that organisational context is important. Could you elaborate on this?

Josie: Sure, for example, we could contextualise knowledge work-tasks into predominant typologies; Information work, Evaluation work and Creative work as described by the team at Steelcase, a US real estate consultant. Informative & Evaluative work can be done far more easily remotely than Creative work which requires a higher degree of in-the-moment collaboration and collective energy which cannot be easily recreated in a digital (or asynchronous) setting. The benefit of bouncing ideas in a room together is, therefore, more likely to bring Creatives back to the office than Informative or Evaluative workers.

Chris: Equally you can divide the workforce demographically. Data from a 2020 Gensler study suggests that Millennials & Gen Z workers actually want to come back to the office (okay, maybe not 6 days a week!) because their remote working-set up may be less ideal. You could also contextualise the workforce by Learners, Provers and Leaders. Learners may want to be in the office more to gain experience from senior colleagues and actively seek advice and mentoring in order to develop their careers.

Josie: I would also argue that leaders need to increase their visibility and presence to engage with the wider workforce to model open communication and ease of access to their knowledge.

According to a study by Microsoft, a staggering 40% of knowledge workers are considering switching to a new employer in the next 12 months as a result of their pandemic experience and re-evaluating their goals & objectives in terms of work-life balance. Listen up, leaders!

How can leaders score some quick wins in the process?

Josie: Being seen to engage with employees and be open to new ideas and dialogue between the levels. UBS for example seems to have modelled this well. They recently carried out an internal study of their 72,000 employees soliciting feedback on a range of topics. It concluded that two-thirds of its workforce were in positions that would allow for hybrid working. Merely by demonstrating a willingness to listen and adapt, I would be very surprised if that communique had not significantly increased employee engagement at a time when the battle for talent is white-hot. According to a study by Microsoft, a staggering 40% of knowledge workers are considering switching to a new employer in the next 12 months as a result of their pandemic experience and re-evaluating their goals & objectives in terms of work-life balance. Listen up, leaders!

Chris: I would also add that leaders and people managers at all levels of the organisation should assess their own relational skills and take some constructive feedback on development areas. This is a huge opportunity for L&D. It has been well-documented that Millennials and Gen-Z workers, in general, seek more feedback, guidance and encouragement from their leaders. Possibly more than current Gen-X leaders may have received as they were building their own careers.

Even in a hybrid world, there are some easy fixes for this. Praise direct reports in public & critique them more in private. Pick up the mobile phone more often to express gratitude for a job well done or for going the extra mile for a colleague and make a habit of doing so to build social capital with your employees. That personal touch can have a huge impact even though it may take a few minutes.

New methodologies for working are being created, tried and developed as we speak.

This all sounds great but what is the impact of getting it wrong?

Josie: You’re likely to lose your best people! The market for talent became global overnight with remote working. Now, if an employee is dissatisfied with the status quo or pace of change they will start to look elsewhere. Finding a better fit for their talent is now a more global opportunity, especially in hot growth areas like technology and healthcare.

How can leaders identify when things are going off-plan and what can they do?

Chris: By really listening to those reporting into them. For many leaders it will require a more open & responsive communication style and a willingness to engage rather than dictate, embracing the diversity of thinking and developing the necessary EQ skills to get the best from the team. Leaders at the top of their game have a multi-tier strategy in mind to set and communicate clear goals. They then ‘lead side-by-side’, trusting in and empowering teams & individuals to innovate and when they fail, to encourage them to try again without resorting to a blame game.

In your opinion, how is this all going to play out over the coming years?

Josie: I think fortune will favour the brave. New methodologies for working are being created, tried and developed as we speak. It won’t be a question of “Must we keep up with the changes happening all around us?” so much as “What will happen if we don’t?”  The wizened, old-world behemoths may seem tough now, but what happens when the disruptive newbies of the tech world forge new paths without fear because they’re willing to fail and try again until they find a better path that works?

Chris: I would also say that there is plenty of scope for further disruption within established sectors such as banking, the law and consulting. We are seeing this already in FinTech where digital business platforms have been built from scratch in the 21st century by leaders who started them in their 20s. In my opinion, it is these kinds of sustainable, nimble, high-growth companies that will attract some of the best talent coming into the workforce over the coming years, especially if they can clearly demonstrate their raison d’être and offer the most attractive & flexible working environment for their employees.

What do you think we’ll be saying in ten years?

Josie: “Blimey, who knew where we were going to end up – AND aren’t we glad we took those risks?”

Chris: My hope is that the good guys win. Ultimately for the remainder of the century, leadership should be about responsibility rather than entitlement. It’s about sustainable profitability set within the parameters of environmental, social and governance excellence. Hybrid working is after all only one chapter in the unfolding story of doing business in a complex & challenging world.

Fascinating topic. Final question – how can leaders take this conversation further?

Josie: Firstly, I would say engage an outside expert to come in and listen, understand what you are trying to do and enable you to refine and effectively communicate your vision, goals and expectations to key stakeholders both inside and outside the business.

Chris: It’s the beauty of having someone unrelated to the business who can: 1. Keep you accountable to your ‘why’ in a season of huge systemic change; 2. Challenge some assumptions and 3. Facilitate recovery and course correction as needed. This is what Josie and I love to do.

Chris has worked in financial & professional services for over 30 years and can be contacted at Chris@BramleyAdvisors.com   

Josie trained and has worked as an actor & master communicator in the UK & US for many years and can be reached at Contact@JosieGammell.com

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