HRD Roundtable Report: Levelling up Leadership for a Hybrid World
The future looks brighter in 2022, but what learnings, challenges and new strategy will be leading the next year ahead? As we settle into hybrid working patterns, balance new employee expectations and talent shifts, organisations are focussing in on their leadership teams as the lynchpins around which successful businesses function.
How can we better support and develop our leaders and managers with the skills, mindsets and tools to support their teams?
Led by Shola Kaye, keynote speaker and expert in Empathy at Work, Leadership and Diversity & Inclusion, and supported by further insights from Helen Wilson, Director of Transformation, Microsoft UK, this discussion was conducted under Chatham House Rules. This report will contain the key discussion areas and all participants will be anonymised.
What are the biggest challenges our managers are facing in their day to day? Where do they need more support?
Managers are in the middle between what the organisation wants and what people want – it’s a difficult line to navigate. We need to encourage them to manage based on output, rather than time spent logged on.
A lot of managers currently are finding it hard to know how to approach managing their team’s work. Should they ask people to come in? How do they make it fair? Priorities have changed – people may have adjusted their hours to better accommodate childcare, animals, or just what works best for their work life balance and productivity. Why would we try and force people back into 9-5 boxes?
It’s also difficult to manage teams that you’ve never met or built a rapport with, and to encourage them to feel like a team. We’ve started talking about the office as a collaboration space, but how to do you actually realise that and make it attractive for people to attend. For teams where being together regularly isn’t an option, how do we recreate that for them?
There’s also the challenge of supporting new members of the workforce. Your first couple of jobs are essential for learning workplace norms and expectations, but also building the friendships and networks that will last the rest of your career. What does that look like for remote workers now? How can managers help enable them to build those connections and have those experiences remotely?
Across the group there was agreement that we’re still in the early stages of figuring this all out, and that new challenges and opportunities will continue to appear as we settle into new routines. We should focus not on what we don’t know, but how we can reinvigorate work, and where the opportunities are to work smarter. The group shared a couple of examples of what is working for them right now, including empowering teams to make individual decisions about how they work rather than imposing from the top. When do we want to be together in person and why? What are the expectations for being in the same space? This can also be made experimental – this is what we decide for now, but let’s review in 90 days.
Do we have a handle on employee sentiment and their approach to work?
Across the board wellbeing is coming up as a concern again and again. Workloads continue to rise, and employees are used to and expecting more flexibility in their day to day. Leadership has an important role in modelling this for people and making it clear the culture within the business. We can see this becoming even more vital as we continue to deal with an unstable talent market and the great resignation – people will leave if unhappy!
Some members of the group have found alternate areas of concern. One participant shared how their wellbeing scores are relatively healthy, but they are finding a lack of understanding of the vision and strategy for the business – a disconnect. We also heard that employees are raising the same questions as people leaders as to the purpose of coming back into the office. Why should they, when they’ve performed well for the past few years? Alongside sentiment, do we also have a good handle on productivity?
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How can we coach our leaders to lead better?
First, we need to make clear the difference between good and bad attrition. When are we losing people because they aren’t happy or the organisation is failing to support them to succeed, vs when someone has grown with us and is just ready to move on or isn’t a good fit? How do you do performance manage particularly high performing teams and find differentiators? These are skills we should be developing in leaders and the data we should be finding now.
Empowering leaders to embrace care at the right level is also important. We’ve asked a lot of our managers over the past few years, and care is draining! However, as our front line, they also need to be able to recognise and look after their people. One group member shared how they have found success in helping managers know when to point people to other more expert resources, and when to intervene and act themselves.
The group discussed actions the business can take to help encourage and model better wellbeing practices. What’s practical and possible will vary widely between businesses but the idea of wellbeing days was a popular one, including encouraging managers to be vocal about taking them. More aspirational ideas involved longer periods of ‘pandemic’ leave across the business – extra paid holiday, with the understanding that everyone is under much more stress than usual.
There are also simple initiatives we can start right away, like recognising which managers are new to the role or struggling and setting up teaching and support groups for them in formats like lunch and learns.
What can the business do to improve connection and belonging?
The group also discussed the need to be more open about the value of the office for wellbeing. For many, flexible working at home means that they have more family time etc, which is great. However, the socialisation, engagement and routine that people get from spending time together in the office can also be a great boost! We need to find the balance and not just see spending time in the office as a necessary evil to be managed.
Our leadership needs to be inclusive – leaders are so important in creating spaces where people have a voice and be collaborative and supportive. We can also support this better in expanding what we mean by flexible working. What is your approach to job shares for example – is it just for people returning from maternity leave? What about people who simply have other priorities or needs?
The group discussed ways the business can take a more active role, including during the on-boarding stage. For example, one participant shared their shift to global level orientations, held online and creating an instant community among the induction ‘class’. Virtual town halls, both at global and more regional levels can also connection people across the business with their exec teams – humanising them and bringing the company culture to life. Technology can be a great support in creating stronger community feeling in dispersed organisations, shifting experiences and benefits that would previously only have been available in small in-person groups, to something the whole business can experience together.
How can we improve the relationship between individuals and their managers?
If we go back again to mental health, the reality is that a lot of managers realistically just aren’t comfortable talking about it. Trying to teach and empower managers to notice and support how people are feeling is one of the most impactful things we can do. More and more, leadership is about empathy for people’s lives and understanding that priorities can shift to things outside of work. As one participant put it very simply – it’s understanding that someone isn’t going to want to come into the office on Friday when they can’t risk picking up covid for an important personal event that weekend.
We talk a lot about what we want our managers to do, but not so much about how we can make it as easy as possible for them! Again, technology can be a powerful tool when implemented correctly. Productivity platforms can seem intrusive at first but can be adjusted to the levels that are right for your teams. For example, they can help create personas for individuals (where do they find their focus time? Where do they do their best work?), which can better inform managers in helping them find schedules that work for them. One participant shared their goal in matching ‘task to space’ – actually working to understanding which tasks get performed best where, to give employees the freedom to work as they work best.
The conversation covered a lot of ground, but common challenges were found in supporting managers when the long-term shape of organisations is still under review. We need to give managers the tools and power to find what works best for their teams, in times where there isn’t a set plan and we’re all still figuring out what hybrid looks like. There was definitely consensus that it’s not enough to leave it all to managers though – we need to ensure the wider business culture and leaders right from the top are modelling the leadership that we need.
Comment from the moderator, Shola Kaye:
Thanks to all the participants for the honest sharing of both their struggles and successes. A few points that particularly struck me included the continuing need to support and equip managers to have empathetic conversations about mental health and wellbeing; the importance of giving teams some autonomy to decide how they work best; and the concept of matching tasks to space so that activities take place in the appropriate environment, whether at home or in the office.
Comment from the co-moderator, Helen Wilson:
On one hand Employee’s expectations have changed, embracing greater flexibility, while on the other Leaders have spent the last two years shepherding their organizations through uncertainty amidst massive economic challenges – easy to imagine why they might see a return to the office as the solution. We must find a balance and support managers navigating these uncertain waters.
This was part of a four-part roundtable series will bring together senior HR leaders to discuss the most pertinent issues currently facing the HR function, identify opportunities and allow you to learn from the experience of your peers. Find out more information about each session here.