Interview with Vanessa Fudge, CEO and Founder of Leading Well
Can you give us a snapshot into how the workplace has changed since recent global events in terms of the pandemic, war, drought and floods. Just in the last three years we have seen so much adversity.
Well, at an emotional level, when you mentioned Covid, war, and floods, there’s certainly been an escalation of anxiety that’s affecting how we view ourselves, how we view our work, how we view each other. And that’s very evident when we are doing work in coaching because there’s more and more presentation of leaders holding a lot of anxiety themselves and also holding the anxiety of their people. But if we just go to a practical level, if you reflect on 2019, we had 8% of Australians working from home. And if you fast-forward to the most recent measures by the Australian Productivity Commission, we leapt from 8% of Australians working from home to 40% of Australians working from home. We now have over 4.3 million people working from home. And what I mean by that is remote and flexible working conditions. Not only working remote, but the whole hybrid equation.
What was interesting back in 2019 was when people had flexible working arrangements, the average days per week working from home was one, whereas now we’re looking at two or three and quite often four of those days of working from home. So, it is a big change if you just look at the statistics. But also, what needs to be taken into consideration is it is not a planned change. It happened with a backdrop of shock and it was completely unplanned. And that also explains some of what we’re dealing with right now because we’ve grown up with large organisations doing careful planning, risk management, and due process, whereas this was just flicking the switch overnight and suddenly everyone was working remotely. It wasn’t through choice, it wasn’t through conscious strategy, it was a knee-jerk reaction.
Can you tell us about how this has affected leadership styles and brought a hybrid style of leadership into play?
When you reflect on the enormity of the change, you generally expect that leaders would have ideally had some up-skilling to prepare for this. They would have had at least a chance to come together collectively inside their organisations and adapt their leadership carefully: thinking through, what aspects of my leadership do I need to drop? What aspects of my leadership can I maintain? How do I need to evolve as a leader? But it didn’t happen like that. It all happened reactively. Leaders were scrambling to catch up very quickly. The good thing that happened overnight is that micromanagement didn’t work at all, it became impossible to micromanage.
Many leaders took a positive leap. They decided that they had to trust their people, and this did a great deal of good during Covid because many people commented that they’d been trusted to get on with it. There was no choice really, but to trust people because there was no capability to micromanage. Were leaders universally comfortable with that across the entire workforce? No, of course not. It was a forced dynamic that the circumstances created when you consider the backdrop was forced compliance, it was necessary for leaders to comply with government edicts.
It’s highly unusual because ideally, a change like that would happen from a creative force, from a very clear and positively oriented “why”; why this is going to help, why this is great for us, why this will secure our future. But there was no other choice, and we didn’t have that positively-oriented, future focus. We just had a reactive current focus. So not only were leaders unable to consciously skill up for this enormity of change, they’re also in a reactive mindset of compliance as opposed to a creative mindset of growth when this unplanned change came through.
From an impact perspective, how has this new style of hybrid leadership affected productivity, operations and culture?
In some organisations we saw productivity gains. How sustainable they are is a bit of a question mark.
Let’s look at the productivity gains.
You don’t need to move between meetings, you just go from meeting to meeting. Something we hear very commonly is, “I’m in back-to-back meetings, “and we are talking commonly half hour meetings back-to-back. We’re talking about many people doing more than 10 meetings in the day. Now without that decompression time between meetings, even walking to another room in the office has gone away. So, you could say productivity’s gone up, but are we dealing with a false economy here? Because people have their day structured in such a way that their productivity might look to be going up but how is their mental clarity, how is their decision-making and discernment actually playing out right now?
We’re also seeing some false productivity gains because in reality people may be showing up but they’re not fully present. There has been a false economy of back-to-back meetings as we don’t have to move anymore. We can stay stationary, but we’re not designed to stay stationary. We’re designed to be able to move, we’re designed to be able to shift perspectives and we’re designed to connect. Humans as a species are not designed to operate in isolation. We’re designed to operate in connection.
Effects of recent global events on leaders and culture
Talk us through some of the cultural aspects.
There have been big impacts culturally. Unfortunately, I should really emphasize that whilst there have been performance and productivity gains, there have also been performance and productivity losses.
We have seen wellbeing gains and wellbeing losses. It’s not a uni-dimensional reality that we are dealing with. There is a huge learning platform off the back of this rapid shift to hybrid working that we’re still harvesting in the land of leadership right now. In terms of what some of these changes mean operationally, is that we need to consciously lead to avoid transactional relationships and behaviors. It’s all too easy now because when we left the workplace, our community and family kicked in.
Now that’s a great thing.
We’re seeing more and more senior leaders picking up their kids at the end of the school day which is really great. Yet in parallel to that, it is important to have quality relationships at work and not just to flip to, “well I’ll have my quality relationships outside of work. I’ll invest more in community; I’ll invest more in family.” Which is wonderful, but ideally not at the expense of the quality of your relationships and connections at work. Leaders need to deliberately forge moments of quality connection now that are non-transactional and actually relational.
Tell me a bit about what it means to balance technology and empathy in this new work environment, and how does that play out from a leadership perspective?
Technology has become more and more integral. We’re seeing where this could take us with AI right now, but what we haven’t done is we haven’t de-risked the technology. If you think about looking back in human history when we’ve had those amazing leaps in technology, things like air travel and cars even, you think, wow we learnt so much over time about how to ensure the safety of that technology. It’s the same with what’s happening right now. If you look at hybrid working, we really rely on video meetings, some of that’s been de-risked now, hopefully, most leaders realise that there’s only so many hours of video meetings that are appropriate before people are driven into fatigue.
But with AI coming into the mix, there are lots of people putting up their hands and saying, we haven’t actually risk-assessed this at all for our organisations, let alone for our society. We do really need forward-looking conscious contemplation about how technology can aid human connection and appreciate individual uniqueness and not just dumb it down.
Recommendations to strengthen hybrid leadership and counteract risks
You mentioned the ability for leaders to consciously connect with their people. How else can leaders add a human element to hybrid leadership?
Well, some of this is right back to making sure that the company can operate and some of this is more in the cultural enhancement domain. If we come back to just the fundamentals of operations and performance, it’s important to distinguish between what must happen together, physically together, and what’s fine to happen online remotely. If you could take that one step further, you could say what’s okay for people to attend almost anonymously? We’ve got a lot of anonymity that’s been creeping into work relationships. What we mean by that is people showing up with video off, they’re just a black box in the background. We even saw this in the education system during Covid. What’s really helpful is when leaders can say for this requirement, for this meeting, for this event, here’s what’s appropriate.
It might be fine for some meetings to be online with video off because it’s just information download. But what if it’s innovation? What if it’s collaboration? What if there’s a big emphasis on creativity? It’s really important to be able to say for the following reasons, this can’t be online. We need to get together. The more consciously that can be done, the more people will feel like their time is being respected and appreciated because flexible work conditions are no longer a perk, they’re an absolute standard expectation.
If we carefully discern the nature of the connection that people need relative to the job to be done, then there are some huge opportunities for people to celebrate the power of being back together again and to consciously bring back togetherness for a purpose. Not just because we’ve decided you all need to be onsite two days a week because it’s come from high. “It’s because when we come together, we innovate and collaborate really well, and we will actually get a far better outcome being together.”
What do you think will happen to organisations that don’t have this sort of conscious leadership thinking?
Work will become more and more transactional. We had an example last week where people in this organisation are being headhunted for salaries that double and triple what they’re getting paid right now. Organisations that become transactional will not be able to stand up. It’s hard enough for an organisation that is taking this purposeful human connection approach to stand up to that kind of onslaught. But those that don’t embrace human connection, won’t stand a chance, they won’t keep their people, which is fundamental for the future.
Can you provide a case study on some work that you might have delivered around this area?
We’ve been doing a lot with educating leaders on the new working world and how to maintain a human connection during our new ways of working with hybrid setups. The most common piece of work we do with our clients is coming back and reinforcing your narrative. What is your purpose as an organisation? What is the vision that you hold for the future? Many organisations had their vision completely disrupted during Covid and they needed to reset it. The first positive impact we saw with clients was reestablishing their company narrative, purpose, vision, values which links to embodying the brand. We don’t mean just cultural, but that fundamental link between culture and commercial elements in the narrative.
What this does is enable leaders to have a “why”. We all know from the wonderful work of Simon Sinek, how powerful a strong why is. You need to come back as a senior leadership team and revisit that narrative and make sure you can inspire people to return to the office and not demand that they come back together. It has to be a pull, not a push.
We were amazed at the end of Covid, as my team would rock up to facilitate executive days, more times than not, people would say, “We haven’t been together for two years. This is the first time.” We were in the room witnessing this, time and time again, and we got to see the harvest of coming back to that why, reestablishing it and striving to inspire people to get back together, not force them back together.
Another thing that we saw in Covid was the loss of ritual. Many rituals that organisations might have taken for granted, fell off the radar. Somebody’s birthday, farewells, new people joining. This fundamental cycle of belonging where we’ve got joining, we’ve got belonging, we’ve got leaving, and we know good beginnings and endings make a huge difference. They all became invisible. Something else that really helped was coming back and deliberately reestablishing meaningful rituals. Meaning, when people do get together, it’s not just about work, it is about human connection and the value of togetherness.
What do you see happening in the next few years in terms of the challenges in leadership given AI, smarter technology? What advice would you give to leaders?
It’s a really important time to uphold and celebrate humanity. If you think of something like AI, your mind quickly goes to, well what is it that technology cannot replace? And there’s a lot that technology cannot replace. And those dimensions, those qualities happen to be the same thing that really secures the future of our organisations. There are going to be more challenges and it’s more and more important to connect your people across the organisation, to create that sense of tribe, to create that sense of oneness, that alignment to your brand, to your values, and to make sure that there’s a lot of positive give and take. Give and take between people, but also in a structural sense, give and take between functions, between departments, between levels of your organisation. Part of what we crave in human connection is actually that exchange, it’s giving of myself, but it’s also receiving from others that brings us together in a way that is distinctly human.
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