The DNA of Work

Just how do you lead a hybrid organization?

April 04, 2023 Season 1 Episode 45
The DNA of Work
Just how do you lead a hybrid organization?
Show Notes Transcript

Leadership is leadership - if leaders and managers struggled pre pandemic, it's likely they're struggling now - unless they've upskilled. Hybrid is shining a bright light on management and leadership skills - exacerbating shortcomings and causing some to return to pre pandemic ways of working - to what's easier for them (not easier for their people). 

This is a dangerous, slippery slope that will see people quit because they know how it feels to determine and control they way they work and to find meaning in their work. It's time to think about how managers are appointed, supported and rewarded to avoid these unfolding disasters.

Here's a quick overview of the topics in this episode:

  • Trust is key (07:52)
  • Listen, question assumptions and experiment  (17:57)
  • Appoint the right people and reward them appropriately (19:30)
  • What can we do to make a difference? (24:43)


AWA Host: Karen Plum


  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate for change management, AWA
  • Partha Sarma, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Imran Qureshi, Head of North America, WTW
  • Philippa Hale, Senior Associate, AWA

 AWA Guest details: 



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 

AWA Institute contact: Natalia Savitcaia

Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:00 Karen Plum

Hello there. In this episode, one of the guests says that leadership is leadership, arguing that we should drop the hybrid label. But is leading a hybrid organization different to leading one that works more traditionally? Maybe the skills are the same, but how you deploy them is different. And if the skills are lacking then you have a whole other problem to worry about. Let's find out more. 

00:00:27 INTRO: Welcome to AWA’s Podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that every one is unique. 

We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the T-shirt, and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work. 

00:00:53 Karen Plum

The topic of this episode is leadership, so leading an organization that has either adopted hybrid working principles, or is thinking of doing so, and lots of organisations I suppose are adapting to lots of different working styles, responding to everything that happened during COVID. 

The pandemic was a catalyst for all these changes and transition into those more flexible ways of working still seems to be causing a lot of debate and for some people quite a lot of angst about, are we doing things in the right way?

And particularly the challenges for people that manage others and those who are leading organizations who weren't trained or experienced in working with people that essentially they can't see or they don't see all the time. And these challenges were the subject of an AWA Institute webinar that was run at the end of February 2023. 

And it raised some really interesting points that I wanted to explore on the podcast. So here to help me are two AWA senior associates and friends of the podcast, one from America and one from India. 

From America is Lisa Whited, who was also a guest on the webinar. Welcome, Lisa. 

00:02:15 Lisa Whited

Thanks, Karen. Delighted to be here. 

00:02:16 Karen Plum

And from India is Partha Sarma who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time in person last year. Hello, Partha. 

00:02:24 Partha Sarma

Hi, Karen, it is wonderful to be back and thanks for having me here. 

00:02:28 Karen Plum

It's my pleasure. So I'd like to start by just being clear about what we're talking about when we talk about hybrid leadership or leading a hybrid working organization, because everybody's using the word hybrid, but probably we're all using it in a slightly different way. 

So I know you did this in the webinar, Lisa, can you explain the term hybrid leadership for us, to get us started? 

00:02:52 Lisa Whited

Absolutely. And what I said and still believe is that we really should lose that qualifier – hybrid. Leadership is leadership and working is working. When we talk about hybrid, we're talking about flexibility and we've even had clients say, hey, don't use that term, we have different meanings of what hybrid means, let's call it ‘flexible’. 

I define it as an X&Y axis. And on the X is location so it's - am I remote? Am I at home? Am I traveling? Am I at a client workspace? So location is one aspect of flexible working. And on the Y axis is time - time of day, day of the week. It's the two together which creates how we're working today. Very flexible. 

00:03:40 Karen Plum

It's really interesting that you say that clients are moving away from the word hybrid. I guess lots of organizations are reacting very differently and I thought our guest on the webinar, Imran Qureshi, made a great point about being influenced by where the organization was before the pandemic started. Imran is Head of North America for WTW and here's what he said. 

00:04:07 Imran Qureshi

The pandemic either accelerated or revealed the problems that existed pre pandemic and we were already moving to a basis, just as corporate America or just globally, where we were striving to manage outcomes and not manage activities. And what the pandemic did, and I think the way in which we worked and worked today, has revealed the degree to which companies have been able to embrace that path. 

00:04:35 Karen Plum

So for leaders today, trying to lead in this new world, how they were doing before the pandemic is at least in part affected by their attitudes and preferences and experiences from before it started, right? So Imran talked about the importance of individual conversations between managers and members of their teams. 

But if we come up a level, we also have that individual experience at a manager level and at a leader level. And those people also have the challenge of leading the organization, and it all seems to be a big challenge Lisa! 

00:05:17 Lisa Whited

It does. And yet the key is meaningful and intentional conversations between the leaders and the managers. So I had cited in the webinar the statistic from McKinsey that there is a gap. Leaders in organizations believe their day-to-day work is connected to organizational purpose - 85% believe that is true. And yet when they looked at managers and employees and their connection, believing that their work day-to-day is connected to purpose, only 15% believe that. 

So taking advantage of recognizing that data is the opportunity for leaders and managers to have meaningful, intentional conversations and you know one of our key six factors at AWA is perceived supervisory support - that's my relationship with my direct manager. That's a key factor of a high performing team.

And you know, we've heard the phrase ‘people hire a company and fire a manager’. Meaning they joined the organization because there's something that lights them up about what that company does and what they're offering for that employee, but they often leave an organization because they had an unsatisfactory, unsupportive relationship with their direct manager. 

So the thing that I think that leaders need to put more attention on is having those meaningful, intentional conversations that really can lead to greater satisfaction for managers than they're feeling right now. 

00:06:47 Karen Plum

And I think that ties in nicely with something that Imran was talking about during the webinar and that was the importance of listening and learning. 

00:06:57 Imran Qureshi

It's about embracing and adapting and continuously improving how we lead so that there's a mechanism, a learning mechanism around saying look, we may not have got it perfect at the outset, so how do we adapt as we move along? 

I was on a panel last week with a group of CHROs and the constant thread that they had throughout all of it was employee listening. We've got to listen to employees and not just frame in our own minds, with all of our conscious and unconscious biases around how we think employees should work, but really listen to what they're telling us so that we can create the environment that makes it more, not just productive for them, but engages them and brings joy to them in the work that they do. 

And that to me, is really the critical way in which we need to lead going forward, which is not dissimilar to how we should have led pre pandemic! 

00:07:52 Karen Plum

It seems to me that organizations often say they're listening - they run surveys, they run town halls, they have focus groups. And they put out a big grand statement about what the CEO or the Managing Director or the leadership team think is best and what's easier in their opinion. We see this in the press all the time and you kind of think well, who is it that this is easier for? 

Is it for the staff in the organization or is it for you as a CEO? And you know if you gather lots of evidence and then you make that sort of blanket decision it looks like you haven't really listened to people at all. For example, we've listened to you, but we think it's best that you all come into the office three days a week in the future. 

And that's really going to damage all the trust that they've built up. And really, what does it tell you about their leadership? Here's our colleague Philippa Hale, who was also a guest on the webinar. 

00:08:54 Philippa Hale

It tells you that they are not comfortable with dealing with ambiguity, and it tells you that they are not thinking about all their people as individuals. That they don't feel it's either possible or sensible or appropriate to give people the opportunity to be themselves and bring their best selves to work in the way that suits them best and enables them to deliver best. Which boils down to a lack of trust, I suppose. 

00:09:23 Karen Plum

signaling a lack of trust is a real slippery slope, isn't it? 

00:09:27 Partha Sarma

It is Karen and I know, people may hate me for saying this, Karen, but I think the trouble with management science the way it was written by the big gurus is that it was, I think, always written from a leadership perspective or an employer's perspective. You know, although employees as customers existed as a narrative, I think, probably from the 70s or so, I think its adoption has not been very wide. 

And I think we're in that inflection point when management science has to be rewritten from an employee's perspective. I think you really need to go beyond listening and bring in empathy and understanding of the people as humans, it is only then that we can bring in our past experiences that are based on trust, otherwise people will simply leave. 

I was reading a survey says that 55% of employees left jobs because they did not feel trusted and I think more than 60% actually said that the lack of trust affected their well-being. 

00:10:27 Karen Plum

Absolutely, and I remember Imran talking about the importance of trust and he was talking about how if you have a trusting relationship with someone, it's easier to resolve any emotional conflict between you and the best way to build a relationship is spending time together, in person. But we don't always have that luxury, do we, to spend all of that time together.

And I was thinking that the three of us have only spent a small amount of time with each other over the years and actually never together, the three of us in person. But I would say there's a high degree of trust between us. How do you think we achieved that? 

00:11:09 Lisa Whited

You know, I've had a few thoughts on this and one is when we all work for an organization that we really believe in what this organization is about, which is AWA, we are 100% behind what we're trying to do to make work better for people. So we already have that in common. 

Then, what I have observed and I think I've known Karen a little - I've known you a little longer than Partha - but I have found that part of what has allowed me to build a trusting relationship is I've been a bit vulnerable. I've shared some personal things happening in my life with you and Anna Balle, the three of us get together and I say get together virtually. 

But what happens to make that happen is you, especially Karen, make sure to connect us. You, with intention reach out and say hey you know we haven't had coffee lately, let's have a chat and so we schedule time together. And that's that intentionality that we need to be taking within our organizations. 

Leaders need to, with intention, reach to managers. Managers with intention, need to connect with employees. So that's one way to build the trust and again, social cohesion, trust and information sharing - those are three key factors out of our six, they're especially important to pay attention to during virtual and remote working. 

00:12:34 Partha Sarma

I have found merit in being honest and true to myself and to others, and I think that really has attracted a lot of like-minded people within AWA, I mean. So when you project one true self of yours in front of everyone, so there's only version one of Partha, there's no version two and version three, you kind of get the same from others, there's no pretense - you connect. 

And I know at an organizational level this does not come easy for a lot of people, especially from my generation. You're kind of, in the office you're kind of one person; and with friends, you're another person; with family you're probably another person. 

And I think the way management science, which I spoke about earlier, was written and the dynamics of the workplace, where everyone's very, very competitive, it does not allow everyone to bring forth one's true self to work.

But I really feel that, you know, it's worth a try because I was reading a report, I don't know if it's true or not, but it says that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will be millennials and Gen. Z. Now these two generations are very different from us, they do not pretend. They are what they are and they are not afraid to be themselves at work and I think all they expect is that you trust them in return and you can develop the trust only when you are your true self with them. 

00:13:57 Lisa Whited

Partha, I love what you said about there's no version two or version three of me. I love that. That's such a great way to phrase it, yeah. 

00:14:04 Karen Plum

I was watching a program about autism recently, and people who had been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, were saying, you know, it's exhausting to have to put that face to the world all of the time - to meet other people's expectations of what they expect you to be. 

00:14:23 Lisa Whited

Oh man, absolutely. And you know, you've heard me cite this before - 50% of LGBTQ+ people stay closeted at work, and the amount of energy they have to put into showing up not as version one, but as version 2, 3, 4, 28. And also we hear people of color dealing with microaggressions, having to change their hair, their manner of speaking. 

So think of all the energy. If you had to not show up as who you are. And that energy could be going to doing amazing work and really being engaged in your work. 

00:14:59 Karen Plum

And it's exhausting. 

00:15:00 Lisa Whited


00:15:02 Karen Plum

I'd like to come back to listening. I think it's probably something that we were all encouraged to try to do more of as we were doing more and more remotely and more and more online. It certainly seems to be a key ingredient in successfully leading an organization, and something that was discussed during the webinar. 

It's also an important part of the culture of the organization. Here's what Philippa said about it. 

00:15:30 Philippa Hale

Being authentic, which is something which we hear all the time, but what does that actually mean in practice? 

It means when you do have those focus groups and when you do have those conversations and you do have those town halls, put your ego to one side, because as a leader and a manager, when somebody says something which sounds critical of the status quo, there is a temptation to pitch in and say “Yes, but”. 

The words “yes, but” might not be articulated, but they will show in the facial expression and they will show in the body language and the tone. 

So we said listen and I'm saying let's listen some more And being aware when any kind of defensiveness has kicked in, because that's what gets in the way of moving towards creativity and innovation. If people can smell, “Yes, but” in the air, then they will keep quiet. 

00:16:14 Karen Plum

We probably all do that, don't we? We say “Yes, but”, and it really signals that, yes, you listened, but you listened because you were waiting to get a word in, not because you were really trying to understand the other person. 

00:16:29 Lisa Whited

In the world of improv, there's a rule that it's always “Yes, and”. So you're always building on what the other person has said. So “Yes, and” this and that. So you're showing that you're not listening to respond, but you heard them and you're adding something else. 

00:16:46 Partha Sarma

And when we talk about listening, it's not just about actually talking to people all the time. We helped a lot of clients do employee surveys during the pandemic and I think a lot of these surveys were actually done to kind of pass on the message that we care for you. But then the insights which were drawn from some of these surveys, they were not really acted upon. I think a lot of leaders have this vision about the company and where the company is going and many a times, I think what you hear from the employees, it's kind of clashing with what you have in your mind, you're kind of biased. 

And as we all know, we only like to hear things which confirm our biases, right? And I think this is something that it does require a bit of an effort to actually get out of those biases and think from somebody else's shoes, somebody else's perspective. 

00:17:37 Karen Plum

And I think it nicely brings us onto the qualities that our leaders need to have. I was going to say whether they're a hybrid leader or any kind of leader, but as Lisa said right at the start of the podcast, leadership is leadership, right? So just remind us, Lisa, what are some of the essential qualities of leaders? 

00:17:57 Lisa Whited

What Partha said is so important that we listen, we take their input in the surveys and do you know how many surveys that employees respond to and they never see what the result is? So one of our key strategies with our engagements with employees is effectively taking survey results and sharing them in small workshops that are interactive - so people have a chance to see what they had to say, they know they were heard; and we coach our organizational leaders on what to do with that, to be transparent and share what has changed, or what will change and what can't change. But you heard people.

So listening, questioning assumptions and being willing to experiment. I think those are key qualities that leaders need right now. Also a little bit of vulnerability. It's OK to say, you know, we don't have all the answers, but we're figuring this out together. 

00:18:50 Partha Sarma

I think I found something very interesting that Imran said. He said, manage outcomes and do not try to manage activities and I think this is a problem a lot of managers have because they try to micromanage, right? 

They're in the office. They're with the team, they see them in front of them and they try and find out everything that is going around with them. Now when they move to the hybrid world, I think the challenge is that they cannot do this online. You cannot be really asking people hey, what are you doing this morning? What are you doing this afternoon? 

Because when you're working remotely, I think this kind of a behavior, it just may give the impression to your team that you actually don't trust your team members. And that's a dangerous thing to do. 

00:19:30 Karen Plum

So another aspect of leadership and the management of teams is the skills of the manager and if we go back to our earlier discussion about each manager being an individual and having different skills and qualities and backgrounds and education and all of that sort of stuff, all of those things don't necessarily align to being a good manager, or a manager of people. 

So oftentimes people are good at a technical role or a complex role and they get promoted to become a manager and given a team when looking after people isn't a core skill. It's not something they necessarily want to do. Here's Imran's take on this. 

00:20:15 Imran Qureshi

So my view is right in terms of a manager, they'll have a scorecard and their compensation is based on base salary typically and some sort of short term incentive or bonus. And that bonus correlates to their performance. 

Well, what we need to do to address that, that issue is reward and recognize for performance as a manager, not just the individual contributions that they're aligned to as well. And when you do that, you're then elevating the importance of that component of their role and you're signaling to the organization that you view that component is important. 

So then when somebody is a good manager, they're getting rewarded for it in their bonus in their short term incentive. Now in a base salary component, you do need to look at scope of responsibilities and impact on the organization, so there should also be an impact on base salary as well as it relates to their overall competencies. But I see the short term incentive, the bonus as a way to address that. 

00:21:18 Karen Plum

And I think part of the problem has always been that organizations don't know how to reward people, recognise their achievements, without promoting them because there's nowhere to promote them to in terms of their core skills, they promote them into a position of management. 

But then those people don't get the right training, they don't have a mentor or any support, and it just feels like you're setting them up to fail. 

00:21:45 Lisa Whited

Yeah, 100%. And so I have personal experience with this because I'm married to a very talented, technically proficient, IT professional. And of course, as his career has advanced, he did get recognized and promoted into management. And I just asked him because I was curious, I was like how long have you been in your role as manager and what training have you had? 

Seven years. Zero people manager training. And this is a very large, successful organization. And I joke you know, you've heard me say this before - isn't he lucky he's married to me, because he gets personal coaching all the time. 

00:22:25 Karen Plum

And you're still married!

00:22:27 Lisa Whited

Lucky guy! And we're still married, celebrating 30 years this year. But I just think, man, how can that be? 

I'm really curious - what's the barrier to keep them from doing it and then those that are successful, what is it that they've done? And they’re basic questions. I mean, one of the reports was promoting people managers from the technical experts, that was research actually, Karen, you had unearthed and shared and there were three key things that were shown to be important to build workplace engagement.

And the three statements were: 

-         At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day

-         Two - There is someone at work who encourages my development and 

-         Three - At work, my opinions seem to count 

And this would be a great article to share in the show notes as well. 

But this isn't rocket science, but if these three points were shared with managers and they were, you know, coached a little bit on how to have these supportive conversations,  I think it would go a long way to bridging that gap in that dissatisfaction that folks feel if they don't feel supported. 

00:23:37 Karen Plum

And even going a step earlier than all of that and saying, well, are we putting the right people into positions of management? Because if you don't have much feeling for those three questions and your head’s somewhere else completely, then maybe you're just not cut out to be a manager. You don't want to be a manager. And really, your organization doesn't need you to be in that position, if that's the attitude you're going to be taking. 

So going back to thinking about, you know, who are the people that we're putting into management. 

So enough from me! We're nearly out of time, but I'd like to wrap up with some thoughts about what people can do differently. And maybe that's one of them - thinking about how we put people into positions of management.

But what can we do differently to move ourselves forward in this leadership and management arena, in what are now much more flexible organizations. To give you guys a chance to think just for a moment, I'll share the tips that Imran shared on the webinar first, here we go. 

00:24:43 Imran Qureshi

Look at yourself pre pandemic - your culture, the way in which you conducted yourself, the ways in which managers managed and the chances are if you had problems beforehand then you have them now and you’ve gotta address the problems and it's not hybrid. So that's the first one.

Second - hybrid does mean we need to balance in-office with remote and balance is the key. And so viewing the in-office experience as really important to the learning and development culture, workplace relationships, serendipitous interactions.

And the third is take advantage of the opportunity. We can widen the talent pool. We can change the way in which work is done through workflow management. We can upskill managers. We can redefine or define what it means to be a purpose driven organization and that to me is the opportunity. 

00:25:32 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I think Imran speaks about balancing in-office and remote work. And I feel that this is probably one of the biggest challenges that a lot of employees and a lot of knowledge workers are facing. 

I mean, we used to have a set routine, right, before the pandemic, and humans are used to pattern thinking and pattern doing. Unfortunately, I think that no clear pattern has emerged post pandemic, for a lot of people and this is not easy for the human mind to comprehend. 

So I keep on saying this, that we really need to focus from a leadership perspective to make things easy for people. And not by long doses of motivation on people to try and get back to work. And I mean, make the workplace experience easy. I think you probably mentioned this earlier as well, Karen, that what is easy for you may not be easy for me.

And you also spoke about the fact that we cannot have these blanket decisions about people - you cannot design for the average anymore. You cannot design for the mean anymore. You have to design for the extremes and be sensitive towards understanding the needs and aspirations of different types of employees that Lisa spoke about. 

00:26:48 Lisa Whited

Yeah, absolutely. 100% agree with Partha. You know, we say this and hear it over and over again. It's not a one-size-fits-all, it's not a one-size-fits-all. But it's almost just become noise because we still act like it is a one-size-fits-all. So I do believe in - actually in the - I think they may have been US numbers but just published a couple of weeks ago - on the uptick of number of disabled people who are now more gainfully employed. 

I mean, there's a huge swath of people that we can support better and who are wonderful contributors to our workforce challenges. So that's the opportunity. And we’ve said it over and over again - being willing to listen to your employees. And I think when we say that, organizational leaders immediately get fear, you know in their eyes like no, you know, that will just be a free for all and people will be asking for the world. 

But the thing is, we're talking about really carefully facilitated conversations that are highly interactive that allow people to connect and listen one-on-one. This is an intentional dialogue and it can lead to improved ways of working, and it's what we do day-in and day-out to support our clients, to help them be successful and figure out a way to have these conversations, to make meaningful difference so people will be heard.

And the last piece I'll add is technology. Let's embrace what technology can do for us. What if we were to take digital twinning or the Metaverse and imagine this ideal work environment, and do it all in a digital way. That's a great way to experiment without having to experiment on your people, right? 

Think about ChatGPT. Out of fun and curiosity, my husband said he had a chat bot write a review for one of his employees and he didn't use it, you know, he used his own, but he said he was blown away by what that came up with. So I think that there's so many things that we’ve barely tapped into, that will help us all have healthier organizations that lead to happier people. 

00:28:57 Karen Plum

Well, insightful as always. Thanks so much, Lisa, and thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts. It's been so interesting to explore the topic with you, and I'm sure it's going to continue to be a really important one for organizational success. 

00:29:12 Lisa Whited

Thanks Karen. 

00:29:13 Partha Sarma

Thank you. 

00:29:14 Karen Plum

And that's all for this episode. If you'd like to join our next AWA Institute webinar, check out our show notes or head to the Institute page on our website, 

00:29:28 CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website, Thank you so much for listening. See you next time. Goodbye!