remote leadership and enhancing performance

We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to chat to Sonya Hughes, the founder of People Innovation Consulting around the topic of Remote Leadership: Creating productive, engaged and sustained performance. She was kind enough to share her insights with us.

Sonya, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey thus far?

I’m currently the founder of People Innovation Consulting, after a long corporate career where I had been lucky enough to work for amazing blue-chip organisations, in regional or international roles across multiple geographies. These roles were mostly in HR and OD leadership. I’m excited to be in my own business which I have been operating for just over 2 years and People Innovation Consulting is all about creating positive organisational cultures, where individuals, teams and organisations can thrive and perform at their best. 

what is the current landscape with organisations adopting remote working practices? 

What we’re seeing from clients, as well as through research, is that during the pandemic almost 90% of organisations tried to encourage work from home. Now that we have settled into what we’d call the “new norm” we’re seeing about 40% of organisations operating in a hybrid model and 20% have embraced a fully remote model. We are seeing organisations really lead the way, organisations like Spotify and Atlassian, who have adapted a fully work from home (WFH) model. For example, Spotify has a “work from anywhere in the world” policy, which is just amazing from a talent point of view. It’s quite an interesting time and you hear people say that we have accelerated in 10 weeks about 10 years in terms of flexible work and being able to have more choice.

what are some of the benefits?

We are seeing many benefits, personally I think we’ve all experienced less time in the commute, more time for things that we want to prioritise like family, or looking after ourselves, exercise, time with friends or taking up a hobby. In terms of benefits for organisations, organisations that are adapting WFH or fully hybrid ways of working are definitely attracting talent, we are seeing less turnover, fewer sick days, increase in productivity, which is amazing given that everyone’s fear factor was whether people would really be working and be productive working from home, but we’re actually seeing increased productivity and more flexibility.

what are you seeing and hearing from clients and research about some of the challenges people are facing adapting to a hybrid working model?

I think some of the initial challenges were around getting it all set up, technology, and how to make it work with employees at home. Currently, what we are seeing are challenges around collaboration, innovation and how to maintain that sense of connection to culture and belonging. More challenges like “how do you unplug after work?”, and how do you manage some of the distractions that you might be experiencing in a WFH environment.

For managers and leaders it’s about how to develop people in a remote environment, how do you make sure there are high levels of engagement. Leaders rely more on the face-to-face environment - what does it look like in that hybrid model? Research also shows that over 70% of people want to have the option of WFH, but we do report more worry, stress, sadness and anxiety. Hence, this is something we need to look at, how do you stay connected and have that sense of belonging whilst still working in a way that most people prefer.

what do you propose as some ways to address these challenges?

In terms of a little bit of background, I am accredited in neuroscience with Enhansen Performance, so we take a brain-based approach which is backed by science. As we are drawing on that (and research), and our experience with clients nationally, we have developed our six pillars of leadership, i.e. creating the right physical, emotional and psychologically safe environment; productivity; connection and communication; engagement and development and culture.

So as an example, if we take the first pillar of “creating the right emotional environment”, many teams are operating at a high performance stage of development, were then tipped back into a phase of forming, storming, norming type behaviours in this different way of working. So it’s very timely for leaders and managers, if they haven’t already done so, to revisit what the team’s norms are in this next context of hybrid work, what is the vision and the aspiration for the team.

Also considering, are people clear on their roles and what performance looks like in this new way of working, and how do you build trust and maintain trust. Working through this with managers is important, are there clear parameters for making decisions in the remote environment, what needs to be escalated, and how to manage risk, discussing the operating rhythm and how they would work as a team. It’s important to have clear communication around this, having open conversations and getting the foundations back in place as quickly as possible.  

how does neuroscience and understanding the brain assist with this?

We use a brain-based approach, understanding how our brains respond to change is really key to being able to successfully navigate changes. We quite often and easily see change as a threat, and that tips us into threat-state thinking, which means we don’t problem solve as well, we focus on issues not solutions. We are less likely to be innovative or think about others and connection.
Alternatively, if we could get into a more positive emotions and reward-state thinking, we are more likely to be innovative, solve problems, build relationships and see solutions. At the heart of everything is understanding how our brains think and how we can embrace a growth mindset so that we can learn and evolve, and be successful at new things. Using science as the background it helps leaders understand why people behave the way that they do and to be able to engineer more effective solutions.

in summary, what would be your top tips for creating productive, engaged and sustained performance in a hybrid or remote working model?

There is so much change for managers and leaders to adapt to today. I have real empathy and understanding for them, we see them struggling themselves to adapt to change and at the same time leading their teams who might be struggling. Just having that circuit breaker of actually realising what is going well for you and where you might be grappling is a really good start. Working with teams to focus on their wellbeing and what they might be struggling with. Leaders need to develop new ways of thinking and build new habits for themselves and their teams. I love the quote from Alvin Tofler who said “ The illiterate of the 21st century is not going to be those who can’t read and write but those who can not learn, unlearn and relearn.” 

Next would be leading by example, sharing your own experiences, what works for you and what you might be struggling with, what solutions you’ve tried - this creates a really significant impact in the team. That role-modelling of leadership doesn’t go away in a hybrid working environment. 

Thirdly, allowing people space to have input and as much anatomy in decision making that impacts themselves and the team. If the manager or leader can play the coaching role and get others to have insights this will be key to unlocking the six pillars - how are we creating the right environment, how do we stay connected, what does coaching look like in a remote context, what’s important to your development.

about the author

sonya hughes - founder of People Innovation Consulting

We partner with leaders, teams, HR professionals, SMEs and CEOs to develop and deliver organisational and people strategies. Our end goal is to drive performance improvements at every level of the business: the team, the leaders and the organisation as a whole.

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