Research & Thought Leadership

Leading wellbeing and belonging in a hybrid world

Dr. Debbie Bayntun-Lees & Dr. Carina Paine Schofield

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Leading Wellbeing and Belonging

Women leaders bring difference, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated questions about whether the female leadership style is more effective than traditional autocratic male styles of leadership.

Our latest research with 40 women CEOs and senior leaders contributes to this debate. We asked these women to share their experiences and transitions during the COVID-19 crisis.

It became evident that strong relational leadership was key to their success, highlighting the qualities they bring to leadership and their value to the organizations they lead.

A key challenge was and will remain is that of leading and managing equity, inclusion, belonging and wellbeing in the new hybrid world of work. It seems that developing skills and strategies to support human flourishing will be the new competitive edge for organizations going forward.

Leading inclusive conversations

One of the main areas of development for the leaders in our study was the need to learn to lead in the digital environment. This included leading inclusive conversation in the virtual space itself and leading democracy and inclusion more broadly across boundaries and countries. This challenge is affecting most companies as they are trying to progress their diversity and inclusion journeys.

The need for skills to lead inclusively in the virtual environment; to connect with everyone, and to meet the needs of introvert and extrovert personalities and different cultures is now of prime importance. How to enable everyone to have a voice and to speak up has been challenging.

Some leaders also shared challenges of getting their own voice heard over Teams and Zoom, and how the quality of listening was often not good. In these situations, determination was an asset. Some talked about doing their best under the circumstances and how the digital tools available were now limiting progress.

Enabling collaborative working

Inclusive conversations are key to collaborative working, and whilst enabling everyone to have a voice seems a reasonable ask, it requires leaders to have high levels of awareness and good facilitation skills.

Facilitation is the ability to apply structure and process to group interactions to enable achievement of objectives. Through a range of skills and techniques a facilitator enables teams to build great relationships, look out for each other, and have inclusive conversations that generate creative thinking, quality decision making, and designing processes for effective working.

In essence the leader who facilitates is not just concerned with the immediate task, it is also about enabling and supporting individuals and groups to learn together and achieve their best work. Facilitation builds capacity for people to accomplish goals in ways that sustain wellbeing and foster belonging.

Ensuring wellbeing

Questions such as how to build and sustain healthy teams, enable collaborative working, and create a sense of belonging for all in this new world of work have become increasingly into focus as the crisis is resolving.

Whilst many leaders in our study experienced a strong sense of team and ‘pulling together’ during the crisis, as Zoom fatigue and general exhaustion kicked in, these leaders became increasingly concerned: As one leader said “I think it’s easier today to just focus on the business and you can easily forget that you’re working with people…”

Work can have a huge impact on mental health; it can either promote wellbeing or trigger problems. During the pandemic crisis the pace of change has been unprecedented, and the impact of this on wellbeing is significant.

For some the blurring of boundaries between work and private life has been a huge benefit to family life. For others, working from home and video conferencing all day long is not so easy, resulting in fatigue, stress and irritability. This quote from one leader was repeated by many others: “I have felt this blur, work and private life, all that in one”.

The wellbeing of colleagues and employees is another major concern for these leaders for similar reasons, along with a recognition of their fears and uncertainty about health, job and financial security, and skills deficits for the future. Employee wellbeing is less visible in the virtual environment: “People are less visible, it’s harder to pick up on non-verbal clues”. There is less opportunity to observe how people feel and pick up on non-verbal cues and energy levels.

As women, many of these leaders feel that they are missing out on being able to both give and receive care. Not being able to put a hand on someone’s shoulder at the very least matters greatly.

Commitment is key

These leaders felt that embedding equality, inclusion and wellbeing will be their competitive advantage going forward. Therefore, their commitment needed to be serious and intentional.

There was also a recognition that this could not be done alone. Whilst strong, resilient and tough leadership will continue to be required success will be dependent on being able recruit and retain an engaged and happy workforce. 

There is a need to be proactive and galvanise momentum in this important area of cultural development, if a sense of belonging is to be co-created across all employee groups. As one leader asked: “How do we generate that collective energy in companies to build the future culture….we need to crack the code on how to get people out of their bubbles”. The solution they said, ‘lies in the development of relational leadership skills at all levels of organizations’. 

Leaders will need to stay close to their teams making the time required for challenging conversations and most importantly to listen. This emphasis along with strong and versatile facilitation across the hybrid context will help to enable wellbeing and build a culture of inclusion and belonging.

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