Along with the changing nature of work comes new strategies in leadership. Market developments have become too fast for top-down thinking and implementation, and structural innovation is needed for businesses wanting to keep up with evolving demands. Many leaders are shifting towards a more empathetic style of leadership that emphasizes the individual needs and skills of employees. This shift away from transactional, ‘Command and Control’ type management to more oversight roles not only increases individual workers’ effectiveness, but also encourages teams to contribute their diversity of perspectives, enhancing collaboration, creativity, and productivity.
To give an expert opinion on this change in leadership mindsets and approaches, we collated excerpts from a conversation between our podcast host Jo Richardson and remote and flexible work expert Sophie Wade from episode eight of our podcast Bold stories. Future focused. Sophie Wade is the founder of Flexcel Network, a company focused on workforce innovation including making flexible working—such as hybrid and fully-remote options—achievable for everyone. Both her book, Embracing Progress: Next Steps for The Future of Work, and her podcast, Transforming Work with Sophie Wade, provide a framework for addressing the issues of an ever-shifting work landscape.
How to incorporate greater flexibility
Jo Richardson: The burnout brought on by the pandemic has sparked a big conversation about building better working environments, whether they're remote or onsite. But that's just one piece of the current paradigm that needs to be adjusted for. And as Sophie tells us, adjusting for the more flexible future of work isn't so simple – and it isn't so much about our future as it is our present.
Sophie Wade: I think we really need to really look at how we're working and make a significant redesign, purposeful design, about how we want to move forward. Because, yes, hybrid-working is not simple – it needs people to really be proactive about the decisions they're making and how they're going to be working and how this is going to be setting up; and that's where we are right now. And so that ‘going back’ … no, that's not going to happen. But therefore, understanding that now the Future of Work – what it is -- what's underlying the fundamentals of where we are right now that those need to be adapted to create a generally much more positive, in so many ways, environment for our employees.
Jo Richardson: One of the things that Sophie has mentioned in her many talks about flexible work is that we used to think of workplaces as being primarily managed from the top down, but businesses are needing disruption and transformation now.
Sophie Wade: It's typically with leaders who are seeing or recognizing how fast things are processing now. The feedback coming from the customers out there – particularly, you know, even more so now when customer behaviors are changing so much and customer sentiment because of the pandemic. But even before that, the feedback loop is so much faster. And it's too slow to try and take that feedback all the way up to the top, do some big strategy thinking, you know, work out what are we going to do next, and then take it all the way down.
So, when they're recognizing those certain things, not everything obviously, but trying to work out what are the pieces of the puzzle that can be done and taken care of closer to the front line. Giving responsibility by understanding more about each of their individual team members and what they're capable of to see how they do, and helping them adapt and really managing them on a proactive basis. And it does require trust. And it does require having faith in your employees and understanding more about them.
Jo Richardson: Which means, we can create more productive environments by giving wider latitude to workers, which allows their individual gifts to shine. A more diverse workplace can better represent the preferences and opinions of consumers and can reward the best individual ideas and contributions over groupthink. These are the kinds of benefits that emerge from a more open flexible and inclusive ethos.
Sophie Wade: And I think, certainly there are challenges with burnout because there are managers who are stressed, who are overwhelmed, and therefore they're micro-managing, because that's one way to try and sort of keep control and see that everything's happening. And of course, that creates a terrible dynamic both ways. So, I think it is a shift of ego from the leader to sort of spreading it out among the organization. It is hard to change some of those leadership styles.
Fostering empathy in the workplace
Jo Richardson: We need workspaces to be safe environments in which employees can have open dialogues with their leadership. So I asked her, why is empathy so lacking in workplaces?
Sophie Wade: Well, the way I look at it in terms of where we've been in terms of empathy in the workplace. It has been transactional, it has been, since the early 1900s, "I pay you. You work." and that would seem to be it. I mean, basically, it was work for money. And it's only relatively recently over the last few decades that we've really had a lot of data which shows that you'll show up and you'll go through the motions.
That didn't matter as much when we had static, very linear, slow-moving types of work. But now it's very, very different, and when you're doing knowledge work and when you have extraordinary competition, then just showing up and going through the motions is sort of over. It's not going to cut it. So that's one particular, absolute need for empathy—because we need to be working much more closely together. We need to understand each other better so that we can also be working across silos. So, you can put someone from sales and marketing and technology together to do some rapid testing and be able to launch something and test it in the marketplace. When people come with very different ideas, very different ways of thinking, having empathy to try and understand each other is going to be really critical for moving forward.
Jo Richardson: But there's another important kind of change happening, and it calls for empathetic leadership in a really big way. The biggest way.
Sophie Wade: There's also societal developments in terms of cultural and values and, you know, looking at the racial challenges and the discrimination and the injustice, and really changing that, and speaking up about that, and supporting people. But also, not leaving it to them to have to make the change, but really supporting people, being allies.
Jo Richardson: It must be said here that creating empathetic space for employees does not mean compelling employees to share about trauma. Don't be that person. Empathetic leadership means responding to each individual in the way that best matches their needs. It goes back to knowing your employees.
Sophie and Jo have more insights on topics such as company culture, allyship, and work burnout. For the full conversation, check out episode eight of our podcast Bold stories. Future focused.