In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore what missing conversations are, how to spot them and why identifying and engaging in them is critical to a successful transition to the post-COVID world of work.
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Bridgette: Hello everybody and welcome to the Resilient Leadership podcast. I am Bridgette Theurer and I’m joined by my wonderful colleague and co-host Irvine Nugent. And Irvine I would love to hear from you. How has your been going so far?
Irvine: I’m doing really great. Here in the DC area, we have gotten a little bit of respite from the muggy summer and it was really quite beautiful this morning so I actually sat out and I had a nice cup of tea and thought about the week ahead, so I’m in a good space. How about yourself?
Bridgette: Similarly. Man, this weekend in the DC area was spectacular; a weather point of view. And I feel like I’m still enjoying just the incredible sunshine that we had, the blue skies, you know? I kind of have a good weather hangover if there is such a thing.
Irvine: Love that. That brings to mind I was at a little gathering last night and a few people were commenting on the podcast. One of them was asking how can we reach out with some feedback or questions and I said such a great idea. So, I wanted to let our listeners know that we do have an email address, which is the title of our podcast, firstname.lastname@example.org. So, we would love to hear from you, if you have questions, suggestions, comments, because we are open to each and everything and maybe we will craft an episode on a particular idea that you might have. So that is email@example.com.
Now, at the end of last episode we said we were going to talk about the Gift of Anger and indeed we are, but the next episode, because this episode and I’m really excited about it, we’re going to talk about The Missing Conversations of the New Normal. So, Bridgette; what’s the inspiration behind this episode?
Bridgette: Well, so the inspiration really came from two places. One is my daughter sent me an article that she had come across and, of course, the headline immediately caught my attention and it was, “Why the return to the office isn’t working”. And I read that article and it said some really interesting things and one of which is that as more and more companies return to a hybrid work arrangement, they’re finding that employee stress levels are rising and their satisfaction is decreasing.
And apparently this is true, not just for those who wanted to stay all virtual, but it’s also true for some of the employees who were looking forward to getting back to the office. And it’s like, why is that? And the article went on to say there are numerous reasons. One of which is that they’re different understandings about what this arrangement is really about and how it’s supposed to work, right?
Bridgette: And this was an interesting thing that they cited. A Microsoft Work Trend Index. They reported that 80% of employees said, hey, we were more productive when we worked virtually or hybrid, while less than 50% of executives felt that. So, I thought that was kind of interesting, right?
Bridgette: And then you and I were talking and I shared with you that I had a call, a coaching call with a client and we’re on Zoom, and I noticed his backdrop looked different and I said, hey, where are you? And he said, I’m at the office, it’s the first time I’ve been back in a long time. And I said, oh, that’s so great, are you having a good day? And he goes, no, not really. And I said why not? And he goes, cause I’m the only one here. And he was incredibly frustrated because he really felt like he had made all the arrangements to make this long commute-in to the office and all he got from it, was a long commute. And I’m wondering, Irvine, in your experience, are you hearing some of this from your clients?
Irvine: In fact, I almost have the identical,the identicalconversation I had with a client a few weeks ago that basically, and that he talked about it’s such an effort now, because we have childcare, we have to get the kids all situated, we get that. We have to look presentable. We get in a car and for those of you who don’t know DC; DC traffic is back to its ugly self. So, get-in to the office and for the same thing, I think there was one other person in the office. And that’s kind of soul destroying because it’s, you know what.
But, essentially as well, this client also said that expectations are going to have to change because that’s an hour, it took me an hour and a half to get into the office – that’s an hour and a half that I don’t have to give you anymore. And I think that’s interesting, maybe a good segue, because what that’s telling me is, oh, there are some conversations that have not been had, they’re missing. And I think that might be obvious, what we mean by that, but maybe, Bridgette, if you want to share a little bit more with our listeners. What is a missing conversation? What are the essential ingredients of a missing conversation?
Bridgette: Yeah, so I have to give a shoutout to one of my mentors, Bob Dunham. Who is the founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership, because many years ago, fifteen years ago, I went to a workshop that he was leading. He talked about something that he called at that time, the anatomy of action and he said all the actions and all the results that you get or don’t get, in any business or organization, are a direct result of the conversations you’re having or not having and the quality of commitments those conversations are producing or not producing.
And in that moment the light bulb really went off in my head. And that discovery, that insight that he shared caused me to start bringing to my clients this simple question. When they were frustrated, I would say, okay, what do you think is the missing conversation? Is there one? Because think about it. Is there a conversation that if you could have it really, really well, on the other side of that would be a different result for you? Yeah, so invariably people would see them.
So, a missing conversation is any conversation you’re delaying having or you’re neglecting altogether, because maybe the prospect of the conversation makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you actually don’t know how to have it or, in fact, you don’t even realize it’s missing. Until we ask the question, is there a missing conversation? Sometimes we’re blind to it, but what I discovered is missing conversations are everywhere. Right? It might be a missing conversation you’re not having with an underperformer or what about that annoying peer of yours that is bringing down the mojo in the team meeting, or your boss who is micromanaging you. There are just a million of them. So, I don’t know, Irvine, what about you? We’re going to obviously talk about the missing conversations of the new normal, but are there other kinds of missing conversations you’ve seen in your experience?
Irvine: Yeah, another one that I’ve commonly seen, just in the work situation is leaders that are leading teams, and some voices are being heard and others are not. And the leader just never has that conversation. Why are you not speaking up? What’s behind that? And I think that’s an interesting one. But then; just look at our home, Bridgette. How many? We get into patterns of behavior with our loved ones and there are so many missing conversations there. So much resentment, I think is built up because of a missing conversation. And that can be something like who’s responsible for making dinner, who’s responsible for dropping the kids off at school. They are habits that we get into, and we never really have a conversation about it. And then it kind of comes, well, I don’t want to upset someone and then we build up this anxiety because we’ve got into a habit and I’m not going to add to the anxiety, so I just won’t have the conversation.
Bridgette: Yeah. I love that you also bring it to the home front because what can happen at work or at home is that change occurs and then roles shift but then we forget to revisit our responsibilities and our agreements in the new world of these changed roles.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, they’re everywhere. And you’re right, there’s a lot of anxiety in the mix. Anxiety that causes us to not have them. And then anxiety when we enter into them, if we ever do get around to having them.
Irvine: Yeah, I know.
Bridgette: Right. Yeah. Okay. So, that’s where missing conversations are, and they’re everywhere. And to our listeners, you might be right now thinking, oh, yeah, there’s a missing conversation I need to have with my boss or what have you. What we’re going to do now is turn our attention to the new normal. We are in this massive transition into a different way of working post-pandemic and, Irvine, as you alluded to in the beginning, there are lots of missing conversations that are producing frustrations and dissatisfaction. So, we’re going to share with our listeners three of them, I bet there’s more, but, Irvine, let’s dig into that. And what would you say is one of these key missing conversations?
Irvine: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think one of the conversations, well; maybe we’ll title it Defining the New Normal. It’s interesting in that gathering that I was in last night; we were kind of talking about what is your new work situation like. And every single person in the circle had said, well, it’s a combination. I work two days or three days, but home two days and this hybrid. And then I asked, well, how did that happen? And they kind of like, I’m not quite sure, it just was announced. And so, I think most, if not all companies, are beginning to look at what does it look like to return to work.
And I think for most, no, not all, but for most it’s some form of hybrid arrangement. However, just in that conversation last night, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve had this launch conversation or a conversation to get people on board and aligned, because it’s more than just saying, hey, from now on, you’re working Tuesday and Thursday and you can be home the rest of the week. There’s a dialogue that needs to happen, and I think there’s an extra pressure for this bridge, and I know you think about this as well. Because I think there was no real dialogue, as well, when COVID started happening there was no real dialogue about what does work at home even mean.
And people were in habits that really were not helpful, so now that we’re entering into another conversation that was never had as well. So, I think people need to know why, why are we choosing this path. Did we pull two days of work out of the air? Or three days out of the air because it sounded good? And I think that people need to know, people need a little clarity, but they also need to dialogue about, here’s my experience thus far, and here’s what I’m thinking will be important as we return to work.
Bridgette: Yeah, the why behind it, I think is crucial. Because we can get into assuming that people understand the why, we talked about assumptions in a previous episode and how that can get us into trouble. Irvine I’d like to hear you say more about this dialogue, this conversation, in terms of defining the new normal and why speaking to the reasons an organization or company has chosen what they’ve chosen. Why that’s key?
Irvine: Yeah. Well, I think it is. I think, as we said last week, we like to make meaning as human beings and we have to use some data as well, and so people want to understand where is this coming from. Is this a cultural decision that would make it better for us to preserve our culture that we need to have people in the office because that’s interesting? Or what data have they been using? So, is it based on any data whatsoever or are we just kind of throwing things together? But I think what needs to happen is people need an explicit and engaging conversation.
People need to feel that they’ve been heard and people’s experience because; one assumption that I saw all over the place, was that you could have two people who on the face of it had very similar circumstances. Lived with say two kids in an apartment, but their experience was totally different. And so, I think at times we have to be very generous in opening up conversations to include as many voices as possible and listening to as many voices as possible, because our experience is so different.
Bridgette: Yes. And I think stressing the fact that this, define the new normal is a dialogue, it’s a conversation, it’s not a, hey, this is what we’re doing and why, but to your point, we’re engaging people in that conversation and acknowledging that no decision post-COVID is going to make everybody happy.
Bridgette: That can’t be on leaders, right? Because some people aren’t going to be happy. There are people who just want to stay one hundred percent virtual. And there are people who are so sick of that, they can’t stand it. So, we’re not going to make everybody happy, but just even acknowledging that goes a long way, right?
Irvine: Yeah, absolutely, yes. And I think the other thing I would just say to that as well, is that there is no, the endpoint is also something to be defined. This is a strategy and a meaning that we are making as we continue. So, in other words, we’re in new territory here so that’s why dialogue is so important. It’s not that we have a definitive endpoint which is going to work. Because that’s probably going to have to change as well.
Bridgette: Exactly. It’s almost like defining the new normal is, here’s what the new normal is right now as best we can discern it but we’re going to continue to evaluate and to converse around it. So, Irvine, you mentioned this notion of data, is there data that companies are using to choose what the new normal is? I’m curious if there is some data out there that sheds some light on this. What do we know?
Irvine: Well, that’s a really interesting question, because I think we are beginning to see some results coming out of research that has been done on this essential question. And one that I came across was from a researcher at a Stanford called Nick Bloom, who had done a really extensive research in a multinational company; it involved sixteen hundred people from different sectors within the organization, was a randomized study between two groups. One group had five days in the office, the other group had the hybrid setup, which was a 3/2 model – three days in the office, two days at home.
And it was fascinating because there was a clear distinction between two groups. What’s interesting was that the real difference, at the core of the difference, was employee satisfaction. So, what we found is that the hybrid model clearly came out ahead when it came to ideas such as employee productivity, the retention, employee absences and health and wellbeing. And so, therefore, the beginnings of the data that’s coming out is indicating that people have strong preferences for hybrid and not only that, but the impact of hybrid as well, is good for the organization and is also good for the employee.
Bridgette: That’s interesting. And as I recall that company based on that study decided to roll out the hybrid model…
Bridgette: The whole company, right?
Bridgette: And so, you could imagine that their conversation around defining the new normal felt pretty grounded.
Bridgette: Because they collected data from their own employees and they tracked it over time.
Bridgette: So, that’s really interesting and I think that for our listeners, if you are in these conversations in your organization about what the new normal is or should be; that drawing up on data is key, see what you can find that’s out there. But then also, what about getting data from your own employees? Have you.Have you surveyed them? Have you done, maybe some focus groups? To find out, not just their preferences, but also the lessons learned during the pandemic. What have we learned that works? What have we learned that doesn’t work?
And then how can that information really inform not only what the new normal is going to be, but the detailed granular kind of things. And I think that brings us into the second missing conversation. So, Irvine, you just talked about high level, what is this new normal, why are we doing it, what is it based on, are there values that we’re trying to reinforce and so forth. Okay. Then we get down to the brass tax and by that we mean what are the rules of engagement going to be? Because that’s where the rubber meets the road, right?
So, we can kind of know what this path is but then there are all these other details to figure out. I want to share it in the form of this. Think about the following four things. What are going to be the norms? Do they need to change? Do they need to shift? What about systems and processes? Did they change during COVID, or do we have to change them again? What about boundaries? We talked about boundaries in a previous episode, what about expectations? So, let’s talk about those, Irvine, kind of one at a time and let’s go back to norms. Undoubtedly, as you and I both know, norms happen both explicitly and then they just sort of happen organically. When I think about the pandemic, some norms that might have happened organically might have been around all these Zoom calls, do we have our cameras on or off? What’s okay, what’s not okay, around that; we develop norms, right? And the question then becomes, going forward in our new normal, is that going to stay the same? Is that going to change? What do you think of when it comes to norms that might have developed during the pandemic that may or may not stay the same in a new normal? Anything come to mind for you?
Irvine: One that’s going to be interesting and I think we’re going to tackle about, is the type of meeting that we want to have virtually or in person or in hybrid. We were a virtual, we work virtually, every conversation, but that doesn’t mean that every conversation or every type of meeting works virtually and now that we have choices, are we going to create new norms? So, say for example, are performance meetings going to be always virtual or is it better to have those in person? I was just talking to a person who was speaking with their mentor and they had a lunch together and they said, oh, it was such a powerful meeting, because it was in person.
So, I think we’re going to have to think a little bit about which meetings make the best sense to be virtual and which ones, really, we’re going to improve the quality of those meetings by having them in person, and then we’re going to have to create norms around that.
Bridgette: Yeah. And again, the data might help there, because apparently onboarding conversations, there’s some data to suggest that when that’s done in person, those employees end up collaborating more, even a year later than compared to their peers. There’s some interesting data around meetings that are more complex. Complex decision-making meetings, and one would think, oh, we need to have those in person.
Bridgette: But in point of fact, some of the research suggests that’s better virtually because of the asynchronous collaboration that can happen and the time for reflection and digestion of the complex issues that go into. So, I think that’s a great example. Yeah, so again, we head into this new normal and if we aren’t talking about what the norms are going to be, we’re going to get frustration. And then what about systems and processes too? One of the things that really struck me in the pandemic, was it became a catalyst for a lot of companies to reinvent themselves, and to reinvent some of their systems and processes, because they had to.
Bridgette: Because survival is at stake. So, some of these systems and processes radically changed or just became a lot more efficient. And that might be part of the new normal, which is to say we’re not going back. We’re not going back to cumbersome processes that are outdated, that require twenty people to sign off, all this work. Our new normal is going to build on the improvements we made in our systems and processes, during the pandemic, right?
Irvine: Yeah. You know what’s interesting with that as well; I would say there’s one other thing that I’m seeing in some conversations with process and systems, in that sometimes, I think there’s an advantage and that just what you mentioned. We mentioned that we don’t have to be as cumbersome in some of those systems, but then with the great resignation and with hiring, sometimes organizations really went to the bare bones with some systems and I think what we’re beginning, what I’m hearing and I’m sure you are as well, as for employees, we’re getting a little burnt out; we need help. And so, I think there has to be some conversations about, you know what, we were operating on bare bones or in systems, and we now need to maybe rethink how we do this and maybe augment staffing et cetera, so we can give people some help that they desperately need.
Bridgette: Yes, for sure. So, gosh, think about this. We’re just talking so far about norms and systems and processes and already there’s a lot there to be discussed, right? And then, what about expectations? That’s another part of the rules of engagement. What expectations need to be revisited or articulated? For example, my daughter was telling me that in her company they’ve said so far, we want you back in the office at least two days a week starting now, but in the fall we may go to three days a week. And so, people are starting to make their way back into the office, but she said, you know what I’m not clear about is, if you don’t show up those two days, does anybody call you on it? How hard are we about those two days in the office? Because she’s noticing that some people aren’t coming in both days. And they’re not being held accountable for that. So, what’s the expectation there? And clearly, it wasn’t articulated in this. So, I think that’s key. And then boundaries, we did a whole episode. On healthy boundaries. We may need to revisit boundaries in the new normal, you know?
Bridgette: I’m thinking about a boundary around how much and how often people reach out to us and our accessibility and responsiveness. Is that going to be different than it was when we were all virtual or what have you?
Bridgette: There are lots of things to figure out in terms of the rules of engagement and to your point earlier, Irvine; we don’t have this all figured out, this is going to evolve and we can still speak to the rules of engagement and we can base it on the lessons we’ve learned so far.
Bridgette: Yeah, alright. So, there’s still another really important missing conversation and it’s about leadership. It’s about, okay, whatever you are defining as new normal is to say what does effective leadership look like in this new normal and if it’s a hybrid situation, Irvine, what are your thoughts around what effective leadership looks like in that new normal?
Irvine: Yeah. First of all, I think it’s important for us to kind of revisit our three resilient leader ingredients that we’ve mentioned in previous episodes. Because let’s just understand, as human beings we like a little bit of certainty, and we resist constant change. And we’re talking here about a situation which is not certain, is evolving and is changing. So, just as a human being, that is a difficult thing to manage, and as a leader it’s even more, and so, therefore, those three ingredients are so key in being an effective leader. One, you remember, well; I’ll go over the three.
One is staying calm; that is being this idea of a less anxious presence. So, people are, we mentioned this, people are full of anxiety as they return to work. What is this? What’s going to happen? How is this going to work out? So, as a leader, can I remain calm in the midst of this? The second then, is staying connected. This idea of we want people to feel our presence without us becoming enmeshed in the anxiety, and then the other thing is, sometimes, and we mentioned this, sometimes we have to make decisions that are unpopular, and that is stay the course and lead with conviction.
So, staying connected, staying calm, stay the course. And I think it is, I think we really have to appreciate that leadership in a hybrid world is a difficult beast. It is something that is new; it is something we’re tackling, we’ve never really had to do this before. I can just give one little example where I failed; and that is I was actually facilitating a meeting, actually, around some of these topics, and there was one person who was on the phone. And I went into a breakout exercise and I had all the breakout groups done in the room and I totally forgot that there was one person on the phone and they were excluded, and I felt so bad.
But these are the things we have to think about. It’s not just thinking about the people that are visible to us. Now, we have to constantly think about the people who are not visible to us in the office that day but are working from home. So, some things that have to be considered is, how do I ensure that my team feels my physical presence but also my digital presence. And how can I ensure that I’m adequately connected to each person in my team. Be that person virtual today or in person. And then to think about as I begin now to schedule one-on-one meetings, is that going to be on virtual days or is it going to be in person days? How am I going to use this calendar to really emphasize and ensure that I’m having some connection with people? And then how do I ensure that I have enough time managing this for reflection, planning, and strategizing? Because, I think we mentioned this, this is a changing target and…
Bridgette: [inaudible audio 27:35].
Irvine: …more than ever I think leaders need touch points to; how is this working? Is there anything that needs to change? How am I strategizing this and getting openness to it to a greater dialogue? And I think that’s really, really important. So, I think they’re shifting things here and I think how we go about leadership. So, there is no one leadership here, there are many ways of leading, this is the other thing that adds to the complexity. And I think it’s important that leaders find what’s right for them.
Bridgette: It’s interesting, Irvine, to think that, to your point, it’s complex to lead in a hybrid world, and I think we’re assuming, I think all of us are making assumptions that, well, look, we lead in a virtual world and before that we lead in a physical at the office world, so we know how to do hybrid; because it’s just a combination, two plus two equals four. It’s not. Andeven if your new normal in your organization is that you all worked virtual during the pandemic and you’re going to keep working virtually, there’s still a conversation, a series of conversations to be had about that.
Bridgette: Think that’s the other assumption. Well, we’re just staying the same so it’s no big deal, we don’t really need to have a conversation.
Bridgette: And I think, hopefully, we’ve made a good case that is not true.
Irvine: Yeah. So, Bridgette, we always try and come up with a practice to leave our listeners with something to chew on and to put into action. So, what practice would you suggest today in this episode of Missing Conversations?
Bridgette: So, I’m going to offer to our listeners two, and one is sort of a general practice based on our topic and then one is a little bit more specific. And so, the first practice is, whenever you find yourself being frustrated by a lack of results, by a lack of action, to step back, take a moment, take a breath and ask that critical question, what’s the missing conversation? Undoubtedly there is one, and see it, identify it and then begin to think about how might I engage in that conversation in a productive way. Second practice, and this is a little bit more nitty-gritty.
Think about the rules of engagement conversation, that we just discussed, and pick one of the four areas that we mentioned to hone in on and ask yourself the question, how can I be clearer about this rule of engagement? So, it could either be around norms, it could be around systems or processes, it could be around expectations for the new normal or boundaries. And to give some thought to that and then articulate what the rule of engagement is or talk with your peers and other people to say, hey, this rule of engagement isn’t clear…
Bridgette: …let’s get clear together. Yeah.
Irvine: Love that.
Bridgette: And I think, Irvine, I just had this thought pop into my head just listening to you and that is, this is complex territory, and so we need to be compassionate…
Bridgette: …with one another, and patient with one another, because this is not easy and this is a big transition yet again.
Irvine: Yeah. Absolutely. And at the core of that is some trust that we’re all looking for the best solution to this.
Irvine: And I think that’s essential. Well, Bridgette, thank you; this has been such an amazingly interesting conversation, and I think very apropos and this is a conversation people desperately want to have. So, today we’ve talked about three potential missing conversations. One is defining the new normal, the second is looking at the norms and the processes and the systems in place, which have to be renegotiated and the third then is leadership. You know, what’s leadership going to look like, because it is different, leading in hybrid world is very different.
So, thank you and thank you everyone for listening today, remember to subscribe. Spread the word please; I’m sure there are many people in your circle that perhaps could benefit from one of our episodes, so please feel free to share with them this podcast. Also, at the beginning, I mentioned an e-mail, if you have any suggestions, questions, comments, love to hear them, and that is firstname.lastname@example.org and our next episode is going to be called the Gift of Anger. So, Brigette, thank you so much, I loved our conversation today, wishing you well.
Bridgette: Thank you, Irvine. So, looking forward to the next conversation too, that is a topic near and dear to my heart. Take care, everybody.
Irvine: Okay, take care, everyone.