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Mayvin Sofa Chats: Episode 3 - How Does the Hybrid Workplace Balance Productivity and Creativity?

Carolyn Norgate and James Traeger discussed the challenges of leading in a world with increasing ambiguity, particularly in the post-pandemic workplace. They emphasised the importance of trust, culture, and leadership in creating a productive and engaged workforce, and highlighted the need for organisations to prioritise creating conditions that foster trust, creativity, and safety. They also shared their experiences designing and delivering a leadership development program for a large non-profit organisation, and emphasised the importance of continuous learning and development for leaders in today's rapidly changing organisational landscape.
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Carolyn Norgate  00:00

Welcome. I'm Carolyn Norgate. I'm one of the principal consultants at Mayvin. I'm joined by my colleague James.


James Traeger  00:06

I'm James Traeger. I'm founder director of Mayvin. Currently, I'm the chair and director of qualifications.


Carolyn Norgate  00:14

So here we are, again, doing the Mayvin Podcast, good to be sitting here with you thinking about the notion that people post COVID, during COVID, everyone who could work from home, this last y ear, we've seen a huge pull or employer based pull primarily back to the office. So we have a larger number of clients in the public sector civil service, particularly 60% is now minimum being back in the office, you've seen it in the professional services sector tech, there is a kind of notion that productivity and creativity will be improved by this. So really, we're sort of having a chat around. Is that a problem? Is that a solvable problem? Is it? Is it the question that's useful for organisations to be thinking about? And what do we do when clients come to us with a question like that, or an issue that's in that area.


James Traeger  01:18

And they do. I think people often come to us with a with a problem they want to solve, which is, you know, we're not feeling like we create enough creativity, were a bit worried about people working from home too much. We're paying for this very large office space, and it's not being used, we feel like people don't really know each other. There are lots of misunderstandings, our kind of culture is kind of gone a bit friable, a bit a bit, you know, dissipated a bit. And the conclusion that they might inevitably draw is, we need people back in the office. And I think our approach would be to inquire into that and to create some structures, which enable them to both get a sense of more of a buzz, which is, I think, what they're looking for, but also help them really understand whether that is the case. Because there's a generational aspect to this. There's a general kind of attracting talent, aspect to this. And so I think that's really what we're kicking around here. And ultimately, I think what we're wondering about is how do we help organisations with that kind of problem? That kind of question.


Carolyn Norgate  02:40

So I think the first bit you're getting into there is what's underneath the surface level problem? And I think one of the things we notice a lot with our clients is the is we need some help, and we're, we're not quite sure what it is. But here's, here's what we think it is. Yes. So we're not in the office, it must be that we're not in the office enough. So the sort of stepping back and taking a slightly broader, but maybe sometimes slightly softer gaze on what's what does it really feel like here? 


James Traeger  03:18

I think the tendency is to rush to solution. And I think what one of the things that we do in all of our interventions, would be to help clients actually stand back from that, and really kind of get a sense of, well, so what are the issues? So whether we're running a leadership programme, or whether we're running an OD capability programme, or even doing a piece of organisational design, the questions we often ask are kind of standing back from the solution and solutionising. Because actually, this is classically what we would call a wicked problem, as in its high complexity, a high degree of the need for collaboration and relationship in order to kind of get a better sense of what it might be about.


Carolyn Norgate  04:04

And we've not been here before. We've not we were never in the place we were in during COVID with as many people suddenly working from home at the pace that that that turn happened. So what's the balance? We had to go so far in one direction. It doesn't feel quite right. But what's, what's right, and I think in your notion of the wicked problem, there's something about fit, and organisations trying to work out what's the fit right now? We often talk around that local, timely and specific. Yeah, so in this time, in your context, in 2024, what's going to feel like the right balance given that you're probably slightly different workforce than you were in 2020, so people would have left, talked about generations, there's newer people coming into the organisation at different points, but I know there's a lot of concern out there about how do people in first jobs, how  do graduates, for example, really start to understand the organisation, get the kind of support and mentoring, when they're at home? You know, sometimes all the time. So, yeah, there's a lot to get under the surface of that notion of fit, and helping an organisation figure out, what's the right fit for now. 


James Traeger  05:28

And that's often the first stage of our work, isn't it? Is whether it's any type of programme or a more formal piece of consulting or whatever, is to kind of get a sense of what is the fit, and what's the culture that we're going into. Because sometimes a more formal structure is is helpful for for an organisation because that gives them a sense of milestones. And sometimes it's actually the what we do is construct the construct the path as we're walking it. So that would be with an organisation that's prepared to be a little bit more emergent, and experimental. So it really would depend on the nature of the client's culture and what they're looking for. 


Carolyn Norgate  06:11

And whether they're looking to change the culture, and do something that helps them change the culture. And while they're doing it. Yeah. I mean, that's what we would often advise is, if you're wanting to do a leadership programme, how do you want to do a leadership programme in a way that starts to sort of model that new culture?


James Traeger  06:28

Yeah I would also like to talk about Mayvin's own experience, because we were founded in 2010. And one of our principles is everything is an experiment. So we've never settled on the exact way of doing things because we're always evolving. But we started with three people. And now we're, I think, approaching 20. And every time we grow, we inquire, ask the question, do we need an office? And every time so far that we've asked that question, we've said no. And we're a very relational business as in, we rely a lot on relationships, and connections in order to kind of do our work internally as much as externally because we try and, you know, the expression we use is our as our inside needs to be like our outside. So what we offer our clients, we feel we need to be doing ourselves. So we do have that experiment running, of whether we all need to be back in the office or not. And at the moment, we've, you know, we've decided that we we're not, so we have admin staff, marketing people, finance people, everybody works remotely. And so far, it works pretty well. I mean, we've had our ups and downs, like every organisation does, what we try and do is move towards those difficult times rather than avoid them or gloss over them. And that's worked for us. And it's never been a question of, do we do we miss out on our creativity and innovation? Because we don't have an office? It's never never been a question.


Carolyn Norgate  08:10

Yeah. It's interesting, isn't it? That that's not how it's presented for us. It's like, no, what else? Is there anything missing for people? And what do we do, if it is, through that inquiry process? Yes. So what might be needed here to make a difference? What's already working? So often that appreciative status, which is what we would do with clients, if they came to us with this question around we think moving getting more people in the office would help, but how can we engage people? How do we shift the culture, given we have reduced our office space? But we'd like people to be a bit more in, you think that'll solve the culture issue. would be well, what works currently? Yeah. Because there will be stuff that's working. Yeah, absolutely. And what what is it that you would like to be different? Or better? What would better look like for you, and maybe from multiple perspectives as a way of really trying to understand the perceptions around how it is around here? And I think it's, you know, a lot of the research you look at around the return to the office does seem to have a very, it's perception. In your opinion, are you more productive? At home or in the office? It's managers opinions. Are people more was the phrase I came across recently. Productivity paranoia for managers, because they're not seeing people.


James Traeger  09:35

Well, and that's the dilemma, isn't it? Is getting people back in the office about control? Or is it about creativity? Is it because managers feel, you know, at at a loss as to know what their people are doing? Which is one of the impetuses for getting people back in the office. We know that or is it that actually they really want to kind of get relationships and people together. So I think we would favour more for a pull than a push strategy, you know, how do you draw people back in? How do you give them reasons to come in if you think it's useful, rather or come together? rather than just because you want to know you want to monitor and and there is a move to do that isn't there there is a move to kind of monitor, which I think is something that is not something we necessarily support or want to support, because we don't think it would necessarily enhance creativity in relationship.


Carolyn Norgate  10:30

Well, if you think about the, you know, one of the theories of what and what underpins a really productive, engaged workforce, it will be trust. So, you know, monitoring through the swiping in and swiping out doesn't help with the high trust culture. Whereas I think one of the things that people found interesting, in the lockdown experience, was a notion of being trusted, even if they were in a fairly low trust workforce. And I think most people quite like that.


James Traeger  11:03

And most of our clients reported a high degree of engagement during lockdown


Carolyn Norgate  11:07

And a high rise in activity! 


James Traeger  11:09

And surprisingly high degree of engagement. And, you know, there's most for most organisations, it was a kind of high point. And we run a couple of seminars at the time, do you remember?, did for an American organisation that looked it was looking into restorative practice in organisations, and there was a sense of energy and buzz around that work.


Carolyn Norgate  11:31

One of the things I remember having conversations into 2020, probably late 2020/21, As people were thinking, as each phase of the pandemic ebbed and flowed, and there were thoughts of maybe coming back to the office was that there was, I think organisations put a lot of work into making remote work. And a sense of our organisations putting as much work into making the office work, or as the the container of the office, being seen to do the work by just by being in the office productivity will flow because we've got, we've got the view, and creativity will flow because people are together and having watercooler conversations and the corridor conversations and the actual meetings that are in diaries, what have you. So I think there's going back to kind of our work with clients. I think there's something about if you want to have the kind of workforce that you say you want, how are you setting the conditions for that?


James Traeger  12:34

Yeah, I think that's a really lovely set of questions is, rather than how do we get people back in the office? How do we create a sense of safety, creativity, trust, trust? You know, that that's the question, isn't it? And so therefore, how do we do that as Mayvin? How do we help our clients do that?


Carolyn Norgate  12:52

Yeah, well, and so I'm really thinking about the role of leaders in that. And we talked about culture quite a bit, sort of it's come up through this conversation. But I mean, Shine talks about leaders, leadership and culture being two sides of the same coin. Yeah. Leaders have a disproportionate effect on culture. So leadership programmes. You know, there's multiple ways in which you could seek to shift the conditions, but I think working across an organisation with those that have the most influence, and that those are the who are going to be responsible for creating those conditions. So you've got a story that had that sort of sense of shifting culture coming out of the pandemic, that was a leadership programme, I think, yeah.


James Traeger  13:43

And it's interesting, because I think it started off as a leadership programme in a fairly traditional sense from the client that was separate to some of the questions that they were holding around culture change, and progress and creativity and innovation. And we brought those things together. So bit of background, it was a large UK based organisation, an NGO or a third sector organisation, quite commercial, though. A very high profile, high profile brand in the world of fundraising and charities, medical research, and they had had a leadership programme and they were wanting to upgrade it, and at the same time when we started to talk about it with them, there were questions about people coming in post pandemic, people not knowing each other, a sense of a lack of cohesion. You know, people kind of getting out of sync with each other people didn't know each other very well. So I think what we did is created the opportunity of a leadership programme, which is what we pitched for, as a culture change intervention, and so it was both, it was double duty, as we say, did a number of different things at once. So it developed people's leadership through a number of different ways. It created a kind of a methodology amongst leaders that they could follow, which was around helping to stimulate inquiry and creativity around their teams, wicked problems, you know, individual teams with wicked problems. But it was also a culture change opportunity, because what we did is we ran a number of different ingredients. But one of the ingredients we had worked, which was bringing everybody together in innovation events, which brought people around a set of questions around what they wanted to look at and change about the organisation. And in doing so it built a lot of relationships. And it also gave them material for their own leadership development. So it worked on three levels, it was a me level, and US level as in my team, and then a kind of a bigger us as in the organisation as a whole. So it was quite complex. And it was, with agreement from the client, a bit emergent, as in we had a basic structure but actually what we did is folded in the actual events that we were running to relevant bits of their calendar around the strategy cycle, and their fundraising cycle and that kind of thing. So it was quite complex to organise. But we worked very closely with an internal team, regularly kind of became one team, really the Mayvin team and the internal team to make sure that it was well integrated. And we also work with the top team, we work with the first 120 leaders of the organisation. And there was a really interesting shift in the mood between the beginning and the end, because we did quite a bit of evaluation ongoing, we have this expression which is always be evaluating so we were always sort of going back and saying what's working and what do we need to adjust and change. And there was a very different language about leadership, we did a survey at the beginning of the programme asking what leadership was, and it was things like control and oversight, and, you know, walking ahead of the team, and that kind of thing, quite traditional attitudes towards leadership. And by the end of the programme, it was much more about relationship and emotional intelligence and building trust. And so they, you know, by the end of it as a leadership community, they were much more in that vein of of recognising that rather than right, I tell you that you need to be back in the office three days a week, it was how do we create the conditions where people want to play together? In order to be, you know, do all the different things that we do that are very complex? Yeah,


Carolyn Norgate  18:06

Yeah. So that, you know, that reminded of that old phrase around kind of organisations as sociotechnical. Yes. entities, but the kind of leadership that that first version of leadership language was quite in the technical space? Yeah. Management as a technical skill. Yeah, yeah. Where's that second that what came as the evaluation was much more in the social or what we tend to call relational space around, as you say, setting the conditions? Yeah.


James Traeger  18:32

And the core of it was the methodology that we have called practice based leadership or practice based learning, which invites everybody to have a question, which is systemic. So it's a How can I question so you know, how can I develop my leadership presence in the service of my team becoming larger as we grow our function, and in the wider context of this organisation, having a greater impact or outreach in this particular sector? So it's a systemic question, which has a personal dimension to it. And again, that was another shift I think we saw was people recognising that, that rather than leaders, it's about leadership, and leadership being a quality that is between people, rather than something that I have and you don't, I am and you're not. 


Carolyn Norgate  19:34

Yeah. And am I right in thinking that programme started as being fully face to face? I did some of the learning sets on that so and one of the things I noticed, because the intention was fully face to face, and certainly there were some big events


James Traeger  19:51

It was about bringing people together initially, yes.


Carolyn Norgate  19:55

But I remember the learning sets that I ran with, you know, life happening and caring responsibilities, broken limbs, various different things, at least half the learning sets I ran ended up being online because of the,


James Traeger  20:09

Learning set being the small group, because they actually called it something else. But yeah, it was a small space small, the inquiry safe space to stay sharp as we described it once.


Carolyn Norgate  20:22

Yeah and a space to really work with your inquiry question with peers from across the organisation. So they were great spaces for building that fabric of connection. And with people you might not day to day connect with. So then we deliberately crossed


James Traeger  20:36

Yeah, we call it Max mix, so designed to kind of mix up the whole functions, so that they all got a bit of a sniff of each other right across the organisation.


Carolyn Norgate  20:49

Yeah. And what I thought was interesting in the way in which that happened, given that that sort of soft, kind of part of this has come out of us not being together in the office, and therefore we run this programme face to face was written running the learning sets, facilitating the learning sets. And how about half being face to face half being online? was about going back to that notion of creating the conditions in a learning set, yeah. You want high trust space to be vulnerable space to learn together? Was using that as a way of demonstrating you can do it in both spaces? Yes.


James Traeger  21:24

Again, it was back to your point that you made earlier that was about creating the conditions for innovation and creativity and relationship and effectiveness and productivity. And there are lots of different ways to do that. Some of which is around getting people together. But sometimes it can be done virtually. It's not about that.


Carolyn Norgate  21:44

Yeah. So that's not necessarily the answer to your question. Yeah. If your question is, how can we be more? Yeah, the answer might not be location, the mode in which you're meeting. It might be a different answer.


James Traeger  21:57

It can be a it can be an aspect of that. Because that's something as well we do in Mayvin, is we do deliberately bring people face to face as best as we can. There's always usually someone online. Yeah, that we so we do the hybrid. Yeah, we have the tech to do that. And I think the tech, you have to be a little bit on the tech, don't you, you have to be a little bit good at putting good tech together in order to make sure that people who are not in the room don't feel excluded. And there are you know, there's good ways of doing that good practice in tech. Yeah.


Carolyn Norgate  22:32

Yeah. And it's a facilitative approach to that. Yeah. Sort of making sure whoever's holding the meeting is meeting a chair or facilitator is constantly bringing the room in. I was facilitating a programme recently that's normally online. And this was a group we were saying, but if we could find spaces to do it in person, could we there wasn't budget for rooms. And so we did a one of the days we we did it in their organisations room. The next one, it just wasn't feasible for everyone to be face to face, even if a room could be found. But a couple of people said, we are going to be in a room, we're going to come from a room, we're going to meet and come from a room because we want to be together doing this. And so actually, what we ended up doing was, there was two it was it's a two facilitated programme. So I was online with those that are online. And my colleague, then was in the room with those who are in the room. So that gave kind of a bit of again, it was about creating conditions is what's gonna make this work. Yeah, give a bit of equity. If there's two of us, let's be in the two spaces, so that we can kind of pick up what the energy is in the different spaces. I think energy is. Yeah, I think you would, sort of I got a sense of that in terms of that client story. Yeah, that kind of there's there needs to be a bit more energy in the organisation. Yes, I was in a face to face alumni event for Mayvin, just this morning. And there was a great energy in the room. And I think a lot of it was because most of the people are there spend most of their time virtual. And, and there was something about, you know, a couple of people have said something about coming into town, it's buzzy and all the rest of it. But there was also just something about sitting at tables and doing some work together and which, as you said, we come together deliberately in Mayvin To keep catalysing... 


James Traeger  24:27

Right, we do.  Absolutely we regularly...


Carolyn Norgate  24:31

The relationships,the energy.


James Traeger  24:32

We regularly have kind of opportunities to do that to build that energy and, and, and not rely on it. And you know, it's not a it's not a problem to be solved whether people feel like they like they have to come in for a meeting or they have to, or they can stay at home. It's a delicate inquiry, isn't it? Because sometimes it's so much easier for people to make it if they can do it virtually, yeah, that will engage them. And sometimes it will be lovely for everybody to be together. So you can't just solve that, as you were saying, you can't just save that with solve that with, you know, a policy, it has to be a process of, you know, take balancing things out and local, timely and specific, it's contextual.


Carolyn Norgate  25:24

Yeah. And comes back to that kind of culture. What's the culture here? Yeah. What's okay to say? I really need to be online for this. Yeah. No, it's that they were all we were always together for? Yeah. Is it just okay to say that to your colleague group? And just to tell, let's just say, I'm not going to be in Yeah. Oh, you know, is it? Is it something you have to go to a leader with? You know, is that, is that a place where that's, you know, let's experiment with it. Or is it like, that's an issue? You know, so I think for leaders starting to navigate this, you know, this is part of the role now.


James Traeger  26:02

Absolutely. It's absolutely part of their role. It's interesting, because, again, we forget very quickly, what I what strikes me about remembering back to the beginning of that programme I was describing with the client, is that people were really fearful of coming together. People were scared, you know, the, the virus had taught us to be wary of big groups of people coming together. And when we first ran that event, there was some weariness about it. And it was still around, you know, COVID is still around. So, so people were wary. And then I just remember this explosion of energy when we got everybody together. It was like it blew everybody away. It was wonderful. So I think we forget how you know how contextual things are. And how weary people were. And how that might happen again, pray to God it doesn't, but it might. And so we constantly have to be recalibrating. And as you say, that's the the need of good leadership. And that's what we would talk about in our leadership programmes is to figure out how you calibrate that. And so you need a bit of self awareness in that as well don't you, then you can think about your own your own, you know, peccadilloes in order to be able to kind of manage that carefully for the people who you're responsible for.


Carolyn Norgate  27:25

Yeah. And how open are you to the experiment? What's your tolerance for that, not knowing? What's the organisational tolerance for not knowing. And and what's your, you know, your team's tolerance? Yeah, yeah, we've, we showed we had quite a high capacity. Yeah. But that went, but but the container was very clear in lockdown. There was something that all of that not knowing was in was within the very strong 'you are locked down'. It was, we were strongly contained. And so you take that off? And suddenly, it's all very loose. And it's all in some ways up to you, which is, you know, yeah. Why things get policy sized? Yes. Yeah. The guidance and policy, and it's, it's completely understandable. Yeah. But it doesn't necessarily solve it because as we said, it's not a solveable problem. 


James Traeger  28:18

Yeah, absolutely. There's something about and it, indeed, it was part of the work of that programme, and the work of us as Mayvin as well, is about leaders skill in ambiguity, dealing with ambiguity and being able to manage ambiguity. So that doesn't mean collapsing into it, and everything becomes unclear. But it means knowing how to separate, you know, the signal from the noise as they say they, okay, so this is what we can let stay soft for a moment. And then this is what we need to be clear on. So people feel held by the clarity, but they also don't feel sort of bludgeoned into control of things that don't necessarily need to be controlled. So that dealing with ambiguity, I think, is a key skill of leaders. Again, that's where I think the leadership programmes that we run, and indeed the other programmes, like the change capability programmes, are about how do you manage that ambiguity wisely? Yeah, I think I think about wisdom being a key skill for leaders.


Carolyn Norgate  29:33

Yeah and manage your own, you know, that can be anxiety provoking, not knowing, yeah. And other people's anxiety, even if you get some mastery around your own anxiety or some self awareness around it and realise the choices you have to you've still got others around you above you below. Yeah. It's which is why that story in that was an organisational wide programme. So I'm just going to say everyone working on that same in that same kind of Uber inquiry, and then their own individual inquiries together. Yeah. So yeah, helping really helping people think through and be at work with what's what's going on for me, but also having some generosity and compassion for what's going on. Yeah, in the wider system, and that there's some really deeply worn grooves. Yeah, and they won't change overnight. But, you know, in that kind of notion that, you know, organisations are groups of people who come together and in their, through their relationships, patterns form. So, through some choicefull ways in which you relate to others, some patterns might change.


James Traeger  30:44

And it's, it's interesting, because it changes the nature of learning, and what learning needs to be. Because, you know, Leadership Programme suggests beginning, middle and end, you know, you start off, you don't know, anything, you learn some stuff and at the end, you evaluate how much you've learned. And actually, what we're describing here is a process where learning needs to be continuous, because the context is always changing. Yeah. And I think the best leaders are ones who recognise that just because they've met a situation before, the similar, it doesn't mean, they know necessarily that the way they handle that one is the way that he's handle this one. Again, that flexibility, that ambiguity, I think is, you know, often lacking, particularly in larger organisations. And, you know, that's, again, something I think that we help organisations manage is that sense of how does learning be, can be continuous? I mean, there's been talking about lifelong learning for for decades, but actually, the actual understanding of learning still is pretty primitive in relation to that, I think,


Carolyn Norgate  31:57

Well, I think the practice having a practice based learning or leadership question that you talked about earlier, is, again, a double duty, because it's, it's holding it through the process of the programme. Yeah. And using that as a, as you developing your practice that's going to have most impact for your leadership, given where you are right now. But you're also learning the skill of leadership inquiry which is what then serves you to continue learning.


James Traeger  32:27

That's the skill. That is the skill of good leadership is to be able to inquire.


Carolyn Norgate  32:33

So it's a sort of, we almost Trojan horse it in.


James Traeger  32:37

Yeah. Particularly, where people's understanding of what learning is, is still quite traditional. So they need something that they feel familiar with, comfortable. And therefore that kind of helps them in to deal with it, because they're often very overloaded, overloaded with immediate problems that they have to solve.


Carolyn Norgate  32:57

You know, if you're concerned that your organisation doesn't feel creative enough, the energy isn't there, you're concerned about productivity, don't jump to the it must be the Office Home based. Yeah. There might be something in that. And you may have got stuck in some particular groups. But let's, you know, get underneath, you know, what is it that you're really concerned about? And, you know, maybe get some data, you know, we can help you start to understand what it is you're actually doing well, and what you might need more of, and how you might do that. What's the culture? What's the leadership development need? What's the what's the change process that you might need to go through? Yeah. And what's the kind of learning organizationally, that might help with that


James Traeger  33:51

and continuously? And I like the way you put it earlier, where there was something around, how do you create the containment that enables productivity, creativity, relationship innovation? And that's the question not how do we get people back in the office? Yeah, but how do we create the containment and so the office is part of that, but other structures that you use as leaders, part of how you create that sense of safety and trust, engagement, energy, and that our programmes are often about doing that and not talking about that, but doing that actually helping that happen.


Carolyn Norgate  34:29

Lovely. Well, give us a shout. Yeah. Yeah. And look forward to talking further about this with whoever wants to talk about it. Very good.


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