Welcome to the summer of 2021. It has been quite a few months. Who would have thought a year ago that it would take so long to evolve into the new normal that we longed for in the spring of 2020?
Since a vaccine for Covid-19 was developed, a worldwide programme to immunise everyone has gathered pace. We are tracking and managing localised outbreaks, and treatments for the virus are much more effective. Cities have opened up and freedoms are returned. Offices have reopened, large weddings have finally been rescheduled, families are reunited, and international airports are buzzing with business people and holiday makers alike.
Leadership has changed too. Remember those pre-Coronavirus days when company executives would demand that employees came into an office so that they could be told what to do? For many workers, this already seems a lifetime ago. The seeds of less hierarchical leadership had been sown before the pandemic took hold, but like the adoption of technology we were forced into a different way of working, where leaders become more human and had to trust that employees did the right thing when working remotely.
But for many leaders, this transition has been far from simple, and the shift from traditional to modern ways of working continued to create a paradox. “Now that it’s safe to be in an office, should I expect people to come in” one leader asked us? “Do I trust that people will get more done working from home, or will they benefit from the social interaction of an office? How do I know that they are putting in the hours?” Another executive has been considering their leadership style “It seemed ok to dress in casual clothes and be very open and honest with people in the midst of the pandemic. Will reverting to a more formal approach now create a new sense of professionalism…or am I simply hiding behind a corporate veneer”? Another simply asked us “is Zoom a force for good, or is it beginning to hinder our operations?”
When we spoke to leaders back in the spring of 2020, they predicted that this forced change in the environment would change their leadership in six ways:
1. They will become role models for flexible working. The days of cramming on a crowded bus or train to be in the office between 9am and 5pm will be long gone! Office space will be reduced and everyone will simply come together occasionally for team events.
2. They will encourage empowerment and a sense of autonomy among employees, trusting people to focus on outcomes rather than tasks to complete their work. The myriad of meetings and actions that used to fill diaries and which give people a sense of importance will no longer be the focus. Leaders will encourage employees that are closest to their customers to become problem solvers.
3. Managers will take more time to understand team members as individuals, which will include a focus on health and wellbeing. The pandemic has encouraged people to connect at a much more human level and people have valued that.
4. Leaders will ensure that they are listening to employees who are still returning to the workplace. Many people were fearful of returning quickly, especially if they were in close contact with vulnerable individuals. Furloughed employees will be welcomed back by leaders and colleagues alike.
5. Leadership styles will have changed. Being authentic, humble and vulnerable has enabled leaders to connect in different ways. In many respects, the last year has been a great leveller. Leaders are more comfortable communicating and involving people in an honest conversation, even if it’s not good news or when they don’t know all the answers.
6. The roles of leaders will change as organisations continue to pivot in response to new ways of working. Technology will accelerate this. Leaders will ensure that the purpose and values of their organisations remain at their core resulting in engaged and inspired stakeholders.
One year on, with the heat of the 2021 summer upon us, how realistic were those predictions?
In many respects the leaders that we spoke to were correct. Out of the ashes of a global health tragedy, new ways of working have emerged that have benefitted employees and organisations. Home working is now an accepted norm and employees are increasingly valued for their innovation, creativity and value they bring to their business. Presenteeism has become a thing of the past.
As a result, in general, workers have become more motivated and employee engagement surveys show a marked increase in scores for questions relating to a ‘sense of purpose’ and ‘my manager gets the best out of me’. And consumers are voting with their feet, opting to do business with local organisations who treat their workers with respect and were there for them during the dark early days of the pandemic.
The one prediction that was perhaps underestimated was the pace of technological acceleration. EdTech has caught on and professional development is on the rise, aided by artificial intelligence (AI) which furnished employees with relevant learning at the right time. Wellbeing in the workplace is facilitated by wearable health-tracking devices, provided at no cost by most organisations. This data is facilitating a more streamlined health care system. Customer insight is provided by real time analytics intelligence, enabling a more informed and proactive approach to providing relevant products and service. Leaders have needed to hire employees with different skills and encourage innovation among existing employees to keep pace, as well as being open to new ways of working themselves.
In organisations large and small, Coronavirus has made unprecedented demands on leaders. Many have faced the crisis with determination, courage and humility. Customers, employees and other stakeholders have noticed.
What are your predictions for our world in a year’s time? What will leaders have learnt from the pandemic?
Thanks to Larraine Solomon for taking the lead on this article and to all the other leaders we spoke to who contributed their thoughts.