How can operational leaders head off the UK’s post-pandemic productivity challenge?

By Chris Sheryn

Operational leaders face a challenge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as organisations battle to keep their productivity on track amid the upheaval of hybrid working. Aided by fast-evolving communication tech, some employees have shown they can function better at home than in the office. Even before the pandemic, the link between operational management and productivity had been established.

In today’s fluid working environment, operational leadership is more important than ever to head off the productivity challenge. So, our fourth and final article on post-COVID operations focuses on this leadership challenge.

Home and hybrid workers might be cracking through their routine and transactional tasks, but that isn’t the whole story when it comes to productivity. While the quantity of work is up for many, can the same be said for quality, and are organisations focusing enough on outcomes, not just output? As we discussed in our third article, with teams now dispersed, much of the interplay they depend on for creativity and innovation is missing.

With the help of our clients and our new research on leadership, we’ve looked at the difference leaders at all levels can and must make.

The years before the pandemic saw a move away from directive, command-and-control-style leadership towards a more collaborative approach that created the conditions for people to perform. Senior operational leaders themselves seem to understand; over eight out of ten leaders say that empowering teams to find better ways to innovate will be important in the next five years.

So how can they get it right?

Mix accountability and empowerment – and ditch micro-management

The pandemic threw many traditional leaders into a spin because they couldn’t see their teams. They had to learn to trust them. By contrast, leaders at ease with quietly enabling their people have thrived in the remote working environment. As one energy client told us: “Leaders have to become coaches more than managers.”

These leaders strike a balance. They make it clear who’s responsible for what, what the objectives are and what they expect from their people. But they also give them the freedom to deliver in their own way without constant checking. This balance – ensuring people work in the growth zone while also being supported – is working for a client in electronics manufacturing: “Clear accountability allows us to embed a sense of urgency without the traditional style of looking over the shoulder, pounding the desk and bringing people into the office.”

A transport client spoke of the need for a shift to new methods in the emerging virtual world: “There needs to be a different style online, being much better at listening rather than ‘we are here to make decisions, take action and give direction’. That style is much more prone to error now.”

This was echoed by a financial services leader: “We’re much more mindful that leaders cast a large and important shadow. There’s an opportunity for them to cater more for the development of their team.”

Focus on wellbeing

Modern leaders aren’t autocratic but empathetic. In the early phase of the pandemic, they came into their own as everyone scrambled to get their bearings. That time might now be past, but uncertainties around working arrangements are still very much with us. Inductions are just one example. New team members can go months or even years without meeting colleagues face to face, unless leaders intervene to bring everyone together.
Many of our clients have ultimately seen the value of a more empathetic and kinder approach. A nuclear client said: “At the outset, there was a lack of empathy from leaders towards others’ working situations. But we have gone through [the pandemic] and learnt from it.” But simply telling operational leaders to focus on wellbeing is rarely enough. In operations with science or engineering at their core, we’ve found that managers are often unaccustomed to managing such emotionally charged issues. Equipping managers with the time, competence and confidence to have conversations about wellbeing with teams as part of the natural rhythm of operations has proven to be invaluable.

Putting empathy centre-stage can also have a broader ripple effect on the whole culture, as another energy client reported: “Mental health has been massive for us and a real positive, both to company culture and changing general attitudes. It’s brought the leadership team closer together through shared concern for the workforce. There was a certain taboo around mental health before the pandemic, but it’s become much easier to talk about and it’s policy to have HR staff committed to it full time. The changes are here to stay.”

Find and fill your capability gaps

No organisation currently has all the answers, but they must at least ask the right questions to be able to spot where they can improve.

Investment Managers Brooks Macdonald realised they needed to be clear about what they expected of leaders amid a transformation that would see them switch a key client service from regional offices to a central function. Together with our partners ON-Brand, we worked with them to create a better approach to performance management by, among other things, casting leaders in the role of coach to help teams fill their capability gaps. This, in turn, meant coaching the leaders too. The result is that they’re clearer about how to create accountability and encourage teams to work together to make processes more efficient, cut backlogs and save £560,000 a year.

A client in defence manufacturing advocated a similar approach to building leaders’ capabilities: “Team leaders and middle managers need to keep evolving their skills. There are a lot of good ideas from the senior leadership team which now need to flow down through all levels of leadership to make sure they’re fit to be leading teams in the hybrid environment.”

Operational leaders we talked to for our leadership research suggested they’re willing to change – over three quarters said they were prepared to adapt their leadership style for the greater good. Almost the same proportion agreed they urgently had to change their leadership approach post-COVID. It’s now up to organisations to create the impetus for that to happen.

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