The post-Covid-19 leader needs these three skills to get on the front foot, argues Amarat Bal.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put business leaders to the test. Not only have leaders been required to operate under significant scrutiny and take extremely difficult decisions, the pandemic has also seen trust and credibility in leadership fall to all-time lows.
As we begin to transition to the hybrid working age, leaders will have a new set of challenges to contend with. The starting point for leaders will be the need to understand how to manage the uncertainty brought about by Covid-19 – from staff needing to self-isolate, to whole regions potentially being locked down again, to reconciling the tactical decisions made to get their organisations through the pandemic with their longer-term strategy and business objectives.
The post-Covid-19 era will be just as demanding on leaders. As we sail through these unchartered waters, this era will require the following new kinds of leadership styles and approaches.
1. Agility - the ground is always shifting
With 66% of people believing CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for governments to impose it (according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer), the challenge for leaders will be to make rapid and informed decisions amid uncertainty.
Leaders are more exposed now than they ever have been before. Gone are the days where leaders could make decisions from muscle memory and past experience. In this Black Swan world, leaders will need to take the time to listen to the mood music in their organisation, scan the horizon, and stay attuned to any murmurs of discontent. These leaders also accept that they don’t have all the answers and instead use the power of their teams, encouraging experimentation to co-create the right solutions.
2. A human approach to staff - put people first
Leadership, more than ever, is about creating the conditions in which your people can thrive and perform at their best. It’s about empowering your people, making them feel valued, equipping them with what they need and supporting their wellbeing. For instance, Mark Aslett of Mercury Systems became the highest rated CEO during the pandemic, after funding a $1 million employee COVID-19 relief fund.
Aslett insisted on “taking a human-centric approach” and saw his company revenue increase by a massive 22% as a result.
The majority of people wish to maintain the choice, autonomy and flexibility that the pandemic allowed. Yet as organisations announce their return to work policies, employees are seeing themselves being stripped of their new found autonomy and flexibility. This is incredibly disempowering for employees and only serves to build employee resentment.
Apple employees, for instance, have already railed against their new hybrid working policy of three days in the office, with employees stating that the model has forced colleagues to quit, with many others feeling they will need to choose between their families, wellbeing, or being empowered to do their best at work.
As we step into the hybrid working era, leaders will need to deal with the impact of the trend towards greater flexibility and remote working, finding solutions to ensure employees maintain a sense of autonomy and choice over their work, as well as navigate people’s understandable nervousness about returning to the office.
Addressing organisational biases towards working from home is certainly one way that leaders can achieve this. While offering and having flexible working policies is great, if bias towards the office and a culture of presenteeism creep back in, employees will not only feel pressured to return to the office (ironically presenteeism is associated with stress-related absence), but it will also see those who choose to continue working from home at a severe disadvantage. Research has shown, for instance, that men are more likely to favour a full return to the office, compared to women, and that the promotion rate of remote workers fell by 50%, in spite of better performance and increased job satisfaction.
Leaders then need to be aware of their own biases towards different ways of working, role-modelling the right behaviours to break the culture of presenteeism, while also taking accountability for re-assessing how current policies and processes will disadvantage certain types of workers.
3. The ability to build inclusive and connected hybrid teams
One of the biggest demands on leaders will be to manage the way remote working has changed how teams communicate, collaborate, innovate and build relationships with each other. The post pandemic world will see teams, for the first time, being truly split across both virtual and physical spaces, across different locations and even across different organisations. That will make it harder to build inclusive and connected teams, potentially increasing feelings of disconnection and lower job satisfaction.
In response, leaders need to ensure they truly understand what individuals need from the team – be it connection, support, communication, innovation, or building situational awareness.
Leaders need to create and facilitate deliberate opportunities to ensure these needs are being met. This could be as simple as leaders doing things differently for office and remote workers, such as how they onboard a new joiner to the team. It could be using technology to mimic physical workplace interactions, such as coffee roulette which identifies workers with little connection to the team and encourages chance interactions. It could be a more radical review of the purpose of the virtual space and the physical space. Dropbox, for instance, has changed its offices into spaces only intended for collaboration, training, teambuilding and meetings.
As we emerge from a post pandemic world, leaders can no longer hide from these decisions and attempt to ride out the wave. By thinking differently, listening to their people and using the different tools and technologies at their disposal, leaders can take this opportunity to proactively shape their ways of working and culture and lead their organisations in a brighter and more positive future of work.