Listen to: COVID-19, our remote workplace and the human factor in leadership by Michael Devlin
The coronavirus has exposed what is working and what is not, as we adapt how we manage our teams and workplaces. What can leaders learn from the crisis? They don’t need a post-Covid transformation plan; they need a ‘listening plan’. Employees want to know their situation is understood.
The big bang that COVID-19 brought us is that, overnight, most of the planet was working remotely. At first glance this is a picture of new-found personal freedom, a more relaxed environment and, with no more commuting, a couple more hours of sleep a day. But a darker side has emerged for many through solitude, anxiety and the mental distress of being isolated behind a computer for months on end.
This article attempts to chart the ‘history of the present’ of workplace changes brought by COVID-19 – as seen through the eyes of a group of young professionals and mid-career leaders.
In today’s data-driven world, this account is unapologetically anecdotal. It is based on conversations with a group of current and future leaders who share their candid views and personal experiences and comment on leadership skills that are needed today, and in the post-Covid world of work. As they commented on personal experiences, it was agreed that all inputs will be anonymous.
On balance, the contributors see remote working as a positive development. Overnight, old habits of presenteeism and meetings-for-meetings-sake became irrelevant, as employers had no choice but to trust their team’s potential to self-manage. Generally, things are working out well, they say…if we can all stay motivated.
‘Motivation’ is probably the key word for the COVID-19 workplace dilemma. Our contributors feel that this needs to be the core strategy for leaders if they are to succeed in emerging from the crisis with inspired teams. The key to motivation, they advise, is to have more focus on the human factor in their management style.
Post-Covid? What will change? What won’t come back?
12 months ago, work-from-home policies allowed occasional time out of the office, and linked more flexibility to seniority – younger professionals needed to earn their managers’ trust. Today, after tasting the remote world for a year, this group says that their peers have little interest in returning to this workplace of the past.
“We were convinced that everyone needs to be physically together work effectively,” says our tech manager. “2020 has proved this wrong – our team is delivering well in a remote workplace.” He predicts that a full week in the office will be the exception as the world emerges from COVID-19 work styles.
Our contributors advise leaders that they will attract and retain the best talent, and earn the respect of staff, by creating a work environment that listens to peoples’ work-life preferences.
The group reflected on how they saw leaders responding to the COVID-19 workplace.
- One company assessed the situation in April 2020 and reacted decisively with the message: “plan to work from home until the end of the year, possibly longer… Tell us what do you need to work effectively from home.”
- Several organisations drastically shifted workplace policies. Two cancelled plans to move to new city centre offices, instead scaling back fixed office space and informing staff of a new policy: presence in the office will be on a rotating basis, maximum 2-3 days per week. A consulting practice has reduced the number of desks to less than the total staff number, with presence in the office not required. There are no personal desks, teams are empowered to “self-organise how they work and meet”, and there will be monthly face-to-face meetings and social events where staff presence is required.
- Other leaders sent mixed messages, delaying decisions and continually speaking of getting back to the office asap. Observations from some international agencies (EU, UN) saw that decisions took longer; the first discussions about appropriate office equipment at home came only after seven months of home working.
Onward…back to the ‘old normal’?
Our marketing professional sees that many leaders will return to the ‘old normal’ as soon as they can. In interactions with recruiters, she queried expectations for on-site working; many want everyone to return to full-time in the office. “Scanning the job market you can clearly see companies with flexible working policies. Three of four companies I spoke with recently are calling for staff to be back in the office as soon as is feasible. Looking at job descriptions posted on the web, many mention ‘back to office asap’? I don’t click on these offers.”
But we lost social interaction…
The 2020 remote work experience has revealed serious human relations issues. All those interviewed voiced concerns that the loss of face-to-face and social interactions are affecting the quality of professional exchanges and have a visible impact on some people’s mental health.
Our regional director worries that Zoom catch-ups cannot replace the dozens of informal interactions that make face-to-face work useful and productive: in the corridor, over lunch, coffee or a beer after work. He wonders how many potential killer innovations were lost in 2020, not finding their way onto a cocktail napkin sketch due to a lack of social interaction. Or opportunities missed because reduced social contact stopped the usual processes of bringing teams together, getting buy-in, smoothing disagreements or sparking new ideas. He feels that a reduced lack of social interaction puts a drag on innovation. “I miss the learning that comes for social interaction and spontaneous encounters,” he says.
The reality of anxiety, solitude and mental health
Stories of depression and mental health issues were cited in every conversation. Our marketing professional says that her global consultancy has several members in the team of 50 that have taken depression-related medical leave. The company now has coaches on-call to engage to speak with staff.
The contributors also mention the grind of endless Zoom/Webex/Skype calls, catch-up and group meetings. They see many colleagues working longer hours, taking fewer or no breaks and having days without going outside.
Our tech manager comments: “Humans are social animals. We thrive on personal and group contacts. I have a good social circle, so COVID-19 has not threatened my wellbeing. But many people in my network have been living alone for months; some with few contacts outside the office. COVID-19 forces us to look at ourselves differently. Last year, we had to quickly figure out how to work together under the new rules. We did that. But the real question is how do we get through the current crisis together – what kind of person do I want to be; how can we help each other?”
The human factor as a leadership strategy?
So, faced with this seismic shift, how many of our leaders see the situation as a routine problem to be managed, or as something else that requires them to address people’s deeper concerns?
Our contributors’ consensus is that credible leadership and building a resilient organisation are all about being closer to people’s feelings. “The human factor in leadership is not just nice to have. It’s what makes the difference,” says our tech manager.
Leaders don’t need a post-Covid transformation plan, says our start-up CEO, but a ‘listening plan’, where employees see that their concerns are important to leaders. “Smart leaders understand that they can motivate their teams with a work culture that fits peoples’ styles and family situations. If we are happier at work, this translates to higher satisfaction, staff retention and value for the organisation,” she says.
Our marketing professional’s consultancy was merged into a new global network last year, with a CEO many layers removed from regional staff. “I didn’t initially remember the new CEO’s name, but was touched by the human tone of his emails to all staff as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. This gives the impression that he cares about the team.”
Even if a leader is far from staff, she says, if they are armed with accurate data – and a heart – they can find ways to connect at a human level, responding to personal situations that colleagues are experiencing. “For example, empathising with young professionals working alone from home, or single mothers. It’s possible to have a personal connection through email,” she comments.
Our data services director says that for real results leaders need to gain people’s trust and go beyond the workplan and performance tracking. “I motivate my team with heart and passion. I am there for them, understanding and flexible. I invest a lot of energy to get to know each person. If people trust you and see your vision, they will be with you to build something bigger together. When the first crisis hits, our team stays together. Every leader can choose. Some prefer an authoritarian style…mine is enduring.”
The conclusion is clear. Leaders can expect a better ROI of this approach over ‘pragmatic’ command-and-control management. Given the choice….who would you rather work for?
Leadership for a better future:
This is one of a series of 13 practical articles on leadership written by the Future Work Forum (FWF) for the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), an accreditation body for business schools globally with a membership of 30,000 management professionals. Our partners have contributed to a special edition of their Global Focus magazine.
About the Future Work Forum:
The FWF exists to explore the working world of tomorrow. It is a think tank and network of highly skilled experts who share a passion to create a better, more humanised workplace, inspiring a new generation of leaders.