Leadership in the Post-COVID World
Published: Mar 26, 2021
BY CYNDI WINEINGER
Our journey of leading through COVID-19 has been a case study in change management. We’ve seen our teams all go to their most primary responses.
When humans are confronted with change, we move quickly to self-protection. The brain rapidly sends out the signal to its “team” of chemicals to alert it that something unexpected is happening. The chemicals begin to kick into gear without much conscious thought by the owner of this brain. We then go to our preferred stance in the fight-flight-freeze response and hunker down until we know if we are safe or in danger. I think of the birds in my yard. When a hawk comes near, all the birds will quickly chirp alerts to their family and friends, only to go completely silent a few seconds later. We might say that even a bird brain knows how to detect that change can mean danger.
During the pandemic, we’ve been forced into self-protection mode. I asked a team to list with me all the changes they had experienced this last year. From feeling isolated and eating at home to being clumsy drivers and commanding new social technology skills, the list was extensive.
PREDICTING WHAT HAPPENS IN YEAR TWO AND BEYOND
As we enter into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have adjusted our daily habits and left the alert phase. But what lies ahead for us in our work patterns? Will employers require nonessential workers to come back to an office? Will employees require ongoing flexibility? Will we stay virtual? Be hybrid?
Only time will tell, but if any of us had to guess, we would certainly plan on some hybrid scenario for most companies. The self-protecting brains of our team members have become accustomed to the new normal. We humans don’t like to be given freedom and then have it revoked.
Remote work provides freedom, but it is a juxtaposition of easy and hard. While it’s easy to make it from the bed to the computer, it’s hard to manage the needs of family and deal with a lack of appropriate workspace. Remote work makes it easy to save money and time on gas and the commute, but for many people isolated in their home offices, it’s hard to self-manage, connect, and build relationships.
WHAT THE DATA IS TELLING US
As with all things in life, many people will want both worlds: the ability to see others and connect, but also the option of being able to throw a load of laundry in, have peace and quiet from the office drop-ins, and stay focused without distractions. Companies will be forced to be agile in managing the output of this work system.
According to a Pew Research report from December 2020, a majority of workers are saying they don’t want to go back to the office full time. It is important to see that number in context. Pew experts say 20% of workers worked from home before the outbreak, 71% are currently working from home, and 54% would want to work from home after it is safe to return to work.
Pew also reports that there is a significant difference in who does the type of work that can be done from home. Of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education, 62% say their work can be done from home, while only 23% without a four-year degree can do their work from home. The research also shows who is having the most difficulties with remote work: Those under 50 are missing the connections to others, and working moms are struggling to manage having children at home.
COMPANIES NEED NEW STRATEGIES FOR PHYSICAL SPACE
Leaders of organizations will be called on to set policies and procedures to ensure maximized performance. They will need to establish clear expectations about what should be the specific output from employees and to broaden their thinking about how work can appropriately get done. This will require clear directives and policies about not only what work people accomplish but also where they get the work done.
Companies have been facing these changes for longer than COVID-19 has been with us—the pandemic just accelerated the discussion. Businesses will need to continue to navigate this ever-changing world and provide consistent guidelines. As an example, I have a friend and colleague working for a large international organization who was just given the choice between working from home or the office. If her choice is to work at home, she can reserve in-office space through a hotel-like system to use as needed. Plus, there is a lucrative $2,500 initial bonus to set up her home office. Her organization ran the numbers and realized the savings to it for not keeping an office for her or others who chose not to return.
I have another friend who has been told he can work anytime from anywhere as long as all objectives are completed. He is enjoying a workday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and admits that he often works well past 8 p.m. because he is motivated and more productive on this new time frame.
Another colleague remembers when his company gave everyone a choice about eight years ago. He told me that many people opted for the work-from-home choice because they did not want to keep regimented office hours. But then it became a normal pattern for remote workers to come to the office early each day to commandeer their same desk space. Apparently, the company got smart to it and only provided standing desks on rollers, requiring that workers keep these desks occupied while at the office. He said employees nicknamed the desk the “puppies” because they had to be walked to every meeting. Ultimately, the company learned just how much people need freedom and connection.
We also can’t forget there are people who need to come into the office and work in a common space—customer interface, logistics, and manufacturing, among others. We certainly will see more job descriptions that include a clear alignment of in-office, optional workspace, hybrid, remote, or really remote. Hello, Costa Rica!
LEADING FOR MAXIMIZED PERFORMANCE
Regardless of the location for any team member, it is important that we revisit the basics of our field—talent maximization through management and leadership. We will be challenged to adapt our leadership styles from the convenience of physical proximity and oversight to having performance measurements be our true measure of success. It will require us to rethink how we build relationships and inspire the work of our people.
We must go back to the very basics of employment—work for pay. What work have I assigned this person? Is it clear how they can succeed? Are they motivated to learn in defined areas of their knowledge and ability gaps? Have they delivered the defined results?
If the manager can’t physically see a team member doing their work, can the team member be engaged enough to lean in and ask for help because they trust the leader and are inspired to succeed?
While management is the oldest profession in the book, humans are inarguably consistent in why we work. Reward is key. While this obviously includes financial gain, it also encompasses much more. Does the employee feel celebrated? Can they be recognized for accomplishing this work? Can the work they do be maximized in conjunction with this team or company, or under this manager/leader? Managers will need to get much better at celebrating wins.
Having a sense of meaning touches our innermost human needs. Clearly, we need to have safety and security to reach for meaning. But we all want to see a bigger picture in what we do. Vince Lombardi reportedly gave his team and support staff the same speech each year: “This is a football.” He was reminding everyone that their job was to get that piece of pigskin across the goal line. To him, whether the person was in charge of the water bottles or was the quarterback, they had meaning in that game.
Leaders need to look at employee engagement. Do their employees feel connected to this work? Do they feel that they have a part of the success of the team? Are they excited about their contribution? In a hybrid work world, there is no way a manager is going to be able to see what is happening with people. Team members will need to be engaged with one another and trained to give feedback at all times. Teammates will have to step up to play mentor and coach roles with the desire to spur one another on in growth and accomplishment. Feedback cannot only come from a level above. Teams must be fully equipped to understand with clarity what the members do, how they are interdependent, and how they can safely and effectively give one another feedback.
Leaders must also keep in mind the importance of maintaining relationships. Studies have measured our need for casual interactions each day. We innately understand that the small interactions we have with our manager/leader or with others on the team reinforce our belonging and security. After any disagreement or reprimand, we look for those small touchpoints to reestablish our safety. Remote working makes this very challenging. We will need to encourage friendships and connections with others. People don’t just quit bosses. They leave when they don’t feel like they have close relationships at work.
THE NEW LEADERSHIP FOR A NEW WORLD
Cynthia McCauley and Charles Palus at the Center for Creative Leadership, in their 2020 essay “Developing the Theory and Practice of Leadership Development: A Relational View,” do an excellent job summing up what lies ahead for us: “Among the most disruptive ideas that could drive a leap in leadership development is that ‘leaders are not the fundamental source of leadership, but that leadership is an emergent property of interactions among people working together.’” This perspective is described by the authors as a “relational view of leadership.” This view democratizes leadership, making them active participants in leadership and not “containers” of leadership. The focus of leadership development is then not on the individual leaders, but on the team, work groups, and organization.
According to this definition, management needs to be a conduit of people working together effectively. The best leaders will be able to choose inspiration over authority in supporting their people. They will be connectors and coaches who measure output in order to support and celebrate team members. They will be masters at selecting the right player for the right role and then openly planning for how the person can grow.
WHAT IS REQUIRED OF YOU?
As the leader in your organization, you will need to teach the basics of communication, with self-awareness, listening skills, empowered conversations, high-performance team dynamics, and reading body language being mandatory. Managers trained to give feedback based on organizational values will be able to train people to make their own decisions. Teaching team members to give peer-to-peer feedback will be necessary. Managers must operate as coaches who want to support the stated goals of the team member. Conversational feedback on a weekly or biweekly basis, whether called out as a one-to-one discussion or just a caring connection, will normalize feedback loops. Lastly, team members will need a clear understanding that if you can’t see their work, you can’t offer feedback. They will need to seek you out for coaching and support.
My prediction? The opportunities are thrilling. The pandemic and the remote work it has engendered do have a silver lining for managers—they can hand back the excitement of a job to the employee and become leaders of their success, not managers of their time, energy, and work product.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cyndi Wineinger is a leadership and talent management consultant based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. She works with organizations to align strategy, leadership, and teams in accomplishing outcomes. As a master certified professional coach, certified life coach, neuro-linguistic professional coach, Prosci change management consultant, and Birkman consultant, she serves mid-range companies.