I thought it might be helpful to share a number of key findings from a recent return to work survey completed by my colleagues at PSA on behalf of a retail client. On the back of which I’ve done some further thinking about what happens next.
The key findings were:
- A majority were anxious about the return to work.
- 12% of staff admitted to having some form of mental health issue as a result of the lockdown.
- Most wanted to see a well-planned, safe return, within government guidelines.
- Most wanted the return to be ‘colleague led’ at a pace that suited individuals.
- Productivity in most areas had not been lost through home working.
- Most have enjoyed regular exercise, improved sleep patterns and not commuting, but miss socialising, the chance to have a surprise conversation and a social coffee.
- Most however wanted to keep some aspect of flexible working as a ‘new normal’ way of working – that included choosing when to work across the day to reconcile with caring responsibilities.
- Some have been concerned about commercial confidentiality and security whilst working from home.
- Finally, the term ‘return to work’ wasn’t well received as most said they didn’t stop working and a better description would be ‘return to office’.
For your information, a total of 233 questionnaire invitations were sent out with 215 being returned, achieving an impressive return rate of 92.27%.
As a consultant in leadership and management a few things in particular stood out for me, reinforced by anecdotal evidence from friends and clients. First, the ‘Return to Office’ will need to be as well managed and well led as the initial response to the crisis, it is not simply a return to ‘normal’. In fact, a return to the office working routines of the past is not what most people want. Instead, organisations are being asked by their employees to retain the best features of flexible home working, while ensuring that it remains productive, confidential and secure. And therein lies the challenge, but equally a great leadership opportunity. Let’s take them in turn: management, leadership and opportunity.
Management has always been the science of getting the right people in the right place at the right time, with the right kit to get the job done, but the caveat now is safely. Organisations need to reinforce their commitment to the well-being of their people, continuing to address physical, psychological, and financial concerns at the workplace and at home. They will need to support workers through the transition from the way things used to be to an uncertain and, as yet, blurred future.
No doubt many of you are already grappling with how to maintain social distance in all those open plan offices we so lovingly created – spaces between desks, screens, cubicles, one way circuits and so on. Ensuring safe workspaces for those coming to the office and flexible schedules will be a priority as workers also continue to care for children and elderly family members. But whatever you decide one of the stalwarts of great management remains – keep communicating. Organisations should communicate directly with their workforces on safety, business goals and new priorities, recognising that performance may take on a new meaning post-Covid-19.
The rule in a crisis is to communicate early and often, and this will continue to be important. Your people will want to know what is expected of them, but also what to expect in terms of when and how frequently they’ll receive information from you, as well as from your company’s leadership. So consider doing periodic small meetings and one-to-ones (virtually and face-to-face as the situation allows) to relay critical information and understand your individual team members’ most pressing issues. Your organisation may already have created a central forum or clearing house where employees can pose questions. If not, create one and encourage your employees to use it so that the information provided directly addresses their concerns.
Like all good communication, consider your audience first. Put yourself in their shoes and ask what you might want to hear, but remember everyone is different so also consider life from their particular perspective. And be honest, admit what you don’t know. Give people updates as soon as they become available and let people know that is what you will continue doing. Don’t be tempted to gloss over the bad news either. A desire to alleviate your team’s anxiety is understandable, but it won’t help in the long run. You’ll appear out of touch and you’ll lose their trust. Conversely, don’t share bad information, like layoffs or pay-cuts, until they are confirmed and you are given permission to do so. That’s how rumours start.
That can be hugely difficult of course, particularly if your immediate boss or upper management is responding in a way you disagree with. The trick is to find a place where you can agree and respectfully disagree. Say, for instance, your boss lays out a remote work policy that requires all employees to be online from 8am-5pm, but you believe in giving employees more flexibility in how and when they work. A solution might be to spell out the policy but add that you trust your people to use their best judgement.
Honest and frequent communication is key, but the broader question is how organisational risk will be managed in the future. A pandemic was apparently at the top of the National Risk Register, but there are varying views regarding how well the UK government actually responded. There is plenty of learning for organisations from Covid-19 to actively manage and prepare for other potential risks. Not least of which is that keeping risks actively managed with effective responses in place is about more than simply recognising them. With all the major risks we face, from the potential impacts of climate change to further terrorist attacks, questions regarding preparedness need to be continually assessed. Is your organisation ready for further future threats and challenges?
Of course none of that will be easy and none of it will be entirely predictable. The unexpected will happen and that’s why we will always require leadership.
If management is a science, then leadership is the art of doing what the science says is impossible. And as Alexander the Great apparently said, “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” But let’s face it, he died young from overwork (all that empire building), so be in doubt that good leadership takes effort, relentless effort. So, in the first place, this requires that you set aside time for yourself to think and recuperate. You’ve no doubt heard it before, but I’ll say it again – eat well, exercise, find time to relax and try to get enough sleep.
Reflection may be the most important step in a recovery process. Leaders need to dedicate time to reflect on what has worked and what has been less than satisfactory in the crisis response. Effective reflection also requires that you bring in a variety of perspectives from all levels on what comes next. As with most parts of the recovery process, reflection will not be easy, and it will require deliberate action from leaders to make the time for it on an ongoing basis.
There are two fundamental things you need to understand as a leader: your people and your tasks. The crisis has brought home like no other that change is complex and personal. Most people and organisations have been faced with the stark, but far from surprising truth that our lives are multi-dimensional: from health and well-being, to income shock and family responsibilities. And giving people the support they need requires empathy and understanding. Consider the personal change curve and try to assess where you and your team are right now, try to understand your personal change journey and those of your colleagues. Are you in shock, denial, anger, depression, or have you began to explore new possibilities and ways of doing things? The crucial thing is that this too will require transparent communication and candid conversations.
Now consider your tasks, efficient and effective task and project delivery is what you are paid to do. But rather than simply managing against pre-defined, pre-crisis criteria, there is a clear need to step back, to assess and redefine your projects against current organisational need. Let’s face it, the strategy you were working to in March may no longer be valid, and deciding which projects ought to stop, start and continue will enable organisations to navigate successfully through this new environment. Operational projects, are the key change activity of any organisation, and therefore key enablers for organisational change. Projects are a catalyst for innovation and adaptation. Not only will they enable organisational survival in the short term, but if well selected will ensure growth and opportunity in the future.
It’s also an opportunity to look at process. We have been talking about new ways of working, including virtual and home working, for some time, but what has struck me, (and always has) about leading in a virtual environment is that it is fundamentally no different than any other environment. Take out the word ‘virtual’ and it is still sound leadership and management advice. It is just more deliberate and goes back to basics: basics that one might suggest we too readily forget. Let’s take meetings as an example.
The advice for effective virtual meetings is broadly this: it’s important that everyone feels connected and included, so if you’re leading a meeting start by setting the ground rules. Ask everyone to turn off the notifications on their phones and to resist the temptation to multitask. Then, rather than going straight to your agenda items, spend the first five to ten minutes of the meeting checking in with people. Ask people how they are and make sure everyone has an opportunity to answer. In the meeting proper, start with whomever is the newest or most junior, or the person who usually speaks the least and let them have a voice (you might want to warn them first). And open up yourself, so that you’re modelling the behaviour you want to see – the humility to listen and change your opinions for example. Finally, when you’re wrapping up the meeting ensure that people are clear about decisions made and follow up actions. The list is not exhaustive, but is there anything in there that would be out of place in any meeting, virtual or otherwise? The context might be different but the rules of a good and productive meeting hold true in the real world as much as the virtual.
Opportunity and Strategic Leadership
Leaders should also remember Michael Porter’s advice in his classic article, What Is Strategy? “New [strategic] positions open up because of change…new needs emerge as societies evolve.” It’s more than likely that the shifts you are experiencing during the Covid-19 crisis will present opportunities for your organisation, and for you as a leader.
Crises like Covid-19 and the 2007-2008 financial crisis require us to change and often to let go of what used to be, we cannot simply assume or hope that things will return to the way they were pre-crisis and this leads us to consider the potential opportunities. Rather than resisting, preserving and maintaining we ought to be taking lessons from the current situation and adapting them for the future, but also creating, collaborating and supporting each other toward new possibilities and mind-sets. The challenge right now for leaders and the organisations they represent is to consider how best to handle the changes we face and embrace new ways of operating.
According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, an important cluster of activities, post-crisis, should be oriented to the longer-term future.
“How will it be different? What needs and opportunities suggest innovations that could be developed now? Which crisis responses are likely to become permanent modes of action? In the best turnarounds and disaster responses, leaders devote a portion of time to thinking beyond the crisis to transforming and innovating after the worse is over. They might assign dedicated teams to scan the environment, think “outside the building” beyond their current industry or sector, and develop models for the future. Or they might engage a range of employees and stakeholders in brainstorming about what is next.”
When you’re in the midst of a crisis it can be hard to think past your short-term response. But, as a leader, your primary focus needs to be on the long term. After all, it’s your job to lead your people into the best possible future. To be able to do that, you need to delegate. You need to trust your people to handle the immediate response. By all means provide them with support and guidance to make tough decisions, but your time should be dedicated to planning for the future. You need to anticipate the obstacles that will arise in the next weeks, months, and even years, and set course accordingly. If you can focus on what lies ahead, rather than what’s happening now, you, your team and your organisation are more likely to emerge from the crisis stronger than before.
As Johnson and Suskewicz observe:
“Vision is especially urgent during a crisis as global and systematic as this one. Inflections that you might have had five years to anticipate in a normal environment might unfold in a matter of weeks or months. Trend lines, such as those towards telecommuting, telemedicine, online shopping, and digital media consumption, are suddenly much steeper. Global supply chains are broken… Many of your B2B customers may be shut down; millions of consumers are out of work. Some of the fundamental assumptions underlying your current business model may have been (or may soon be) upended.”
In short, the business environment we were in a few months ago is very different from the one we are currently in and what it might be like a few years from now. Johnson and Suskewicz suggest a walk-back process for strategy development. Walking back from your envisioned future to today, while reverse engineering a series of benchmarks and milestones at regular intervals along the way. The advantage is that this allows you to begin with a clean-sheet about what you could become without being overly constrained by the way things are today. It also forces you to decide which investments should be given priority.
Whatever strategy defining methodology you choose, the point is to rally your team around your vision or purpose. They may have to make sacrifices, so you need them to believe in your ultimate view of a better future and that they can achieve it. While a business can succeed without having an explicit vision or mission, don’t forget there is a close association between a workforce’s sense of purpose and its productivity.
Many of the best leaders find opportunities to align, engage, and inspire their teams around a purpose, making them feel connected to the company’s mission and each other. One way to accomplish this is to regularly set aside time for team members to highlight and share wins delivered either to customers, each other, or to the business itself. And then connect them to company’s vision, mission, or values, reiterating the importance to the organisation and the essential role that everyone is playing.
To bring people together, you may also consider bringing some of your hard learned virtual team building approaches into the real world. Activities that were often seen as less essential before, such as virtual water coolers and coffee breaks, meditation or exercise groups, art sharing clubs, or team music performances. Whatever you have been using don’t necessarily abandon them now. A positive team dynamics is still important, if not more so as recovery activity ramps up.
As I said, none of this is new, but then what did you expect, some aspects of leadership and management are enduring. It just takes a crisis induced period of reflection to remind us what’s important and put us back on track. The context may change, but people are still people, with the same paradoxical fear of change and insatiable desire for what is new. The same insecurities and motivations we have always had. We all want leaders who can help us make sense of our changing circumstances, to tell us what to do when we are struggling to cope, to genuinely listen to our fears and mitigate what they can. But fundamentally, we want leaders who can describe a better future, guide us toward it and give us hope.
 Moss Kanter, R. Leading Your Team Past the Peak of a Crisis, HBR, pril 30, 2020.
 Johnson, M.W. and Suskewicz, J. Leaders Do You Have a Clear Vision for the Post-Crisis Future? https://hbr.org/2020/04/leaders-do-you-have-a-clear-vision-for-the-post-crisis-future