Leading in a post-COVID world

On March 23rd 2020, the UK formally entered a period of lockdown as part of COVID-19 management and prevention measures. However, many organisations and individuals made their own decisions weeks earlier, either relocating people to their homes from offices, or – when the scheme was announced – placing staff on furlough if unable to work from home, or a combination of these measures. As restrictions were lifted, those who couldn’t operate remotely have been steadily returning to workplaces, and Downing Street encouraged others to return to offices from August 1st. However, employers and organisations have once again been making their own decisions, based on what’s right for their business and people and – increasingly – a new understanding of what may be both possible and desirable.

Image by Miguel á Padriñán (Pexels)

As we approach five months of a changed way of life, discussions on the long-term picture are happening everywhere. Stories from our clients are variations on a theme and include:

• a large organisation not contemplating a return to office working until 2021
• a client rethinking estates strategy due to only two dozen of two thousand staff needing to be office-based
• another cancelling their decision to move to a larger location
• another still reducing office footprint to accommodate pre-booked hotdesking and meeting rooms only.

Without doubt, change is coming and the BBC has released this animation showing what some people think the future of office work could look like.

Whatever unfolds in the next months and years, it is reasonable to surmise that there will be a sustained shift in approach to work, starting now, with organisations compelled to make accelerated changes in ways of working to match and leverage the abilities of existing technology. However, long-term success in remote working is about so much more than a location change, a laptop, and an internet connection. Behaviour, culture, and leadership all come under the spotlight.

So, what does it really mean to lead and manage effectively and with purpose in a virtual world? Below are some key points distilled from many different conversations across the Cadence team and with our clients:

• Presenteeism is a thing of the past. What matters is delivery and achievement of outcomes, and these are what need to be managed
• Trust takes centre stage. In the absence of physical proximity, mutual trust is the basis on which people are working. When you see it in action, it’s really impactful and empowering.
• People are meeting and getting together less often, and the visual cues and office conversations are not available. So, leaders really do have to lead. This means absolute clarity of vision and strategy, clear and frequent updates and information, routes for mutual communication and more. Leaders have a responsibility for creating invisible links and ties to help keep people connected
• Pastoral care matters. Social isolation – even just when working at home – affects people in different ways. Whilst a good number of people will find it suits them better, others will struggle without contact. Understanding needs and preferences is just as important as it ever was
• There is a chance to bring about culture change deliberately: it will be happening regardless, so it’s as well to get ahead of it. Internal politics and power bases may shift in the absence of normal contact, and leaders and OD practitioners need to be attuned to what’s happening and find different ways to understand the landscape. Right now, to place Lewin’s lens on things, organisations could be said to be in an ‘unfrozen’ state* where change is possible. They will ‘refreeze’ eventually, and it is for leaders to determine the new state they want. It’s an opportunity that rarely comes around.

As consultants, we see many organisations that – deliberately or otherwise – perpetuate an embedded parent-child dynamic**, between leaders/managers and others. In the simplest terms, this is where one (smaller) set of people – ‘adults’- hold the formal power, which is usually exercised either in a nurturing or in critical way. Others, the ‘children’, are often in an adaptive state, either seeking approval or rebelling against whatever forces they may feel. This can be unwittingly exacerbated by so many different aspects of the operating model from office layout to governance, performance management, IT policy, organisational structure and even language habits. Often, this is so entrenched as the norm, it can seem as if there is little realistic hope for change.

A much healthier, and usually more productive state, is where an organisation practices and reinforces an adult-adult dynamic, embracing the twin pillars of freedom and responsibility, with behavioural expectations that apply across the board. This can be hard to implement in situ, as so many aspects of the way an organisation works would have to be redesigned and re-embedded. However, in the post-COVID world, where so much change has been enforced, it may become a necessity.

To talk further about how your organisation can adapt and thrive in a changing world, please get in touch on challenge.us@cadenceinnova.com

* Lewin, K. (1947) Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; equilibrium and social change. Human Relations 1(1): 5–41.
** Berne, E. (reprinted 2015) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry. Martino Fine Books

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