The public health, economic and social upheaval we’ve experienced across the last year completely upended the way we work and live. Not only were leaders forced to pivot their businesses for survival, but the pandemic also created a radically different workplace context within which we now operate. As the economy begins to pick up steam and leaders move from crisis to growth mode, new leadership and innovation levels will be required to navigate these unchartered waters and drive new opportunities.
More than 90% of executives said in a McKinsey survey that they expect the pandemic to fundamentally change how they do business over the next five years, yet few felt equipped to face those challenges.
However, several leaders created a blueprint for leading through crisis and into the future of work. They did so by getting closer to their employees’ needs and creating what I call cultures of AIR (Agility, Innovation, and Resilience) as the foundation for their company’s growth.
Here are four important leadership lessons that will endure beyond the pandemic on building a sustainable organization even in greater uncertainty and continuous change.
1. Trust as the Basis for Agility
The first lesson is how the best companies changed the dynamic of trust to foster agility during the crisis. When the pandemic hit, while some companies immediately went into protection mode and worried about whether remote work would create considerable productivity losses, the best companies took a very different approach. As Amy Leschke-Kahle, VP of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company, stated in our interview, “what we learned from the pandemic was what we needed to learn for a long time.” She believes one of the biggest takeaways was the importance of employee trust, but we have been thinking about the dynamic of trust all wrong. While companies traditionally think about needing to build trust in employees over time, the pandemic turned that model upside down. The best companies did not think about building trust; they started with the trust bucket already full. Those companies communicated “we trust you” and treated their employees like grownups vs. the “show me you are trustworthy position” that many companies take.
People-Centered to Remain Agile
Christy Pambianchi, EVP and Chief Human Resources Officer for Verizon, which was named one of Gallup’s 2021 Exceptional Workplace Award Winners, similarly believes that the pandemic was a leadership reckoning because it was leaders, not employees, that were ultimately being tested. She says it was a test of how leaders would show up and that employees were watching closely. For Verizon, that meant leading with policies that demonstrated their people-centered approach to crisis management based on a few critical assumptions.
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The first was that since the pandemic quickly merged and blurred our work and personal lives, Pambianchi states that it was the whole human being and not just the “worker” that was showing up each day for work. Therefore, Verizon’s response had to address their employees’ total needs.
The second was that along with the pandemic, millions of families who relied on daycare and in-person schools for their kids suddenly lost this connector that held their work and family lives together. The crisis forced us to see just how critical and fragile this infrastructure was for women to remain in the workforce.
When schools closed, Verizon did not see the childcare crisis as a personal problem for their employees to solve independently. Instead, they viewed it as a societal problem that was their shared responsibility to solve along with their employees. Therefore, beyond pivoting to remote work, they created an elevated crisis response that was a bridge through the crisis and kept their employees in the workforce, including reimbursing employees for backup daycare programs and caregiver leave that mirrored short-term disability benefits.
2. Empowering Innovative Cultures
As difficult as the pandemic has been, it has provided a unique opportunity, born out of necessity, for companies to innovate. Leaders are now looking to bring that creativity into 2021 and beyond. According to Gallup, leaders should start by focusing on the employee experience.
Communication is Key
Strong internal communications play a crucial role in keeping employees informed and engaged, especially in uncertain times. During the pandemic, many leaders spoke more often and openly with staff than they ever had before. That transparency created an employee experience that got people through crisis and provided the basis for the kind of regular communication linked to strong employee engagement.
But even beyond transparent communications, managers and team leaders’ evolving roles will continue to be pivotal as we consider the future of work. According to Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular in their HBR article, in the face of rapid, disruptive change, companies realize that managers can’t be expected to have all the answers and command-and-control leadership is no longer viable. As a result, many firms are moving toward a coaching model where managers facilitate problem-solving and employees’ development by asking questions and offering support and guidance rather than giving orders and making judgments.
Yet, we know that the employee experience is not a good one because there is a lack of emphasis in teaching managers how to be effective coaches, and managers often think they’re coaching when they are managing.
In my interview with Joe Sullivan, General Manager of ADP talent activation, he stated that the best team leaders as coaches all know three things about their team members:
- They know what they are good at; their strengths.
- They know what they are working on because of their constant connection.
- And they know how they are feeling.
Given the current disconnect between the need for leaders to coach vs. their skills to coach, one tool that can help facilitate these critical conversations is StandOut Coaching Intelligence. The tool provides practical insights based on platform-generated intelligence to provide managers with customized suggestions and talking points they need for meaningful team member meetings. It gives team leaders real-time information based on each team member’s assessment of how their week has been, what they are working on, how they feel, and their strengths.
As we think about the future of the workplace, which is likely to be hybrid, this kind of coaching helps to bring some consistency to the quality of manager contact a team member receives regardless of whether they are virtual or in person. Because the technology puts the employee, not the manager, at the center by focusing on team members’ strengths and what they bring to the table instead of each manager’s subjective interpretation, this kind of tool might reduce unconscious bias when coaching diverse team members.
3. Building Organizational Resiliency
After nearly a full year of remote work and lockdowns, many employees feel anxious, stressed, and emotionally drained. Indeed recently reported that employee burnout has only gotten worse over the last year. More than half (52%) of workers feel burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened throughout the pandemic.
It’s no surprise then that 80% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey identified well-being as an important or very important priority for their organization’s success, making it the top-ranked trend for importance. Despite well-being as a top priority, many organizations miss the opportunity to integrate wellness into the design of their workflow. Building wellness into work takes an organization’s focus beyond individual self-care and into organizational care.
Microsoft Japan is an example of an organization experimenting with this integration by reducing its workweek from five days to four—with results that challenge the concern that well-being and productivity are at odds. In addition to shortening the workweek, Microsoft Japan changed some aspects of its people’s work, including limiting meetings to 30 minutes and five people.
Organizational care can help workers feel and perform at their best, strengthening the connection between wellness and organizational outcomes.
4. Courageous leadership is Fundamental
The final leadership lesson sits at the core of all of the other learnings. It’s a lesson we’ve always known because it is fundamental to the human condition. Leschke-Kahle summarizes it well when she says the best leaders ultimately create organizational norms that communicate, “I see you for all of you. I see you for the best of you.” It’s simple because it roots us in the most basic of things-our shared humanity. Yet it’s profound because as we emerge from the crises we’ve faced, it shines a light on how we can use this unique moment in history to lead ourselves, our companies, and our nation to the future.