06:00: The alarm rings, and I grab my phone. It’s my routine. Turning the alarm off, I check if there are any updates on the current situation—something I’ve done every day for the last year. After a year of the pandemic, I’m not really so interested in the early morning news anymore. It’ll soon be plastered across all media outlets anyway, so why start off the day on a sour note when I can just wait until the evening news? Leading a team, I have to be well-informed as employees want someone who is on top of their game and can lead the way through difficult times.
It only tends to be in more sentimental moments that we look back to the good old days. The virus has taken me back to my childhood some 50 years ago when I had long hair and a curfew from 8 pm. It’s certainly one of the more light-hearted sides of the pandemic.
What has been slightly more worrisome is the impact of the crisis on leadership, which has changed beyond recognition since last year. Every single one of us is handling it differently—there’s been worry, hardship, uncertainty, fear, panic, coolness and indifference. Idleness, helplessness, courage, demotivation and anger. There have also been a fair few know-it-alls and people with some more unconventional ideas. All emotions have had a look in because every single one of us behaves differently, but that’s how it should be! There’s been no blanket euphoria like we saw at the 2014 Word Cup, which makes life for a leader a lot easier. If people are in a good mood, they are motivated.
People used to spend their mornings thinking about which one of their colleagues they wanted to meet with as soon as they got to the office. There were impromptu chats in the stairwell and kitchens, thoughts about who to have lunch with and who would be coming with me to visit customers. And now? There’s no more quickly popping over to this person’s desk, no lunches with colleagues and no discussions on the way to the customer. Communication has changed over the last year.
IT should mean that this isn’t an issue. Video is the key. In other words, Collaboration. You try and get in touch with colleagues or customers via Teams, but they are busy. Try again 15 minutes later and they’re still busy. Never mind. There’s always tomorrow. But by the time tomorrow comes, you’ve probably forgotten what you wanted to say, It’ll be better to send an e-mail or text because it’ll be seen immediately. When an answer finally comes a few days later, it’s clear how time flies. There are still a large numbers of employees I can reach via Teams, but the list of those I want to check in on is getting longer and longer. These extensive video sessions are making us go square-eyed just as our mothers warned they would and I’m starting to feel like a vidiot. Appointments can take place at the click of a mouse across large distances, and that is the silver lining to the COVID cloud—online meetings are far more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Having said that, do you remember how easy it was to get an answer to a question if you met someone in the corridor, at lunch or in the kitchen? Or how relaxing and entertaining the drive to the customer’s site was? Nowadays, eight-hour video call marathons are part and parcel of the working day. Is my team experiencing the same issues? Is this even in any way efficient?
Changes to how we communicate are essential. Constantly introducing new tools which require employees to be trained in them is counter-productive, because for some, the whole home office experience is overwhelming enough. But simply implementing new tools without first providing some kind of instruction on how to use them is also ineffective.
How is my team getting on? Are they having any problems? Are there any issues I don’t know about now that the office grapevine is out of action? How can I make sure my employees feel like they are working for a company and not just a virtual conglomerate? It’s almost impossible to answer any of these questions without being able to actively approach employees. Which brings me back to the list of people I wanted to check in on. The ever growing list! Is it ok just to give them a call or will they think I’m checking up on them?
There have been so many questions which could only be answered as time went on, but they were then replaced by a raft of new unanswered questions. After a some time has passed, does it really matter who you are working for when you turn the computer on in the morning? Has loyalty become a thing of the past? How can I ensure from a distance that employees still feel connected to the company? Given that dissatisfied workers often quit their jobs because they are unhappy with their leaders, maybe the better question is how I ensure employees feel connected to me.
In short: New Work waits for no leader. We need to master digital work processes to be able to set a good example because without them, the future holds only failure. Even when the pandemic is over, digital working practices are set to stay. In sales in particular, there’s going to have to be a rethink. How can I best reach my customer virtually? How do a gain a customer’s trust through a computer screen? Is it possible to appear empathetic online? What about demonstrating the benefits of a product or service? Again, a mountain of questions we as leaders have to answer. Working together remotely. It sounds like a paradox. Remote and together? Is that even possible? Of course, but only when we change the way we work.
Leadership is moving closer towards being a role model, connecting people and coaching them. Success and targets still need to be measured, but this is only possible when we as leaders collaborate well with our employees, actively contribute to their success and convey a sense of security no matter where they are. There should never be a case of out of sight, out of mind. Even when apart, people should feel close.
The new style of leadership means paying more attention to ensuring that employees are not constantly sat in front of their PCs. Many things can be discussed during a walk which is as good for the soul as it is the eyes. So, why not encourage employees to get up and moving? Success isn’t inextricably linked to working at a desk and customers also like to stretch their legs. It’s much easier to tick to social distancing rules while out in the fresh air and that combined with physical activity can boost efficiency. Do we always need to video call? Sticking in the headphones and discussing matters over the phone while wondering through the woods is bound to produce the same results as you can just as easily listen while walking. Hasn’t the company doctor always said we need to incorporate more movement into our working days?
When it comes to New Work, we need to walk the walk as much as we talk the talk. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how success is born. It’s only important that we succeed. If things don’t work like they used to, we have to try a different way. One thing is very important. We need to realise that nothing will ever quite be the same again, but we shouldn’t feel uneasy about that. Both Heraclitus and Darwin knew it—the only thing that is constant is change.
Leadership today is about being by your team’s side, being a mentor and providing security despite ongoing changes and there are uncountable ways of doing so. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every one of us behaves differently and that has to be respected—even more so in these unprecedented times.
Everyone needs to find their own way and that’s what is most interesting about being a leader and crises can only make it more so.