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Adjust to the new world of work

Consultants Alison Reynolds and Debbie Wayth share five practical ways to help your team while working from home during lockdown

SuccessionPlan

The role of a leader during this global pandemic is filled with dilemmas and tough decisions. Whole sectors will be affected, possibly for years to come, as a consequence of COVID-19, so there is a complex picture ahead. Leaders must somehow respond to the needs of multiple and diverse stakeholders in a context of high uncertainty.

What can they do to support their teams during this period of working from home? Here are five practical aspects to consider based on our experience of working with teams.

1. Learning our way through uncertainty

Most of us haven’t experienced this level of uncertainty in our lifetime. We may have team members furloughed, others doing the jobs of several, and most wondering what jobs will be left at the end of this. To help navigate this uncertainty, one approach is to recognise that this is about learning.

First, we have to unlearn well established habits and routines, let go of practices that have served us well, and open ourselves to experimenting with what might work better in these new circumstances. And it isn’t just relearning once. As things are changing each week in how we work and how we feel, so are expectations on us in our family environments as we learn how to juggle multiple roles. Facing this uncertainty in the spirit of learning, however, gives us space to reflect, adjust and try again.

We all respond to unpredictability differently. We have individual circumstances that shape our experience of this situation. One of the most powerful things you can do with your team is to honour people’s individual experiences. Collectively help each other to make sense of this time and how it feels as you experiment, unlearn and relearn.

For those looking to share their own learning process, ask yourself: what have you learned about yourself through this period? What has surprised you? What has been particularly hard, or easier than you had anticipated? Sharing your experience of learning as a team will help with letting go, sense-making and future-building, as well as strengthening the social fabric of your team.

2. Focus on shared accountability across the team rather than on individuals

Accountability across teams can be hard at the best of times. Are you still on track for year-end results? What has driven the drop/peak in sales? How are we managing our risks? Even understanding who is doing certain tasks can prove problematic in everyday organisational life. All of this is made more difficult when we work remotely. So, what can we do?

We need to loosen our grip on the primacy of individual accountability and hold accountability at a collective level across the team. This requires being clear on what’s needed from the team jointly, agreeing priorities together and getting out of the way to allow the team freedom to determine where the work is best held.

Give the team responsibility to manage themselves and hold each other to account for joint delivery. High anxiety can stoke our fears, leading us to depend more on ourselves or our trusted allies, but the complexity of this situation means leaders need to engage teams differently – to look outward, to push decision-making down and work to a greater extent collectively.

3. Shape your future through your decision-making

Most teams will be experiencing significant hardship and an uncertain future in the years to come. With decreased revenue comes tough choice. What do you and your organisation stand for when the chips are down?

The process of decision-making is as important as the decision itself. Decision-making is emotional and subject to biases and subconscious criteria. Your team will remember not just the outcome but how the decision was made. Who was involved in discussions and using what criteria?

Decision-making when working remotely risks becoming even more opaque but it is an opportunity to open up the process and revisit your shared purpose and values, debate the dilemmas this period brings, and share your philosophy.

When the stakes are high it is critical to pause and consider: what will we wish we had done differently when we look back on this time? Recent data from London Business School reinforces how important this is: when asked what outcome leaders would most value for their organisation as we emerge from the crisis, more than half (51%) of leaders cited “being known for having done the right thing”. Decisions during this period will form your personal and professional legacy for years to come.

4. Humanise the experience – we need meaning and connection

We have a need to feel valued and that our work has meaning. This period of home-working and uncertainty challenges our sense of self as we worry about the future and deal with the newness of the present.

There is a need for leaders to focus on what we can do together to continue to contribute to something important as we navigate the present and as we build toward whatever the new normal will be; to engender a healthier human workplace, more capable of sustaining. To help your team find their own meaning and connection during this time, leaders can do two things. First, ask (and ask again) rather than making assumptions about what people need. Second, be aware that this period of crisis increases the risk of unproductive patterns, bias and exclusion.

Working from home can exacerbate this by decreasing transparency. Be wise to who might be advantaged or disadvantaged during this period and in decisions about the future. Be aware of your own unconscious biases. Notice which voices are making it to the (virtual) room, and which are being heard.

Some patterns we see already:

  • Women are more likely to be managing and leading home-schooling/childcare.
  • Men are more likely to be able to work uninterrupted for longer periods.
  • Those who are furloughed are more likely to be junior.
  • Those who aren’t furloughed are working harder to cover those out of the business.

We have a duty to pay attention to these patterns and watch for where we might inadvertently perpetuate them.

5. Reframe success

We have to let go of the metrics we had for 2020. This is tough, but targets were one of the first casualties in this global pandemic. How will you redefine success for 2020 in a way that you will look back on with pride? Number of customers retained? Staff retention rates? Community outreach schemes?

For many organisations the future will look very different. Work with your team with your purpose at the fore and figure out what outcomes to aim for. Only then establish measures and targets.

We may not be able to flourish financially in such a time of crisis, but we must not lose sight of the need to do everything we can to flourish as humans. Aristotle wrote extensively on human flourishing and three things stand out as paramount: to pursue a fulfilling purpose; to utilise our abilities; and to take responsibility for our decisions.

Let’s do our part in helping our own (home and work) teams flourish.

About the author

Alison Reynolds and Debbie Wayth are consultants researching organisational issues at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. Alison is co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach About Being a Better Leader

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