Genevieve Marjoribanks, Head of Policy, explores the impacts of leadership in the face of a pandemic and the way forward

15/06/2021

Thought-leadership

What does a successful leader look like in a hybrid world? How do we set an approach and tone that people will want to follow through good times and bad, from home and in the office?

Leadership through the pandemic has been exciting and hard. It was a true test of the ability of leaders to keep their businesses running and their teams motivated. While many have not made it through the crisis due to real economic hardship, those who were able to keep going face a new world of challenges.

There is a lot of speculation about what the ‘return to the workplace’ will look like. Some are suggesting that for office based workers, there will be a complete return to the pre-pandemic status quo of five days in the office (see BBC report on Centre for Cities predictions). These predictions fail to understand the seismic changes to the psyche of the workforce, they fail to recognise the benefits of a hybrid model combining working from home and the office particularly for those who have long commutes, disabilities, or childcare responsibilities.

The Western workplace model has been based on the post-World War Two approach where everyone had to be present and seen to be legitimate, often in a take-no-prisoners environment, with slight dents being made over the years as more women and minority groups have slowly started to become part of the public world. Why would anyone want to return to that model? It doesn’t generate best outcomes and profits don’t come from presenteeism. A content and motivated workforce is a highly performing workforce; this can be achieved from a hybrid model of working from home and office-based interactions if done well.

But as we move into this hybrid world, a new style of leadership is required. What needs to change? Some, like me, have often relied on their physical presence to motivate people by creating an energy through the way they engage with team members. I make a point of ‘walking the floor’ to speak with all members of my team and get to know them on a more personal level, I call on more junior members to express their views, I lead and support my people when they are fronting up to board meetings and taking decisions that will have an impact on businesses and consumers. I step in when people are spoken over so that those with quieter voices are heard. All of this builds into a leadership style where people know I have their backs and am consistent in my decision-making approach and manner, but it relies on me being in the room and responding to interactions.

During the crisis, when I couldn’t walk into a room and set the tone, I had to rely on people knowing my style from pre-pandemic days. While I still called on junior team members and made sure that people were heard. Interactions online meant that conversations were often directed solely at the most senior person on the call and interjections were hard for people to make. This was exhausting for the most senior person and dispiriting for the junior person who had done all the hard work and couldn’t make their voice heard, even with the ‘hands-up’ function.

Studies have shown (cited in The Guardian) that when working from home many people have tended to increase their hours, and it is hard to pull people back from that point even if one is explicit that they are not to go beyond their core hours every day. The old stand-by methods of speaking to people over a coffee to set them back on the right path, calling a whole of division meeting so that people can see your body language and hear the truth from the leader directly, and setting a tone through presence and example are no longer the tools we can rely on.

So, what does strong leadership look like now? All good leaders take the time to reflect on their styles and take the time to lead their people, rather than just transact. I think the answer to how we approach leadership is to take the thing we tell ourselves we don’t have: more time.

We need to spend more time speaking with people in an informal way to gain their trust and respect either in person or online and not just with our senior direct reports. When in the office we need to be visible and inclusive in meetings with those who are working from home. We should spend more time stating our leadership ethos, reminding people of our purpose and why their work matters: repeat it more often than we would have in the past. People need to hear these messages both in person and online when at their office desk and at home, and so that they remember those messages in both contexts. We need to boost the energy we express when working from home ourselves – people can still read some body language over the screen, but subtlety can be lost and mistaken for apathy. We need to lead by example.

Above all, leaders need to put in place a series of checks that mean they keep an eye on all of their flock so that no one is left behind in the new form of working. We will need to adapt and flex our styles over the coming year as we learn from mistakes and improve on our approaches. This will take time, and that’s OK, as long as we take our people on the journey with us.