Why Covid-19 is the best thing ever to happen to management

Written by Jo Owen CMgr CCMI Tuesday 12 October 2021
The pandemic may have been the worst of times for many people personally, but could it be a real positive for management?
Business coworkers elbow bumping while wearing protective face masks

The pandemic has been the best thing to happen to leadership and management for 200 years – since modern management started with the Industrial Revolution. We discovered three things during the pandemic, all of which are good news for the future of management.

1. We discovered just how far and fast we can change when we have to

In the decade before the pandemic we were all congratulating ourselves with how fast we were adapting to the digital world. That era now looks like a stroll in the park compared to what was achieved at the start of lockdown. In one weekend most firms changed the way they work more than they had in the previous ten years. WFH (working from home) went from assumed Shirking From Home to being the new normal. The shift is not a temporary shift: hybrid working is now here to stay and most, not all, employers are adapting.

The challenge for leaders is whether they can, or should, sustain this pace of change in other areas. What are the other assumptions you should challenge about how work is done? The temptation is to slip back into the comfort zone of incremental change. But comfort zones quickly become uncomfortable when the rest of the world is changing and charging ahead. The pandemic has raised expectations about how much change leaders should achieve.

Learn more about post-pandemic management

Explore the world of post-pandemic management in our 2020 Management Transformed report and find tailored resources to help you become a #BetterManager in this marathon crisis.

Explore Management Transformed


2. We discovered that we all have to up our game

The office is a very forgiving place for mediocre management, as many frustrated team members will attest. If you make a mistake in the office, it’s easy to spot and you can fix it fast. Managing remotely is very unforgiving of mediocre management: it’s easy to miscommunicate and not discover the problem for another 48 hours, by which time you have a mini-crisis on your hands.

Everything is harder on a remote team. All the basic tasks of management are harder when you are remote: communication, goal-setting, workload management and even motivation. The first person to work out how to motivate by email will make a fortune: it’s a fortune which is unlikely to be made. This is very good news for the future of management. It means that all managers have to raise their game. If you can manage a remote team, you can manage any team.

3. The pandemic has put another nail in the coffin of command-and-control management

This is perhaps the best discovery. The office is a paradise for control freaks: they can interfere (“help”) colleagues at will. It’s much harder to be a control freak when you don’t even know what your colleagues are wearing beneath the waist line. Remote work means that you have to trust your team members to do the right thing, even when you can’t see or hear them. The shift from command and control to trust, influence and support is a huge sea change. Some leaders have already made the shift, some more will make the shift and quite a few will find that they are left behind in the dustbin of history.

The shift away from command and control has been brewing for a long time. The rise of the professional makes command and control obsolete. Professionals don’t need to be managed like 19th-century semi-educated workers, when bosses had the brains and workers had the hands. If you manage a professional, you manage someone who thinks they can do your job better than you, and that your job is pointless anyway. Professionals have pride in their work: they are willing and able to perform well. The best way to manage professionals is to manage them less. Step back and let them over-perform for you.

Watch Jo explain why the pandemic is the best thing to happen to management in 200 years


New rules

The old rules of work were both obvious and unwritten in the office. People knew, more or less, when to work, how to communicate and how to deal with each other. The new rules of hybrid working are not at all clear. Even basic questions remain unanswered: when are we meant to be available for Zoom calls? When should we be expected to deal with email and instant messaging? (24/7 is not a good answer.) Around the world, firms and teams are having to discover the new rules of work and of management. This makes it perhaps the most exciting time to be a manager or leader: the old rules and certainties have been ripped up – and we can now create a new and better future.

The pandemic may have been the worst of times for many people personally, but it’s turning out to be the best of times for managers who can rise to the challenge and adapt to the new world: trust, support and influence in place of command and control. Enjoy the journey.

Jo’s book Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams (Bloomsbury, 2021) is out now.

Image: Shutterstock/Drazen Zigic

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI

Jo Owen is an author, sought-after international keynote speaker and founder of eight NGOs (including Teach First). He is also the only four-time winning author of the CMI Gold Award.

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