Three management and leadership trends for the new normalThursday 28 January 2021
The landscape of the ‘everyday’ continues to change, having been through a complete makeover already over the past 10 months. While we’ll probably not go back to working life pre-Covid-19, it’s also unlikely that entire workforces will continue to work remotely all the time. Some things will snap back to how they were, while others will be forever changed, as organisations seek to benefit from loosening their ties with traditional offices.
In our latest Better Managers Briefing, we spoke with Bruce Carnegie-Brown CMgr CCMI, vice-chair of Banco Santander, chair of Lloyd's of London and also chair of the MCC. Bruce served as CMI’s president from 2017 to 2020, and during our conversation, he explained how business leaders can ensure that the new reality of working builds on the lessons learned over the last 12 months.
1. Retain what’s good
“We've got to work hard on mapping what we think the future looks like – because underneath all of this disruption created by the pandemic, there are some positives associated with not having to commute to work every day,” says Bruce.
The longer the pandemic goes on, the more people will redefine normality as everyone going back to work, Bruce warns. He argues that instead, we must “capture the best we've had in the pandemic, as well as getting past the worst of it.”
For example, he thinks meeting online has helped make conversations more equitable. “Before, when we were all in a room together, there was always that individual at the table – usually a man – who would talk across people and not let everyone participate,” he explains. “But when that happens in the online environment, it becomes very obvious and the etiquette and behaviours are corrected quite quickly.”
But muscle memory runs deep, and as we move to a more blended work environment of physical and virtual, there’s a danger that the voices of those physically present will be louder than those working remotely.
Bruce warns also against coercive behaviour – overt or otherwise – to persuade people to return to the physical workplace. “Some of that pressure might even come from customers. If you’re about to make a pitch to them via videoconferencing, when the customer tells you a competitor is visiting them physically, are you going to be jumping on a plane too?” Our new ways of working, he cautions, may be undermined by historic practices and tests of loyalty and commitment.
2. Address inequalities
Adapting to the crisis and “snapping back” will be much tougher for some. “The businesses I work with have found it easy to do remote working and think about the wellbeing of our employees, providing them with the right equipment to work remotely,” says Bruce. “But the pandemic also creates inequality, because there are an awful lot of people who have to work in the physical environment. And we've seen the devastation of sectors such as airlines, hospitality and high-street retail.”
In our response, we must also be mindful that younger people are disproportionately disadvantaged by remote working. “Younger people typically don't have the networks that older people like me have developed and can rely on. Even if we don't see people for a while, there's a built-in relationship and trust [within established networks] that young people still need to develop.”
That’s a more difficult ask in a remote working environment. So, Bruce suggests that more experienced managers and workers need to be including and encouraging younger employees in their conversations. “If you are sitting at a desk in the office, it's easy to pull the junior guy over and say, come and join this conversation,” says Bruce. “But on Zoom, Teams or whatever, you’ve got to be more intentional and organised about including people and helping them develop their networks.”
Bruce believes our experience of remote working during the pandemic could help level up career opportunities for women. “It’s a step forward that now there is much greater understanding that you can work from home, work remotely and work irregular hours around things like schooling and child-minding. Because men are home more today than they ever were, they see exactly how much hard work there is to be done. And returning from furlough will give many employees an experience not dissimilar to what it’s like to return from maternity leave,” he adds. “So I'm reasonably hopeful that the shift to remote working will, in the medium term, accelerate the role of women and others who are disadvantaged in terms of career opportunities by not always being able to be physically present in the workplace.”
3. Double-down on engagement
Important lessons have been learned about employee engagement because we’ve had to be more structured about (and work harder at) gaining it, says Bruce. “Rather than the engagement-by-osmosis that happens in the office when people come and find you, in the remote working environment, leaders have learned they need to reach out more and be first at reaching out.”
According to Bruce, the online employee engagement sessions that have been hosted by Lloyd's during the pandemic have been much better attended than before, when they were held in physical offices. “I’ve also found people are much more willing to ask questions than often they were when everybody was in the same room,” says Bruce.
However, there is a danger that, while efficient, online interactions can become too transactional – small talk and spontaneity get pushed aside quickly so that attendees can get on with the business of the meeting. And Bruce bemoans the disappearance of the old-fashioned telephone call, now that most conversations are done with online video. “The nice thing about a telephone call is you can actually stand up and walk around when you're talking, whereas Zoom etc is a very sedentary way of engaging,” he says.
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