What did we learn about leadership and employee experience through COVID-19? (2020)

Moving towards the new normal.

As New Zealand prepares for Level 2, there is no return to normal for employers and employees. However, there are leadership lessons learnt in isolation that need to be carried forward.

With the future in mind, returning to work does not mean returning to the old ways of doing things. (Bain)

For leaders, this has universally been an experience in supporting the “whole person.” We’ve projected our work personas into the home in high definition. Life, in it’s unflattering, unabashed realism, split into our Teams meetings. It’s been intimate at best but often awkward. My colleagues have heard me negotiating nappy changes with my son when I forgot to mute myself—usually at serious moments. Gratefully, they were understanding and sometimes appreciative of the levity.

I’m reminded of Christopher Luxon's observation, ‘There’s no such thing as a work-life balance. There’s just a life balance—work should be a great part of that.’ Indeed, a recent Harvard Business Review article argued an upside of COVID-19 is that it brought to bear the Future of Work tenets of flexibility, autonomy and diversity for many organisations. This is our reality now. Employers and leaders are necessarily or unavoidably more integrated into the holistic wellbeing of employees such that, “…we’re seeing the erosion of the ideal of an employee whose family responsibilities are kept tastefully out of sight.” That’s inextricable from what Gartner describes as the “employer as social safety net.” Expectations of the organisation’s duty of care have shifted. Hopefully, the virtuous circle creates more inclusive cultures.

I wrote that there being no “normal” to which to return is, in some respects, deeply difficult but also rich with opportunity. Practically, it requires that organisations continue to be conscious of the needs of the individual in a “whole of life” sense while resourcing the right work to be done for business recovery.

For those of us who have worked to build something a bit special for the past few years, it feels like we have a momentous responsibility as custodians of that—and the rich heritage of the brand—to ensure that we position the company to be sustainable into the future.

According to Bain, “For leadership teams, the recovery will mean restarting—in some cases, reinventing—operations in an unstable world of shifting conditions.” Competitive advantage will be defined by the “ability to balance resilience, adaptability and prediction.” Central to this is building trust with employees where safety, training, psychological support, regular feedback and retooling are pre-requisites. For some, this is demonstrably about reducing risk:

“Workers used to think, ‘Does this employer pay well?’ Mr. Taylor [international president of Unite Here, hotel and restaurant workers’ union] said. “Now it will be, ‘How are they on cleanliness? Do they have good health care? Is this a safe environment? Are they committed to having the kind of safety gear I might need?’” (The New York Times)

While at the same time, employers will be adjusting priorities and resources to new business demands and opportunities. Interestingly, Bain argues that, “For most executives, the task at hand will be less like restarting a business than like starting a business.” Inclusive leadership, transparency, flexibility and employee engagement are more critical that ever for the resilience and scalability of the agile enterprise.

This requires that we’re very human. McKinsey & Company describe a mental model for “Rapid Revenue Recovery” in which “human at the core” is a key principle. That is, reimagining operating models to enable people’s best work while acquiring technology competency and facilitating remote working capacity.

As many organisations now turn to rebuilding their business, ways of working and employee experience, it seems poignant to share this excerpt from Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s message to employees:

To those of you staying,

One of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on.

To those leaving Airbnb,

I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.

Until next time,

M.

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