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4 big issues leaders should be thinking about as we return to work

What comes next with regard to the new office will be a global experiment like we’ve never seen. The successes will come from organizations with leaders who are thoughtful and deliberate.

4 big issues leaders should be thinking about as we return to work
[Source photo: SouthWorks/iStock]
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It took a good long while for many of us to get the hang of working remotely: the etiquette, the technology, the attire, the expectations. For some, the changes were welcome. We were able to work from anywhere, and the flexibility in our workday was a welcomed benefit. For others, the struggle was real: loneliness and isolation, insufficient office space (that wasn’t office space), blurred lines between home and work, and extra responsibilities of childcare and eldercare.

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Now, with the world opening up little by little, we have to consider what it means to enter the next phase: the return to the office. For those that struggled to work from home, going back to the office may be a welcomed change. For those that embraced life away, there is a question as to whether they will ever return. Leaders are facing decisions about what return-to-work model to choose, what office space looks like and how much they need, cleaning protocols, vaccination requirements and more.

In addition to those, however, there are deeper considerations that should be on the mind of every leader as we emerge from the pandemic, that cut right to the heart of their culture and their ability to operate into the future.

The broken leadership pipeline

According to a number of recent studies, there is an employee tsunami coming. A reported one-in-four employees are planning to quit their jobs after the pandemic (one-in-three millennials,) and one-quarter of women. That’s two million who are downshifting their jobs or leaving the workforce altogether. When planning what company life looks like post-pandemic, leaders cannot ignore the major talent gap they are likely to face. 

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Companies were already grappling with a weak leadership pipeline. In DDI’s 2021 Global Leadership Forecast, 55% of CEOs called out “development of the next generation of leaders” as their top challenge and only 11% of HR leaders say they have a strong bench to fill leadership roles. If employees leave in the numbers predicted, the problem is likely going to get a lot bigger. 

Leaders should be focused right now on what they can do to both retain and develop their most valued employees. Of the 25% of workers who said they planned to look for a new job after the pandemic, 80% said they were concerned about their career growth. And millennials have long called out their desire for career development as a top factor in how they choose where to work. 

In order to satisfy the needs and desires of both the organization and its potential pipeline, leaders should consider the types of programs that will build their bench and that are most valued by the employees they want to keep. Millennials are aligned. They want content that is relevant and will enable them to lead in the future. They also want programs that provide opportunities to connect with senior leadership, and resources that include coaching, mentoring and collaborative learning. 

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Leaders should look at where they have organizational capabilities gaps and consider coaching and training programs focused there. Emotional intelligence, communication skills, resilience and agility, are some of the capabilities that were frequently identified as organizational gaps during the pandemic and considered requirements for future leaders.

A company divided

To say that the next phase of what work looks like is unclear is an understatement. Data shows that most companies and employees favor a hybrid office model, but what that looks like changes from one company to the next. While the hybrid workplace is a compromise that offers the flexibility that people want, it also has its own set of challenges. 

While we might look forward to returning to the efficiency of casual communication and the conversations held on the fly, they cannot be what they once were. Passing status updates, pulling people together for ad-hoc meetings and brief watercooler conversations, can give unintended advantages to the people in the office. If left unchecked, these advantages can create a culture of “haves” and “have-nots.”  

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Leaders will need to be extra-cognizant of the people they don’t see, and ensure the information they share is done without favor to one group or the other. One-off conversations and casual relays of information won’t work here. In this new world, communication needs to be regular, frequent and clear. 

Consider creating a communication plan that lays out the types of information you will share, how you will share it and at what frequency. Think inclusively. If you have daily stand-ups, keep them virtual to ensure that all that can attend, do. For larger, more structured meetings, such all-hands, strategy days, or sales summits, choose the one way you want to hold them by either making them all-virtual, or required in-person, so that everyone feels a part of the same experience and no one is at a disadvantage.

As a leader, getting used to regular, predictable communication channels, can help you resist the temptation of sharing informally where people are likely to be left out, and for team members, it sets an expectation that they will receive information reliably and regularly.

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Employee burnout 

A recent survey from Flexjobs and Mental Health America reported that “employed workers are more than 3x as likely to report poor mental health now, versus before the pandemic” and according to DDI, 86% of high potentials are at risk of burnout. (There goes your bench, again.)

As we head back into something more normal, many of the experiences that triggered the burnout—death of a loved one, an overburden of work and life responsibilities, and loss of family income—are unchanged. Returning to the office, even in a hybrid format, could compound challenges by removing some of the flexibility afforded by remote working. 

As company plans solidify, leaders should plan to work individually with each employee, to ensure a smooth transition and that each person feels supported in this unchartered new work world. 

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Leaders need to pay attention. Observe and actively listen to what the people on your team are saying, and what they aren’t.  Seeing someone’s work deteriorate or noticing uncharacteristic behavior, such as irritability, cynicism, or short temper, are clues of burnout.

It will be important for leaders to remember that the skills of empathy and compassion that were a requirement during the pandemic, are equally important now. In the longer term, there will be no place for those without these crucial skills, or if there is, they will find themselves without employees to lead. If you are unclear about your strengths in these areas, consider taking assessments or seeking 360 Feedback to measure your emotional intelligence. Studies show, most leaders are not as self-aware as they think they are. Emotional intelligence is a skill that can be improved, and now is the time to do it. 

Inclusion and belonging

The social injustice and ensuing activism of the past year should have made us all more aware and sensitive to the challenges of inclusion and belonging that many of our colleagues face. Even before that, a 2019 EY study found that 40% of people felt isolated at work, spanning generations, genders, and ethnicities. 

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As we head into the new workplace, likely to already be geographically divided, leaders need to think about about creating a culture of belonging. If not properly considered and proactively addressed, it will be too easy for voices to get lost in the transition, or simply because you don’t see them. Out of sight, out of mind cannot be an excuse.

To create a greater sense of belonging for remote or dispersed team members, think about ways to let them know they aren’t forgotten. Check in on a regular basis just to see how they are doing and encourage this of others as well. When there is a meeting in which packets of materials are to be handed out, instead of providing electronic versions, perhaps you mail them the hard copies that the in-person team are getting. Simple gestures that let people know that they are an equal member of the team, that they are being considered, can go a long way.

Leaders will also need to be proactive and look for ways to bring the hushed voices into the conversations, whether they are in the room or on Zoom. Consider formatting your meeting so that everyone contributes something, whether it is a pre-planned agenda item, or simply a check-in at the start of each meeting that acts as a warm up for people to get more comfortable. The goal is to increase the comfort of everyone at the table—virtual or in-person—welcome their contribution and reinforce the value you place on them as a member of the team. 

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On a larger scale, a formal mentorship program can provide benefits that address challenges mentioned earlier in this article, as well as for belonging. A mentor provides an anchor within the organization, someone who can help the employee feel supported and help navigate their challenges. When the employee is virtual and the mentor is in-office, it offers another touchpoint to help connect the employee to the organization.

What comes next with regard to the new office will be a global experiment like we’ve never seen. The successes will come from organizations with leaders who are thoughtful and deliberate, those who ask questions of their employees and listen to what they say, and who take what they’ve learned over the past year with a growth mindset to apply it going forward, iterate and try again. The challenges we face in the new workplace aren’t easy, but if we can keep listening and learning, we might just end up better off than we started.


Amy Kan works with companies to develop emotionally intelligent leaders who influence and motivate people, innovate solutions and collaborate effectively.

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