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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

The future of work is forcing an evolution in leadership

Your success as a leader in the future of work will depend on how prepared you are to manage more change.

The future of work is forcing an evolution in leadership
[JonoErasmus/Adobe Stock]

You are undoubtedly a different leader now than you were pre-pandemic. Managing a workforce has inherent challenges. Managing a remote workforce has additional unique challenges, even in the best of circumstances. When you layer on the relentless uncertainty, anxiety, and fatigue caused by COVID-19, the past 18 months have been a master class for leaders in how to pivot to meet a series of significant shifts.

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Unfortunately, class isn’t over.

We have hit an inflection point with the future of work. It’s not months or weeks ahead of us—it starts today, with long-unaddressed considerations that were accelerated by the events of 2020 and are now affecting organizations of all sizes. Your success as a leader in the future of work will depend on how prepared you are to manage more change.

WHERE WE STARTED

The economic reality of the pandemic forced leaders to accelerate their digital transformation efforts or shift their organization’s focus entirely to meet new consumer needs. As a result of those changing customer needs—and amid labor shortages—employees needed to be reskilled or upskilled to take on new roles. In a new, remote environment, this tested agility, vision, and resource prioritization for many companies.

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The transition to offsite work revealed not only gaps in roles, but also in infrastructure, communication, and culture. Leaders were expected to creatively tackle distributed workflow, proactively reach out to all employees more frequently, provide empathy and support from afar, and address internal and external pressures related to diversity and inclusion. Yet even leaders who may have struggled with the added focus on employee well-being and social responsibility achieved some sort of equilibrium for survival.

Then came a new upset: the prospect of returning to an office environment. While some employees may have applauded the move, many others balked at the idea. Why relinquish flexible scheduling, proximity to loved ones who might need care, lack of commute time and stress, and self-management of their health risks? Leaders now had to balance organizational and team priorities with the individual needs of their team members.

Still another change was already underway. What we now know as the Great Resignation began in the spring and has since culminated in the voluntary exodus of countless employees pondering opportunities that better feed their personal passions and priorities. Leaders now struggle with attracting or retaining employees who are unimpressed with, and uninspired by, business as usual. The “new normal” may very well be one of continual adaptation, so it’s critical for leaders to understand how they need to prepare to meet any number of coming challenges.

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WHERE WE’RE GOING

We know there’s no one type of leader. In fact, there are models out there with anywhere from four to 14 different leader archetypes. For the most part these models categorize traits, not skills. As much as leaders in the past may have honed skills that fell within their comfort zone, 2020 forced new considerations that will persist.

It’s not surprising, then, that leaders are seeking more learning and development opportunities. At the beginning of 2021 the Edelman Trust study reported that people were counting on the organizations they worked for to provide stability, and on the leaders of those organizations to serve as instruments of truth and trust. Leaders accustomed to excelling in a particular aspect of business were now expected to be everything to everyone.

Yet these recent shifts in the employment marketplace have coincided with a downward slide in the level of trust in business leadership. There’s the return to work or the uncertainty of hybrid scenarios. The lack of appreciable progress on commitments to diversity. New discussions about rethinking work-week hours or shifting to task-based views of productivity. As the workplace continues to evolve, our view of modern leadership must evolve with it.

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There are three areas in particular I’ve found consistently rise to the top when employees discuss leadership capabilities or when leaders discuss their own development. They’re the core elements of what I call “future-ready” leadership:

• Adaptability: In addition to the operational skills most business leaders already possess, there’s a need for agility. Not just the ability to react to change, but the more proactive ability to look ahead, project trends, and encourage innovations that make your organization flexible in the event of future pivots.

• Empathy: We’ve all experienced the need for empathy during the pandemic. In the future of work, however, empathy encompasses a more holistic view of the members of your team. What can you do to support their personal well-being, and how are you providing for their professional growth?

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• Inclusivity: The question of improving organizational diversity is not whether or when, but how. The answer is to first recognize and acknowledge existing inequities. Then do the hard work of asking questions and implementing measurable strategies so that your subsequent diversity efforts are built on a solid, sustainable foundation.

The common denominator in these discussions is how best to forge connections. Communication, trust, respect and appreciation are all ways to reach employees and keep them engaged and inspired. How leaders express, model and support each of these is a reflection of how well they understand the needs of their employees.

The signs point to a future of work that is authentically human, in all its complexity. To succeed in that, the leaders of tomorrow must be equally open and complex—with all the adaptability, empathy and inclusivity that entails.

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Stephen Bailey is the Founder & CEO of ExecOnline, an enterprise platform partnered with top business schools to deliver online leadership development programs. 

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