Leadership in 2021: What needs to change?

Posted: 21st May 2021 Jenny Brown, Director

Office working has changed for good. Now that we’ve implemented the technology (mostly) and demonstrated our ability to work effectively as remote teams, leaders must reflect on what this might mean for how we, and our teams, continue to work flexibly in the future.

Many of us have been firefighting over the last 15 months, focussing on coping with the ‘here and now’ and hoping for a return to more ‘normal’ working conditions so we can tackle the cracks that have started to become apparent in our teams.  Anecdotal evidence has shown that new team members, those joining during the pandemic, are reporting higher levels of disconnection and there is a strong sense that only a return to the office will resolve these various tensions.

And yet, it is much more likely that we will all, employers, and employees, seek to retain some of the flexibility in working arrangements the pandemic has afforded us.  Many housing associations are reviewing their office arrangements, seeking to make sure that physical space is best located in relation to customer need rather than legacy properties, potentially also freeing up funds to invest in more homes.  Ensuring that the hybrid arrangements still meet the needs of all employees as well as customers is also a challenge, not least because of the different requirements the various services provided by the front-line teams bring.

Requirements of leadership in 2021

Research into the nature of work in VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) undertaken before the pandemic had already started to appreciate an increase in agility in the work environment being necessary. That empathy, influence and flexibility would be more critical skills in the future, and we can see now how right these predictions were.  In disparate teams enabled by technology to work from different locations, we need to focus on how to create a sense of collective purpose and an acknowledgment of different personality styles and approaches.

Leaders must motivate teams remotely and keep those who we see less of equally involved in the life of the team and the organisation. We also need to create a strong sense of transparency and honesty when we cannot spend so much time observing the demeanour of our team.  We need to create a sense of psychological safety* so that the right conversations can happen at the right time rather than waiting until we are necessarily all in the same place.  This cannot be done without applying effort, by sharing our experiences as leaders and consciously creating an environment where difficult conversations can happen without relying on proximity.

Considerable development and support is required to be effective going forward.  This may start as simply as focussing on the combined purpose and specific values of the team.  Supported by an understanding of what is important to each of us and how this can be accommodated into the effectiveness of the whole team.  Leaders cannot expect teams to fall in line with their own working practices. They must showcase a flexible and agile approach to leadership.

Steps leadership teams of today should consider:

  • Who are your team? What do you know about their styles of working and what do you, and they, know about yours? How do they align?
  • Do not make assumptions, not everyone is in the same situation nor experiencing it in the same way.  Policies are useful but can be a blunt instrument.
  • Be clear about the complexity and uncertainty of the situation.  Alongside this, share your own vulnerability whilst also finding positive examples to inspire and influence.
  • How can you maximise the value of time spent together, what is a priority? What can be undertaken through other forms of communication?
  • What support do you and your team need?  How might you improve effectiveness through technology, training and development?

*A term first coined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School

Written by Jenny Brown, Director, Altair

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