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Is a democratised leadership the ‘new normal’ in a Covid world?

Gaynor Ratcliffe

March 2020 saw an enforced move to distributed working which for many organisations was a significant shift from normal operational ways of working.  Whilst over the last few years we have seen organisations increasingly moving to more flexible working models for their staff, these policies have normally been developed by the HR function and, for some, have perhaps been seen as a necessity to comply with legislation rather than a genuine commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and the richness that ensuring this type of flexibility can afford an organisation in terms of attraction, performance, innovation, improved customer service and staff retention.  Though, arguably, the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda has gained more focus with the recent Black Lives Matter movement which has forced organisations to make some tough self-assessments in this space. What about part-time and flexible working? How many organisations had a significant number of men working part-time or members of staff working 100% remotely? Probably very few.

So, with a wholesale change such as the one Covid has brought to the world of commerce, what does this mean for Leadership and organisational culture? 

Every organisation has its own culture, even if this has never been formally defined; it is what staff say informally over a coffee about their leaders, how decisions are made, how engaged they are, whether they feel valued, how they are rewarded, whether they have a shared sense of purpose etc. The elements that define a culture are multi-faceted, but Leadership and the role modelling of behaviours is a critical element to how company culture develops and is embedded within an organisation.

In a world where many organisations are now having to manage a remote workforce, how do Leaders remain effective and how do they protect and sustain the level of flexibility, productivity and innovation which they have witnessed from staff as they made this transition to a new normal? How do they do this without returning to micro-management?

One Director in the Insurance field recently asked me the question “How do I know my team are doing what they should if I can’t see them as I would in the office?”. In industries where presenteeism has been key to career progression and reward, it is possible to see how this now poses some Leaders a conundrum. 

Traditional leaders may prefer to see everyone working 11-hour days in the office and may take the view that if a member of staff cannot be physically seen it means they are not being productive.  This thought process indicates an outdated leadership style that demonstrates a lack of trust in employees and engenders the sense that employees are there to serve them. 

In the world of Covid, future-enabled organisations have a far more progressive attitude towards Leadership.  Leaders should see themselves as there to serve their employees and not the other way around.  Leaders provide the tools, equipment and development for their staff and empower their teams to make decisions and work effectively.  They replace the blame culture with one of continuous improvement where it is safe to take risks, make decisions or try new things and crucially to get it wrong sometimes.  Ironically, we all learn far more by failing, trying again, and applying what we have learned, but employees have to be given the safe space to do this.  This demands trust. Trust that Leaders need to place in their teams to do the right thing or seek support if they require it.  

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The focus has to switch to being outcome-based rather that of micro-managing hours of work.  Have employees achieved the outcomes that they committed to?  Have they collaborated and behaved to achieve this in a way which embraces the organisation’s values?  Personal reward should be based on these outcomes. 

Trusting and empowering staff will create extra good will and discretionary effort which, when combined with reduction in commuting time etc, will generally see higher levels of productivity. An important part of Leadership is safeguarding employee wellbeing, so monitoring mental health levels to prevent burnout is also vitally important for a distributed workforce.  Ensuring your workers have access to mental health support through Employee Assistance Programmes or Mental Health Champions and having an open-door policy complemented by regular check-ins for staff to discuss their concerns and how they are feeling will be critical to protect wellbeing.

If organisations temporarily provided trust and empowerment but now try to place too much bureaucracy around how employees are working, this may result in losing the momentum organisations have managed to achieve during COVID.  Leaders need to commit to the new style of democratised leadership and rethink their existing ways of working, rather than now trying to force those old ways of doing things back into play. 

Communication is vital.  Whilst it is arguably more difficult to communicate and manage staff when they are working at home, it is vital for Leaders to be ‘visible’ to staff and to keep them up to speed with what is happening within the organisation.  Reinforcing a shared purpose at a time such as this is critical to fostering the effort of employees towards achieving organisational goals.  Involving staff in decisions about how best to manage moving forward will help Leaders protect the positives which remote working has brought whilst allowing them to emphasise the support they need from Leaders and the organisation to continue to be effective so that the innovation, flexibility and productivity isn’t lost. 

Leaders cannot assume that their workers will want to return to how things have been in the past. Like it or not, the world of work has now changed for many and organisations are now having to catch up.  Just as employees are having to change and adapt, Leaders need to also.  Organisational leadership teams now need to take a look in the mirror and challenge themselves about their personal and collective leadership styles and the culture of their organisation and whether they truly see their role as that of serving their employees.  If they don’t, now is the time to change, or else they risk falling behind and having disengaged staff.  Leaders need to set the strategic direction and provide the vision for their workers to engage with, but the need for democratised leadership so that staff feel a sense of autonomy, and feel trusted and empowered has never been more prevalent than now.

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