Leadership in Uncertainty: The Road to Recovery or to a New Normal?
It is fair to say that 2020 has changed how the world operates. In a relatively short space of time, we have had to challenge ourselves, our workforce, our communities, and our economy by adapting to a new way of living and an enduring sense of uncertainty. This added pressure has undoubtedly affected people’s mental wellbeing, and if anything has become clearer over the last eight months, it is that there is a greater need for communication and empathy in our day-to-day lives.
Practically speaking, how can we implement these behaviours in a remote-working world whilst continuing to deliver ambitious transformation strategies? Keeping people engaged and motivated, whilst still meeting key initiatives and priorities, will continue to be the focus across many organisations during this pandemic.
This blog explores the increased responsibility that managers and leaders have had to take on in order to set the right tone at work, and at how adaptation has been key in allowing firms to continue delivering against their change agendas. We have seen successful delivery continue, and it is the behaviours and tools that organisations have all had to adopt very quickly which have enabled this to happen.
What can leaders do?
There has been significant pressure on managers and team leads to find the right balance between the frequency and style of communication whilst working remotely. We have found that increasing the frequency and, in some instances, formality of communication has been a key factor of success: regular communication reduces fear and uncertainty among employees and ensures that the intended recipients receive a clear, unified message.
To do this effectively, we need to spend more time reflecting on what has worked well, what has been learnt, and what has been missed in the response to the global pandemic and remote working arrangements. Having canvassed opinions across large financial services organisations, it is agreed that staying in touch with teams and encouraging support across colleagues has never been more important in order to drive engagement, maintain motivation, and keep morale high.
The following points highlight how some of the most experienced programme leaders in the industry have had to take things one step further in their endeavours to stay connected with their people:
- Put the shoe on the other foot – Everyone’s worlds are divulging into one, with lines blurring between our personal and working lives. It is vital that managers understand the implications that this could have.
- Go beyond the small talk – Be genuine, interested, engaged, and present in your colleagues’ lives (albeit virtually).
- Set boundaries – Respect the need for downtime, particularly regarding annual leave. Whilst, on the face of it, time out of work can seem futile, there is arguably an even greater need for employees to get some headspace.
- Be more experimental and open-minded to different ways of “solutionising” – Be bold in your approach and think outside the box.
There is clear evidence that senior leaders need to do more to set the tone from above. Statistics show that most employees have experienced a sense of “burnout” whilst remote working: according to BUPA, its health and wellbeing advice line has received a 300% increase in phone calls since the coronavirus crisis unfolded, and a recent survey conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies found that 64% of respondents reported problems sleeping due to anxiety, and 48% are working irregular patterns and long days. Managers have an opportunity to improve on these experiences; not only are they are best placed to help their people navigate shifts in their working lives, but their example will be looked upon by their respective teams.
It is crucial that we understand both the new ways of working and its impact on our teams and colleagues. One example of this is “virtual presenteeism”. When speaking to our clients, we have found that many companies encourage their employees to turn their cameras on during meetings in order to increase a feeling of connectedness. But could this be having a negative impact? If employees are constantly required to show visual evidence that they are working, it could seem as though their managers are questioning their productivity or feel a little intrusive. Working from home means that our personal environment is exposed, and this can be a step too far for those who would rather not share their private sphere at work.
Providing advice to employees on how to look after themselves and manage their space and time can reduce anxiety, improve mental health, and make people feel comfortable in voicing any concerns or issues that they may be experiencing. This may be achieved by setting quiet hours, enforcing a clear start and end to the working day, removing the feeling of needing to be “always online”, or encouraging breaks for exercise. Managers and leaders should feel a sense of responsibility in setting expectations and drawing boundaries between work and personal life, but the solution is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it is important to find what is appropriate for your culture and people. Getting these things right will form the foundation of successful and sustained delivery and change in the workplace.
Continuing to achieve success
Speaking to our clients, adaptation and creativity with ways of working have been key in allowing projects and other initiatives to continue to deliver according to plan. Some of the key tools and techniques used by change managers include:
- Using daily stand-ups to set priorities – Not only does this help to align teams on key tasks for the day, but it also gives managers and team leads the ability gauge and act where individuals may be over-worked.
- Replacing the whiteboard with virtual workshops – Getting people in a room together to brainstorm ideas is a technique that many of us adopted before the pandemic to work through areas of complexity. Replacing this technique, whilst still achieving the same output, has been challenging. Organisations have had to be creative with how group sessions are conducted and people are engaged, and the use of technology (e.g. virtual breakout rooms, digital collaboration tools etc.) has been a key enabler to this.
- Following up on governance forums – There is a risk that individuals who are remote working feel isolated and out of touch with the wider organisation. Communicating outcomes and key decisions from governance forums, for example, by ensuring that messaging is filtered through teams has therefore become increasingly important and keeps everyone aligned with overall objectives.
- Deploying collaborative technology – Collaborative technology has become more widely used than ever before: Microsoft Teams reported record levels of adoption, with 44 million new users joining in a single day in mid-March, and the World Health Organisation has used Workplace from Facebook to provide daily press briefings, share resources and provide an open forum for its staff around the world. Adopting tools such as Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting and Slack has allowed for sustained collaboration, allowing remote workers to hold group workshops or work simultaneously on documents and discuss ideas together.
The trends that we are now seeing are not new: most large players in the financial services industry were shifting towards a culture of homeworking, outsourcing, and increased digitalisation prior to the pandemic. However, these were changes that many predicted would be embedded over the course of several years rather than a matter of weeks or months.
As the financial services industry begins the recovery process and its employees make plans to return to work in an office, it will be interesting to see how firms now react. Will they continue to reinforce their commitment to purpose and well-being in the workplace with a focus on physical, psychological and financial concerns? Or, will heads inevitably turn to a more strategic, long-term planning view of how the workplace will adapt to the “new normal”?
BCS Consulting has extensive experience supporting our clients to successfully instil an adaptive culture. Navigating through uncertainty is a skill which underpins the role we play on all client projects, and we work together to embed ourselves within our clients’ teams in order to achieve successful outcomes. In doing so, we have reacted effectively to the pandemic and home working arrangements: our teams have continued to lead the mobilisation of large-scale transformation programmes, build strong relationships with clients through virtual interactions, and successfully help clients to meet regulatory requirements and deadlines. As we look to the future, we will continue to adapt our approach to suit the needs of our clients as we collectively navigate our way through this global pandemic.