Unlock the matrix of pain: Leadership after the pandemic

Andrew Mawson discusses new research that reveals how virtual working can help business leaders develop a management framework for these challenging times.

Unlock the matrix of pain: Leadership after the pandemic

Andrew Mawson discusses new research that reveals how virtual working can help business leaders develop a management framework for these challenging times. 

Organisations could soon be caught up in a matrix of pain if they do not manage the new realities of hybrid working. After months of virtual working, redundancies, furloughing and then reintegrating staff, reopening and then reclosing offices, many business leaders are struggling to get to grips with the shifting sands.

A new report from global change management consultants Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) outlines five different classes of workers that organisations need to consider if they are to come out of the current crisis stronger. These include furloughed workers who may feel like second-class citizens, urgently trying to catch up on what they missed; workers who have continued to work throughout lockdown and may feel aggrieved; workers who are bearing the extra workload in depleted teams; workers who do not want to work from home; and workers who are unhappy about the prospect of returning to the office in the future. 

Leaders now need to establish a new management framework to marry these changes to workplaces and workforces or else they risk losing control.  

Research into virtual teams 

In the spring of 2020, as social distancing rules forced organisations to close their offices around the world, the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI), AWA’s professional network and research arm, undertook a study on virtual working, in partnership with the Amsterdam-based Centre for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa), to build a clearer picture of the factors that impact virtual working and the leadership traits and techniques necessary to manage remote teams. The study followed previous research in 2015 on the topic but was rerun in light of the sudden and emphatic shift to home working. 

The study was what academics refer to as a ‘rapid evidence assessment’ (REA). By finding the world’s best research on the topic, we were able to identify the factors that make the most significant difference to the performance of people, teams, and communities that operate in a virtual model. The REA revealed that six key factors influence the productivity of office-based workers’ and virtual knowledge teams but impact the latter group to a sharper degree: social cohesion, trust, information sharing, perceived supervisory support, vision and goal clarity, and external communication. Less face time and immersion in a single physical environment mean that three of these factors ‘ social cohesion, trust and information sharing ‘ are more challenging to maintain on an ongoing basis if team and community performance are to be maintained in a hybrid model. 

After furlough 

This month, the UK government extended its national Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until March 2021. Nonetheless, many anticipate mass redundancies in the months ahead. 

The pandemic has had a detrimental effect on people’s physical and mental health. Seven out of 10 furloughed staff have experienced email anxiety while away from work, admitting to checking their work inbox even though doing so could be in breach of the rules. Job security has been among their biggest worries, so organisations will need to handle the process sensitively. Choosing the right platform to deliver the news in a clear, consistent and compassionate way ‘ particularly during a time when social distancing may limit options ‘ is paramount.  

Staff returning to work after furlough will also need to be managed with care after their prolonged absence. If business leaders do nothing, two tribes of worker might emerge. Furloughed staff may feel isolated, undervalued and out of the loop on their return. Those working will have developed new friendships, different social dynamics and closer bonds, particularly in this time of adversity. In research conducted in June, 58% of furloughed workers felt unsupported by their employer.   

On the other side of the coin, employees who have spent the past few months working, often overstretched and in unfamiliar roles, may feel resentment toward their returning colleagues. Katie Jacobs, a senior stakeholder at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has said that the initial optimism and togetherness dissipated during lockdown as people began to feel tired, burnout and fed up.  

With their teams in danger of dividing into two camps, leaders need to make a conscious effort to rebuild the social cohesion possibly damaged by lockdown and the furlough scheme. Reset social events, either virtual or in-person, will help employees adjust to the changes and rebuild trust with colleagues. 

Managing hybrid teams 

Since September, the UK government has put in place a new home working directive, with a warning that these measures could stay in place until the spring if new cases do not decrease, putting a stop to its own back-to-the-office campaign. But this is simply a turbo injection into a car that was already moving in a direction of travel. Many organisations had already eschewed the government’s office reentry plans, advising staff to stay at home until 2021 or, in some cases, permanently

E-commerce business Shopify recently revealed its plans to rework its physical offices to accommodate virtual working, with its CEO Tobi Lutke declaring office centricity is over. The CIPD’s CEO, Peter Cheese, has described the current period as a moment of real change in the world of work…putting people much more at the centre of thinking. Though the institute has warned the UK lags behind other nations in this respect owing to a culture of presenteeism.

The pandemic has also demonstrated to employees that they can work effectively away from the office. According to a recent study by Cardiff University and the University of Southampton, almost nine out of 10 people (88%) who have worked from home during lockdown do not want to go back to the office, while more than 40% said that they were able to get much more work done compared with six months earlier. 

The research into virtual teams revealed that they are determined by the strength of their social and cognitive states i.e., the degree to which they are socially cohesive, trust one another, operate within a psychologically safe environment, and share skills, experience and knowledge freely. Trust, social cohesion and information sharing are most vulnerable to damage when people work virtually, which means that leaders cannot leave these factors to chance.  

Looking to the future

Organisational effectiveness and productivity are under threat at a time when unity and connectedness are most needed to ensure business success. Therefore, in the short term, business leaders have a crucial role in uniting their people, creating harmony and ensuring clear focus around so much uncertainty. 

In the long term, however, they will need to rethink the practices, behaviours and business models that underpin their teams. The direction of travel is clear; greater virtuality, less physicality. The role of leadership in this new normal should be to grasp the moment and transition as quickly as possible to the hybrid future while supporting those who may be victims of the transition. 

Old organisational models are under challenge, too, as leaders see the benefits of direct communications with workers at the coal face, bypassing the middle management layers that have historically been a filter on the c-suite’s direction. For virtualisation to work, leaders need shift from control- and supervisory-based transactional management to a transformational model, in which leaders set outcomes and provide groups of highly skilled workers with the capabilities and tools to deliver. To succeed, factors such as social cohesion, trust and information sharing must inform any new framework.

Andrew Mawson
Andrew Mawson

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