Breaking the mould

A new type of leader is critical in managing the challenges of hybrid, remote and in-office work

Breaking the mould

Since the onset of global lockdowns that necessitated remote working, we’ve constantly been reminded that the modern workplace has been irrevocably disrupted, with new terms coined to represent associated phenomena – those who didn’t down tools in the ‘Great Resignation’ may now be ‘quiet quitting’, a reference to a new class of disillusioned, disengaged workers who merely fulfil the minimum obligations required to retain their pay cheque. While countless books, studies and reports have been published on all aspects of this brave new professional landscape, one thing is abundantly clear – no one knows where all of this is going to land, because that depends largely on the actions that companies and individuals take now.

Organisations cannot ignore the fact that most workers desire to hold on to the greater flexibility in both work hours and location that remote working affords them.

In the US, a study involving 800 HR practitioners and 700 employees found that flexibility has become the number one decision factor for candidates accepting and declining job offers. Back home, a survey by Michael Page Africa, a leading recruitment firm on the continent, found that 50% of SA respondents felt even more motivated while remote working, 46% felt more satisfied with their work than pre-lockdown, 63% said their productivity had increased, and 71% felt that flexible working would become more important than before. This doesn’t mean employees prefer a 100% WFH scenario, though – 37% would choose to work remotely for two days and 33% for one day a week, while 53% are looking at three or four days a week as an ideal formula.

On the other hand, there are those who desire a completely remote arrangement in order to ‘semigrate’ (particularly popular with Gautengers moving to the Western Cape). A Business Insider survey conducted by the Norstat Group found that nearly one in every five employed South Africans plans to relocate to a new city and continue working from home for the same company.

Of course, remote work isn’t always beneficial to businesses. Some findings suggest that working remotely can negatively impact company culture, since it deprives individuals of more casual opportunities to form relationships and can lead to alienation; WFH may increase the risk of burnout due to difficulty ‘switching off’ and the blurring of boundaries between work and home life. Productivity may also be affected. All of this means that the need has become urgent for a new type of leader who can motivate their teams in both WFH and office situations, while avoiding the pitfalls that have led to both the ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ phenomena.

In fact, the entire philosophy of how, where and when people should work has to be revisited, says industrial psychologist Jackie Bonnema. ‘Although the idea of remote work is not new, the emergence of the global pandemic transformed it into a sudden reality for organisations and people managers. The situation has highlighted the needs and preferences of the individual, as working from home allowed people to explore how they manage their time, how they integrate professional and personal demands and how they choose to collaborate without having to be physically present,’ she says.

‘And herein lies the next challenge for leaders… Adjusting their approach to motivate and engage the individual members of their team, while remaining fair and inclusive in their approach towards the team itself. Leaders have to essentially create opportunities for individualised connection in a disconnected environment. While progress [has] been made, much still needs to be done to achieve true balance.’

Bonnema emphasises the need for leadership-development programmes that equip people managers with the necessary skills and tools to manage remote teams. ‘Focus areas could include emotional intelligence, psychological safety, communicating effectively in the virtual space and creating an environment of trust.’

Indeed, it seems successful executives and managers of the future will need to be at least as adept at managing their teams’ emotional and psychological needs, as they are at project management, decision-making, creative solutions and expertise in their field.

‘Many leaders have recalibrated how they lead remote teams,’ according to Leoni Grobler, executive education director at Wits Business School. ‘Building trust and remaining transparent are some key factors that influence a leader’s ability to manage a remote team. In order to do so, leaders have had to remain visible, prioritise one-on-one time and communicate more frequently.

‘From my perspective, leaders are more engaged as they now take into account numerous aspects such as work-from-home challenges, personal well-being, access to remote work technology and productivity standards. Leaders who adapt their leadership style and who focus on the individual needs within the team, improve engagement and create a greater sense of well-being.’

In many cases, she adds, the pandemic amplified leaders’ shortcomings and provided an opportunity for self-reflection, with the biggest ‘learning’ being that employees need to be seen as individuals, not just as workers.

‘Based on our conversations with our clients and their experience during the pandemic, we’ve seen an upswing in demand for programmes that support leaders in cultivating a deeper sense of purpose and self-awareness. Companies have begun to realise that leaders need to improve on a number of skills in order to lead their teams effectively and with compassion post-COVID. My sense is that companies are looking for leaders who are able to develop their leadership blueprint for the future, who can navigate the unknown and still take care of their people.’

From a recruitment perspective, an increasing number of companies will have ‘remote leadership’ as part of the key criteria for selection for a role, according to Debbie Goodman, founder and CEO of executive search firm Jack Hammer. ‘Executives who are interviewing for new roles will need to demonstrate how they have led teams remotely, how they have leveraged technology to address hybrid ways of working, and how they have addressed the challenges that are inherent in this experimental phase of hybrid work.

‘Firstly, a board and executive team need to buy in to the “why”,’ says Goodman. ‘Remote and hybrid workplace management is new. It’s complex, and there are likely to be errors along the way to implementing a model that works. Without an invested board who really appreciate the opportunity and the business case for a new way of working, there is unlikely to be any significant traction into the cultivation of new ways of leading. But for leaders in companies who accept that hybrid is the future and embrace the challenges, these are the companies who will ultimately win the battle for talent attraction and engagement.

‘As with any type of culture change or shift in an organisation, when top leadership lives the new way, this invariably seeps into the whole organisation. Thereafter, deliberate investment in skills training, raising awareness of proximity bias and presenteeism, and ensuring that leaders are supported with coaches to address new challenges, is critical to drive change.’

Proximity bias may take the form of unintentional exclusion of remote workers in decision-making – out of sight, out of mind.

All agree that it’s going to take time and investment before for this ‘experimental’ phase settles, mistakes are learnt from, and companies can begin to reap the rewards of a more committed, engaged and productive hybrid workforce – and that the new breed of leaders will be at the forefront of this transition.

By Robyn Maclarty
Image: Gallo/Getty Images