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In Practice

How to Be a Leader in the New World of Work

Amid the heartbreaking toll of the global pandemic, organizations are hyper-aware of the risk and reality of future disruptions. From economic downturns to the challenge of climate change — or, for that matter, another pandemic — responsive, adaptive companies will survive and thrive in any new normal. Proactive efforts to reinvent today will certainly pay off in the future.

Reinvention calls for real nuance, though. It remains important to lead with empathy through listening. Mercer research shows that nine out of 10 employees are concerned about the current crisis and are happy with the responses of their companies and managers — so far. Maintaining this will be critical. Take the time to listen to your employees and understand their concerns. 

It’s also vital to address such essentials as safety and economic stability. People are scared — not just for their health but also for their jobs. In our digital focus group with employees, 72% of participants told us that organizations should provide more reassurance around pay and continued employment.

Throughout, leadership should communicate, connect — and repeat. When we asked how employers could help, 68% of participants said their organizations should keep people informed with daily updates throughout the crisis. Effective crisis communication means open, transparent, two-way communication between leadership and employees about the impact to your business. Without this, employees are likely to form narratives of their own — often worse than reality.

A Transformed Landscape

There are nine ways firms can manage the new normal — along with having conversations about implementing the changes.

Organizations can take a fresh look at their situations by not only responding to change but also embracing it as an opportunity and, most importantly, reinventing. Whether employees work virtually or on-site, a new shape of work will emerge. Quickening the pace toward reinvention requires a concentrated effort around a number of essential steps, arranged in three modes.

Ready for a Remake?

The first calls for navigating the dynamic environment of the COVID era and readying the workplace in terms of safety compliance, health monitoring and other factors. Re-examining the balance of remote, flexible and blended work is also important, since not all jobs should return to the workplace, and not all workers will want to return to shared locations. Meanwhile, delegating non-core activities to focus on priorities may call for outsourcing responsibility for retirement plans, risk management, pandemic response and other areas.  

Less Can Be More

Next, there’s the matter of stability. It’s time to clarify priorities and realign around “the new minimum” — that is, minimizing negative impact on people and business and questioning what’s truly necessary to support both. Are “nice to have” programs going to make the cut? Will temporary talent sharing with other employers make sense? Focusing on cost containment and zero-based design (shutting, trimming, reducing and digitizing) is part of creating stability. So is using transformation as an optimization strategy, beginning with digital transformation and re-designed HR processes to make them future- and crises-proof. 

The reinvention of work is not going to be a smooth glide: A new normal is often easier to conceptualize than to execute smoothly, but having the right conversations will help. 

Stress Test

Finally, where’s the energy? A strong and positive employee experience means an energized workforce. Supporting the workforce mentally, physically and financially recognizes the stress and economic anxiety brought on by the COVID crisis. Communication and monitoring of employee experience (for signs of burnout, for example) are vital. So is reconfirming the organization’s purpose and values. Access to benefits programs, digital tools, online learning and reskilling are part of this. Designing an energizing employee experience extends to areas such as pay equity and a renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.  

Local Heroes

Many of these steps require strong local leadership support. You can help your employees prepare by engaging in a series of discussions. Here are four critical conversations to have with your team:  

When, Why, What? Your employees’ first concerns will probably be the basics: When are we due back? Why is this the right time to return? and What safety measures have been put in place? Uncertainty can be a source of stress, and providing information about next steps may reduce anxieties and build confidence for some of your staff. But others may have an opposite reaction. Recent polls show that many people are worried about rising case rates in their communities.  

Face the Emotional Ecology. Leaders may be tempted to counter employee concerns, dismiss their doubts and assure them that everything will be okay. This approach probably won’t work.  In fact, it may increase resistance. Researchers have found that emotional avoidance — the practice of ignoring or avoiding troubling feelings — often leads to very unhealthy behavior.  Conversely, emotional acceptance and vulnerability can increase resilience and coping.

Now is not the time to bypass emotions. Listening builds trust, support and psychological safety.  When employees know their voice matters, they are more likely to be engaged and committed.  Collective conversations can be cathartic, especially after months of remote work and social isolation. Through dialogue, your employees can learn from each other and build a stronger sense of community and camaraderie.  

Open source new ideas. After your team members have had a chance to express their emotions, it is important to turn hopes and fears into concrete team norms and behaviors. Various health agencies have published safety guidelines for returning to the office, and the best way to ensure that guidelines are understood and enacted is to discuss them with your team before they return. Framing this discussion as a rules review or a compliance call isn’t a good idea. Instead, to foster collective commitment, you need to encourage open dialogue, participative decision-making, enlivening channels of communication and opportunities to provide feedback.

Establish a social contract. After your team has discussed safe and productive ways to work together, it’s time for people to make commitments to each other. One effective way to do that is to establish a social contract for your team. If you have experience using agile methodology, you know how powerful a team contract can be. By clarifying the behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, appropriate and discouraged, you and your team can establish group norms and rules of engagement that will help keep everyone safe, both physically and psychologically.  

The reinvention of work is not going to be a smooth glide. A new normal is often easier to conceptualize than to execute smoothly. But by guiding your team through the key steps and having the right conversations, you can help your employees share their concerns, identify issues and solutions and develop ways to take care of themselves and each other — readier for whatever the future brings.

Patrick Hyland

Director of Research and Development at Mercer | Sirota

Patrick Hyland, Ph.D., is the director of research and development at Mercer | Sirota. He has over 15 years of experience in organizational research and consulting. He is currently conducting research on a variety of workforce topics, including employee lifecycle research, onboarding practices, senior leadership team effectiveness, mindfulness at work, and survey actioning best practices.

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