How Do Leaders Need to Adapt to Fit the Future of Work?

How Do Leaders Need to Adapt to Fit the Future of Work?

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread all over the globe, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pulled no punches in her strategy to contain the virus.

“I do not underestimate what I am asking New Zealanders to do,” she said, at a press conference announcing a national lockdown in late March. “It’s huge. And I know it will feel daunting. We will get through this together, but only if we stick together. Be strong, and be kind.”

Ardern’s decisiveness and speed to act certainly meant her country was largely spared the heavy toll experienced by others in the first wave of infection. But they were not the only things that she will be remembered for while leading through the crisis. 

As she chatted, sweatshirt-clad, on a candid Facebook live during lockdown to her nation, or joked that the Easter Bunny might struggle to stop off at every child’s house this year, it was her empathy, transparency and vulnerability that drove the national unity and spirit needed to contain the virus.

In the short-term, the traits that led to Ardern’s success were necessary for survival. But in the post-pandemic world, they will be necessary for ongoing resilience and recovery — and they are traits that business leaders globally will need to hone for a new ‘normal’. 

Here are four of the traits that will define good leadership in work 2.0 — and the next generation of successful leaders to come.

In work 2.0, we need transformational, inclusive leaders that aren’t afraid to display empathy, compassion, and vulnerability.

Embrace your humanity

If Ardern’s approach to managing the crisis has taught us anything, it’s that leaders in work 2.0 will need more of the skills that make us uniquely human. Gone are the days of leaders as the captain at the helm — instead, we need transformational, inclusive leaders that aren’t afraid to display empathy, compassion, and vulnerability, who support their people and provide the conditions for them to thrive.

Even more importantly, as we’ve come to learn the myriad ways the pandemic has impacted our mental health as well as our physical health, leaders must be able to model these behaviours and bring their full selves to work, both as leaders, and as the person they are. They must model behaviours of self-compassion and self-care, and promote employee wellbeing as a central tenet of working culture at their organisation.

These traits are important for fostering organisational belonging, and a culture of caring and openness that extends throughout your organisation. When employees see this behaviour in action, especially in an all-remote or hybrid working context, they are more likely to feel supported and cared for — and free to do the same. And when employees feel supported, they are likely to be more innovative, more productive, and more likely to stay loyal to your organisation.

Listen and respond to new expectations

The world we left before lockdown feels very different to the one we’re living in now. Many employees that had never worked from home before suddenly found themselves doing so on a permanent basis, opening up new life balance possibilities for some, while closing them for others. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter, economic disparity, and spiralling unemployment have spotlighted a conversation on the systemic inequities of our society.

As some people return to their workplaces, their experiences during the past few months will frame their expectations of work in the present and for the future. And just as the boundaries between work and life have become ever more blurred during this time, business leaders cannot expect employees to leave these new expectations at the door when normality resumes.

While business survival will be top of the agenda, listening and responding to these new expectations will be critical in work 2.0 — even if you’re not able to take action on them immediately. Employees are the most critical driver of business success — and when employees feel that their voices are heard and supported, they will feel empowered to drive your business forward.

Communicate and be transparent — especially amid uncertainty

This time of prolonged uncertainty has taught us a lot about trust, honesty, and communication. While businesses may still not know exactly what the future holds, the key to maintaining trust will lie in transparency.

In our latest podcast series about leading through a pandemic, James Routledge, founder and CEO of Sanctus, an organisation dedicated to fostering employee mental health, explained why he chose total honesty over bluffing when the outlook was unclear:

“I shared a completely transparent picture with our whole team — we looked at best case and worst case,” he explained. “Transparency is so important in a time where everyone is so unsure. It’s better to say how it is, no matter how hard that is. No matter what happens in the coming months, as a leader if you respond by hiding the truth, people will remember it.”

Transparency, especially moving forward, will be critical to driving a culture of trust among your employees — even when the future is still in question. Regular, two-way communication will be essential to maintaining this trust, especially in a hybrid or all-remote context. When mutual trust is in place, it paves the way for improved engagement and productivity.

Adapt for the present, plan for the future

The past few months have been a real test of agility for business leaders and managers. But they have also shown that not only can many people work from home, but they can do so productively — and in some cases even more productively than before.

However, in business, it’s all too often that we hear the old adage, ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’. Over the past few months, work, for many, has felt like a constant sprint, with no clear finish line in sight. Some employees may have adapted well and even thrived working during COVID-19, while others, whether looking after children, anxious for their health or struggling to adapt to new social distancing and safety requirements at work, have not.

For business leaders, it might be tempting to use the rapid changes in work and employee performance during this time as a yardstick by which to base future plans. Yet how your people have performed over the course of the pandemic is not a measure of their talent, commitment, or ability to adapt for the new ‘normal’.

The past few months have been anything but normal. Instead of using this crisis response to quantify future targets, leaders instead should seek to harness the positive learnings to empower and enable their people even further. The future of work will be defined by agile leadership, but it will be a different kind of agility from what we’ve come to know over the past few months. Instead of being reactive to difficult circumstances, agility will instead be about using them as something to build on for the future, and providing employees with more of the solutions that make work truly work for them — wherever they are.