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Coaching Leaders for the “New Normal”

None of us know what the ‘new normal’ working environment will look like, if indeed it will exist. However, we can already see signs that life will not return to the place we knew before the pandemic hit. Among the legacies of Covid19 will be the increased willingness by organisations to consider flexible working. In sectors where physical presence is not a necessity employers are likely to move beyond toleration of home working to actively embracing it. Further, social distancing is likely to be with us for some considerable time resulting in a cap on permitted employee numbers and staggered working days and hours, both of which will have a negative impact on the overhead rate per employee sitting at a desk in the office. The days of leaders being able to catch up with staff by walking the floor or through regular face to face meetings may well be a thing of the past. They will need to explore and develop new ways of keeping in touch,of inspiring their valued employees and of creating collaboration.

In organisations where there is global reach the need to stay connected across numerous time zones is not a new challenge. A slot for a scheduled catchup can be at varying times of the day or evening, depending on the geographical position of the offices. For some this may result in a meeting first thing In the morning, for others last thing at night. The importance of the fixed meetings is that they act as an anchor point around which the hours of working can coalesce wherever they are taking place.

As people have adjusted to their new ways of working many may not be keen to relinquish their new found flexibility. A study by HSBC in 2017 (1) found that 89%of employees consider flexible working a key motivator compared with 77% who cited financial incentives. A 2019 (2) study cited work/life balance, child care and cut in commuting times as being the prime drivers for the wish for flexible working and 39% of flexible workers noticed improvement in their mental health.

Managed well, there are also benefits for the organisation with better work achieved in less time and with fewer distractions. The HSBC study stated that 81% of workers believe working remotely improves productivity. In addition organisations may well minimise the physical space of offices as a way to reduce overheads with the consequent reliance on people working from home. The redistribution of organisational systems to account for virtual working could also result in a new level of resilience re disaster recovery plans. With the back up provided by a systems network geographically spread across the homes of employees of the organisation the reliance on plans to provide total systems replication necessary where there is one office is reduced.

Working remotely is likely therefore to become more commonplace, requiring leaders to master a virtual working environment where there are new and specific challenges. Successful teams are aligned, connected and engaged which results in them performing well. The most important predictor of success is where there is clear and effective leadership in which the attributes of the team members such as empathy and self awareness, agility, resilience and humility can be relied upon to produce results. The pathway to maximising team and individual performance is through effective collaboration and this is built on trust. Virtual teams therefore have a unique challenge as the considerable reduction in personal interaction results in a loss of traditional ways that trust can be fostered. Leaders are not able to walk the floor and engage in informal and personal conversations. Staff do not have the same opportunity to catch up with colleagues informally. Thus creation of trust relies on it being built through task performance rather than at the interpersonal level with the impact that it can take a longer time to build a trusting environment.

Effective virtual leaders will therefore need to find new ways to create a team spirit and to encourage collaboration through creating novel ways of communicating.(3) As trust will remain central to any team’s success the difference will be in the need of any leader to place a much greater and more explicit emphasis on creating opportunities for social interaction where it can be fostered. For example, several virtual ‘get to know you’ meetings being held at an early stage in a team’s development can help members meet one another and therefore speed up successful communication and interaction. Goals and purpose can sometimes be introduced at these meetings but the objective should be to develop relationships through a broad discussion and contribution where all can start owning their part in the process. The emphasis should remain on members getting to know each other “in the round” where personal information is welcomed.

As new technology and techniques become available so teams should be encouraged to embrace them if by doing so there are clear benefits to its performance. However, the software should be user friendly, encouraging collaboration. As we are all aware video conferencing has certainly become the new norm allowing employees to interact and foster relationships. Alongside this however, PWC found in a study in October 2018 that when employees do not have a clear and accurate understanding of how they should use technology together with what they need and want from these tools their overall experience at work can suffer, affecting everything from how engaged people feel to their enthusiasm for delivering superior work. PWC found that whereas 90% of C-suite executives say their companies pay attention to people’s needs when introducing new technology only 53% of staff said the same.(4) From choosing devices, picking apps, opting for voice over text, employees look for options that help them do their best work. For example many want to gain a stronger sense of control by having more input before leaders choose the systems they will use regularly. It’s vital that any technology encourages open and honest communication empowering people to make and act upon decisions. Break out groups and chat functions can help people stay connected and allow them to contribute informally encouraging creativity.

Virtual working requires people to work more independently and it is thus important for a leader to set up an effective system to monitor progress to ensure all are productive. Delegation becomes increasingly necessary and the interdependent nature of joint projects requires clear accountability of all team members. The challenge is to avoid micro managing while balancing the need to follow up frequently. More emphasis than ever will need to be placed on results rather than process and will require leaders to ‘let go’ at a time when this seems counterintuitive due to the distance created by virtual working. The key element will be clear and defined objectives all set within a realistic time framework and against which results can be frequently and regularly monitored.

Working with HR to establish personality types can be a valuable indicator as to people’s preferred way of virtual working as some individuals work better on their own and relish autonomy whereas others miss the busy activity of the office.
However no HR intervention can replace the value of one to one conversations to provide a regular update on monitoring progress as well as a way to build trust. Calls should be a way of ‘checking in’ on staff rather than ‘checking up’ It is easier in a virtual working environment for employees to become isolated, focusing solely upon their own work and so it is important that leaders encourage team members to informally ‘meet’ together on line to review communication among members to inspire them to achieve goals. Recently hired staff are already reporting that the ‘atomisation’ of their new employer has resulted in them having not physically met any of their new colleagues in person. New and creative ways of bringing people together will be needed, whether through enjoyable physical meetings such as a meal or outside games or through online activities such as zoom quizzes, choirs or pub nights.

Interventions by leaders are also important to manage conflict should the need arise. Virtual team building sessions can contribute and future individual development plans should place greater emphasis by rewarding employees for working well together even when physically apart. Ways should be found to acknowledge accomplishments and success, perhaps through on line gatherings such as ‘meeting’ for a virtual office party and team lunches over video conferencing.

Finally, a paper on coaching for the ‘new normal’ would not be comprehensive without mentioning some of the mental health issues that might occur as lockdown is lifted. Hill Dickinson,(5)corporate lawyers see these as including:

* Corona phobia- a fear of travelling and returning to work

* Becoming accustomed to the new routine and not wanting things to return as they were.

* Coronavirus bereavements

* Personal problems caused by lockdown – eg financial pressures or a relationship breakdown

While it is not a leader’s job to deal with these issues it is an employer’s duty to take reasonable care of employee’s physical and mental safety. Managers should therefore be trained to spot first signs of mental health issues and be aware how they can offer support and help to their staff.

In conclusion, people don’t want interaction with machines to replace valuable human interconnections and there is a genuine need to have a sense of belonging at work. However, the crisis created by Covid 19 has demonstrated that future working patterns will at least in the short term be governed by the need for social distancing and therefore technological methods of communication will remain central. Alongside this imperative employees want more flexibility and time to spend with their families and it is unlikely that this requirement will disappear when the threat of Covid 19 is finally eradicated. Leaders initially face the challenge of finding the right balance between face to face and virtual working both for their organisation and for their employees. However the fundamentals of excellent leadership do not change as working becomes virtual but the emphasis on trust and the values which underpin it do. Leaders will need to demonstrate effective ‘soft’ skills, which are often the ‘hardest’ to acquire and are learnt through understanding of self and others.

As leaders face the challenges of the transition ahead the benefits of good coaching have never been more clear! And as with the rest of organisational interaction coaching will need to adapt and change to meet the challenges. Zoom meetings will inevitably take the place of the majority of face to face sessions, at least on the short term. However, as with the role of leaders the fundamentals of good and effective coaching will not change. It will be based on excellent communication skills, empathy, an experienced ear and curiousity, helping our clients navigate the challenge of leading as we all learn to deal with the ‘new normal’.

1. HSBC News Release October 2017
2. Working from Home Survey We are Wild 2019
3. Spencer Stuart Leading from a Distance March 2020
4. PWC Consumer Intelligence Series October 2018
5. Hill Dickinson The Law re flexible working May 2020

Valerie Hopkins