Leadership styles have had to change radically this year. Instead of managing colleagues face-to-face, business leaders have had to lead from afar, supervising disparate teams over Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
It's not a leadership style that many managers would have picked; socially-distanced working has been a necessity rather than a choice. And many leaders are still uncomfortable both managing at a distance and trusting their staff to get on with their work without direction.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports that 40% of managers have low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. More than a third (38%), meanwhile, still believe remote workers usually perform worse than those in an office.
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Yet as uncomfortable as some managers might be with socially-distanced leadership, it's also true that some of the radical changes associated to this transformation are here to stay, quite possibly in the long term.
When the morning commute does return, don't expect train carriages to be full. Many workers have enjoyed the flexibility that working from home brings. They've seen the benefits and they're going to choose to work for a company that offers some degree of flexibility.
In short, there's going to be no rush to return to the office as we knew it. But executives must be careful to ensure that socially-distant management doesn't turn into a detached leadership style.
On top of this, too many workers are already suffering from burnout. In these challenging conditions, adopting the right leadership style is going to be crucial, says Randall S. Peterson, professor and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School.
He argues that the core issue for managers is to work out how their workers feel, and that the quality of the interpersonal relationships you create is key.
Employees need to feel connected and trusted. Yet leaders who find it tough to trust their workforce might opt for micro-management; they'll continue to check-up on their workers rather than checking-in to see how they're getting on.
Peterson says leaders should look to develop a management style that cultivates wellbeing. In uncertain times, employees need a sense of certainty from their leaders. Executives should ensure their staff feel engaged, not micro-managed.
"It's more important than ever for managers to ask whether people are getting their ABCs: their autonomy, belonging and competence. Leaders who don't get that from their own boss will tend to overcompensate with the people they're managing; they'll micro-manage, and that's not helpful," he says.
Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at recruiter Harvey Nash, agrees that leaders who micro-manage will struggle in the new normal. They won't get the best from the workers and their effectiveness will suffer.
Haake says managers who want to cultivate wellbeing need to pick up on subtle signs that all isn't well. Executives should adopt a considered approach, using a technique like active listening, to pick up on potential issues before they become major problems.
They should marry this ability to pick up on subtext with a renewed focus on the key characteristics that define great leadership, from empowerment through to conviction.
"I think the fundamentals of great leadership are still there," says Haake. "So providing vision, having humility, empowering your team – all of those things remain incredibly important; they were important before, they are now. I guess the difference is that there's so much more trust needed now than ever before."
As the WFH saga extends into 2021, managers will have an even greater duty to ensure that remote working doesn't lead to too much or too little direction. The future of work post-COVID will involve a blend of home working and face-to-face working, which means that the shift from direct interaction to management at-a-distance is going to become more entrenched.
While evidence of Zoom fatigue, low morale and a fall in wellbeing are cause for serious concern, there is another side. Some bosses already report being more in touch with their workforce than before. Daily stand-ups and regular check-ins mean these managers feel that employee engagement is at an all-time high.
Successful managers will take the lessons learnt from the shift to remote working during 2020 and create a new way of working that relies on trust and fosters employee wellbeing, says Sharm Manwani, executive professor of IT and digital leadership at Henley Business School.
"You can find more ways now of giving employees what they want now," he says. "Managers are coming back and saying, 'Well, how would you like to work in the future?' It's been a great opportunity to actually engage with employees and say, 'You know what, actually, we trust you. We've seen how you work in this environment, we've seen that it actually increases productivity and that is going to change the way we engage with you.'"
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No one could have anticipated how quickly businesses would have to transition to remote working; fewer still might have anticipated how successfully this transition would take place. Leaders should think of all the great things that they and their teams have achieved this year.
Steve Bates, principal at consultant KPMG, says there is much to learn from these positive cases. "The deliberateness and the ability to adapt are really important elements and I hope those things stay," he says.
"CIOs are now much more connected to their workforce in many ways than they ever have been. When everyone was working on site, or in their boxes doing their own things, I don't know if the CIO really had to reach out and connect."
What business leaders must do now is to ensure the lessons they've learned during the last few months are used to create an engaged leadership style that is fit for the geographically disparate workplace of the future.