Who's 'the most dangerous person in the room'? - how to lead a business in a post-COVID world

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett March 11, 2021
“The archetypal visionary leader could be the most dangerous person in the room”. Great business leadership in a post-COVID world needs trust, purpose and diversity.

future of work

We can all agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a monumental impact on the way we work. What is proving significantly more contentious is whether these changes are here to stay, and what the future of work looks like.

As Derek du Preez highlighted earlier this week, companies are taking a mixed approach to working from home. On the one hand, there’s BP telling 25,000 staff to work from home two days per week; and then there’s Goldman Sachs, whose boss recently labelled remote working an “aberration” and wants employees back in the office as soon as possible.

A new report out from Deloitte, commissioned by communications company Liberty Global, reveals it’s not just at the top that there is a difference in opinion. The Future of Work is Here notes that while a third of Europeans find it easier to work from home, the same number said it is harder. Thirty-six percent say they find it difficult not being able to talk to clients and colleagues face-to-face; meanwhile, a US census study found that 34% of workers expect to never return to the daily commute.

No one size

There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. The Goldman Sachs view of getting staff back in the office ASAP will put off that third of people who love remote working; BP’s approach of requiring employees to work from home won’t suit those who find it harder than being in an office.

Instead, organizations need to keep these different viewpoints in mind and the most fitting way of serving these varied requirements is a hybrid model. Amy Blair, Chief People Office at Liberty Global, feels that the hybrid workforce, where staff spend part of their time in the office and part of the time remote or at home, is the direction most organizations will go in. Speaking at an online panel debate on the future of work, she adds:

Our employees have been able to save a massive amount of time, one to three hours a day, just on the commuting alone. We're really looking forward to figuring out how to make that more progressive in the future, and of course less travel means great things for society as well. And we're working very hard to make sure we get it right for everyone.”

A long-term move away from the office of old will require a huge change in leadership style, both as individuals and how they work with their teams. It will require a much higher degree of coordination over where and how to have meetings, what activities to do in the office, how to manage virtually, along with a huge focus on collaboration, connection, breaking down silos, and connecting everything back to the purpose of the business. Blair notes:

I think for leaders who are traditionally command and control, this is going to be a pretty major shift. There is quite a bit of work to do in the leadership space overall.

Purpose will become increasingly important, according to Adam Spearing, EMEA Chief Technology Officer & SVP Consulting Solutions UKI at Salesforce. Purpose over profit is a comment he is hearing repeatedly in his conversations with executives - it comes back to the fundamental of what are you leading that team for; what's the purpose of the organization; and what's the purpose of your team within that organization? Spearing says:

If you can't really crisply articulate that, such that the individual who will be working on their own in a room, isolated from other people at points, can't relate to that, it's very difficult sometimes to drive that motivation. The task for the modern leader is to get that balance between the two - empathy and understanding for individual situation, but being really clear on what you actually are expecting of that group or that people or that team within the bigger purpose of the organization that you're representing.

Trust is another core facet that leaders will need to embrace. Over the years, many companies have been resistant to the notion of remote working due to a lack of trust in their workers, and the (outdated) view that the only way to have a productive employee is to have them in eye line of their boss. However, the pandemic has accelerated us years into the future as a society, forcing us out of offices and into home-working. So even those firms that may have been reluctant to try remote working will have had little choice. Spearing adds:

Leadership has got to learn how to operate in this environment. If you look at what you're expecting of employees, you've got to be really clear because you can't nurture them in the physical environment and correct them within minutes. Communication skills from the top of the organization all the way down are more important, we can't rely on traditional cascaded methods. It's got to become much more direct.

To be a leader in today's environment, whilst we don't quite know what that normal is going to be, it's a voyage of discovery for leadership as well. But you've got to trust and you've got to let go and you've got to believe in your organization and your people. The trust thing is critically important.

Diversity demands

Building diverse teams and organizations is another crucial element for business leaders in the post-COVID world. In a world that is so uncertain, complex and fast moving, it is unlikely that leaders have all the answers to unlock the potential of the company, according to Toby Peyton-Jones, Non-Executive Board Member, UK Department for Education. Therefore, leaders need to harvest the collective intelligence of the organization, and diversity is the fuel of this intelligence and innovation:

The archetypal visionary leader, who knows what the solution is to where you're going and aligns people to a single way, it could be the most dangerous person in the room and lead us off in the wrong direction. If the world isn't changing very fast, then a homogeneous gene pool can be fine. But now, diversity is absolutely vital. And a very exciting part of business is to think, how can we harness that diversity, how can we be more of a listening leader, and create the right climate and culture for these multi-faceted diverse teams to solve problems and bring new ideas to the table.

Policy pressures

While much of this discussion focuses on the need for business leaders to update their management style to support hybrid or remote working, there’s also need for government and policy makers to keep up with the pace of change. Spearing notes that those groups don't necessarily move as fast as commercial organizations, but regulation, taxation, allowances and other policies are required to reflect the modern way of working that is beginning to evolve.

Joost Korte, Director-General Employment, Inclusion & Social Affairs at the European Commission, acknowledges that this workplace shift poses a vast agenda and a huge challenge, with the Member States of the European Union facing quite different challenges. In Brussels, the goal is to come up with a framework from which everybody can profit in some way from the new world of work. Korte adds:

It would be a real waste if policymakers wouldn’t seize the opportunity to actually make these changes. What we say from the side of the European Union is that it also needs to be linked up with the climate change or the green transition, and the digital transition to really use this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to make some really big changes.

This is the kind of leadership that I would like to see much more, this openness of mind and this willingness to confront the challenges. So we need maybe legislation, but we also need a cultural change. And young people need to speak up because they are the ones who were actually suffering more than anybody else from the current difficulties and who risk losing a lot. They should be a lot more vocal about it and say, we don't want to go back to the kind of work life that my father had and we want to have a better work-life balance.

My take

Will we ever go fully back to the old way of working? Unlikely. But in big cities like London and New York, offices will start filling up again to some extent, and the daily commute will be back even if it’s in smaller numbers. What’s clear is that companies need to offer flexibility – when you’ve got the same proportion of staff saying it’s easier and harder to work from home, the best option is to offer a choice.

Leaders who are willing to listen to their staff about where and how they want to work are going to have a happier and more motivated workforce than leaders who dictate that all employees have to be in the office or have to work at home.