A new era of work is here: how must leaders adapt?

Article by best-selling business to business author, Sophie Wade

The Future of Work has raised the bar. In our highly-digitalized marketplace, developments are happening at a faster pace, requiring rapid responses to customers’ changing behaviours.

As we emerge from a global crisis, executives and managers need to provide a human-centric counterbalance to the technology-driven environment, fostering stability, giving guidance, and providing support all while accommodating ongoing uncertainties. Leadership styles and management approaches and methods are evolving to meet these new requirements.

The pandemic catalysed the accelerated arrival of the new era of business and work as newly digitized operations increased connectivity, shortened customer feedback loops, and added instantaneous, distributed channels of communication. The amount of market data we now receive in real-time has increased significantly in tandem with customers’ raised expectations about quick and ongoing product and service updates.

To be responsive, workers are needing to work more closely together to brainstorm and test new prototypes and implement upgrades rapidly. Work is no longer linear, static, and projectable for several years at a time. Leaders need to be able to meet truncated deadlines, manage multiple projects of varying lengths and sizes, and be ready to adapt as needed. As a result, stronger relationships among all team members are vital for approachable and accessible leaders to foster and generate safe, inclusive, and creative environments where people share their ideas and issues openly, so tasks advance and stay on track.

Areas to emphasise

If you are a leader trying to adjust for the new era of work, here are key areas to emphasize:

Inclusive mindset – With greater demands to meet, managers at all levels need to engage employees to collaborate on teams—often across disciplines—and tackle more complex problems. To manage, motivate, and support people effectively, you will benefit from understanding each of your direct reports individually and use empathy skills to tune into their different perspectives and experiences. Adopt an open-minded and inclusive approach to stimulate a welcoming environment which encourages people to treat each other equitably and facilitates their full participation.

Empathetic culture: A strong corporate culture based on timeless values is critical for grounding distributed teams, especially during unpredictable times. If you nurture an empathetic culture and foster trusting relationships, employees develop a sense of belonging and are less distracted by the turbulence around them. Focus everyone on your company’s purpose, so you are all aligned towards common objectives. If managers at every level connect employees’ work with the purpose, mission, and vision of the organisation, each person is better able to recognize the role they play in achieving the business’s goals which improves their sense of ownership and engagement.

Distributed responsibility: Decisions now need to be made in close to real time without having to wait for approval from top management. You therefore need to empower employees closer to the front line with detailed assignments, sufficient information, and clear accountability as well as soliciting their inputs about customers’ new needs. With integration of new digital platforms and applications that permit operational flexibility for pivots and contingency plans, ensure that updated systems and workflow are communicated explicitly each time they are adjusted.

Supportive management: As leaders morph from commanders to coaches to help team members navigate the unchartered business landscape, “performance reviews” are adapting and increasing in frequency. If you schedule regular (brief) check-ins with each of your reports, even weekly, you can provide timely support, direction, and course correction. As management styles transition from orders to oversight, you can develop subtly different approaches for individual team members to enable each to do their best work, independently and in team situations. Recognition for achievements is also being personally tailored to be most effective for motivating future results, such as a private email for one person and a call-out in front of peers for another. You can also provide heightened levels of assistance by using your empathy skills to be alert for signals when a team member might have mental health-related needs. You can then draw on the resources of your corporate well-being program, which hopefully has been supplemented during the COVID19 crisis.

Skills & careers: The new pace and pressure put a greater burden on leaders to keep team members up-skilled as the half-life of skills (the amount of time it takes for a skill to become half as valuable) has decreased from ten to five years, with technology skills sometimes half as long. If you have regular skills development discussions, accompanied by scheduling and planning, with your direct reports it encourages them to stay competitive for their own needs and those of the business. Additionally, flatter, more nimble organizations mean less vertical progression and more non-linear career pathways. Explain, explore, and plot possible next steps with each of your reports to support the development of their potential, which also helps retain them.

Tools & training: Technology is providing increasingly sophisticated capabilities enhanced by artificial intelligence and machine learning. More processes and hand-offs are being automated to make them safer and more efficient while freeing up human time and capacity to address more complicated issues. It is important for you to ensure core up-to-date digital capabilities are producing, delivering, and distributing competitive products and services that achieve customers’ satisfaction. Upgraded applications are essential to allow you and your team to communicate and operate effectively within your organization and throughout your ecosystem as well as react and respond quickly. Competitive platforms and tools are also key to attracting and retaining younger team members who are keenly aware of which applications signal forward-thinking leadership and a sustainable business. Ensure you make training needs available at all levels so teams can benefit from relevant technical features and functionalities as well as ensuring every team member is comfortable using the tools necessary to complete their tasks.

Compared to traditional leadership styles, new characteristics are substantially less gender-specific, elevating human-centric skills, especially trust and empathy. Since significant organizational transformation is required to adapt for Future of Work environments, your attitude, approach, and behavior are all critical to reinforce your words and provide direction while also vital examples for your reports to copy. Embrace the new orientation as a leader and you can make a meaningful difference to the growth and sustainable success of your business and team.

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