The year 2020 spurred exceptional shifts in society

The pandemic and the resulting economic crises challenged governments and businesses to adapt quickly to the rise of a ‘zero-touch’ world.

EOH and iOCO were among those at the forefront of that change. Our experience has taught us the benefits of automation and technology. But we also know what can’t be automated: among other things, leadership.

Although the foundations of our relationships and the importance of leadership remain the same, leaders today face a new set of challenges and opportunities. Here are some of the ways in which I think the leadership role has evolved over the past year.

The future of the workplace is crystallising around a hybrid approach. Most companies will support those employees who wish to work remotely, while maintaining a physical infrastructure for occasional meetings and for those who still prefer an office environment.

The most effective global responses I’m seeing to this hybrid world of work are also hybrid in nature. Engineers, facilities experts and developers are looking at ways to incorporate screens, cameras and mixed-reality to create effective and inclusive hybrid environments. Digital and IT infrastructure are focused on the essentials – security, connectivity and productivity – while people specialists are closely tracking employee expectations and pressures. These developments are synergistic; technological solutions and HR solutions need to be aligned and mutually supportive, and always in service of the employee experience.

Personally, I would find it very difficult to return to a full-time office environment tomorrow. Remote work has worked well for me. But to make assumptions based on my personal experience is a trap. In Microsoft’s recently released 2021 Work Trend Index, their research suggests most business leaders are faring better than their employees. Those struggling most were often the opposite of people like me: new employees, younger workers, frontline workers and those without personal partners.

The first key attribute for a successful leader in 2021 is empathy. We cannot assume that people’s experiences are our experiences, and we cannot ascribe motivations based on ours. This is crucial, because when our experiments in new ways of working fail, they fail with serious collateral damage in terms of people’s mental health.

It’s tempting to say that because many of us work from home in casual clothing our days are going to be more relaxed. But the intensity of our days has increased substantially. Ad hoc and unstructured meetings are on the rise. The number of meetings and chats has risen steadily and – without physical cues that signify loss of attention and discomfort – meetings are getting longer. As a group we’re trying to set reasonable boundaries to combat digital exhaustion. We try to keep meetings under 30 minutes, don’t set meetings for before 7.30am or after 5pm, and encourage nominated proxies to attend meetings when possible.

It’s not just where we work that seems to be changing irrevocably, but how we work. It used to be that the longer you were in an organisation the more valuable you were, because you’d accumulated more knowledge. But knowledge today is ubiquitous. The differentiator instead is wisdom: what you do with that knowledge.

For people with skills, freelancing becomes more attractive. You’re no longer geo-graphically bound, and so you can sell your services to several clients around the globe. This is a good thing for companies, because we get to pick the talent we need from a global marketplace while preserving flexibility.

We need to rethink the way we reward and remunerate talent. In my early career I valued a stable, growing income. I’ve noticed, though, that some of our most talented people these days are happy to take a pay cut or give up some security in order to establish a better work/life balance or pursue activities they consider rewarding. Again, it’s important not to ascribe your own views to people and make assumptions about what they find meaningful or valuable.

Reward can also be giving your people the latitude, and platform access, to upskill themselves while at work. I think, generally, the value of this type of reward is underestimated. One small step we have taken is an initiative called “Rise Up”, which is a reskilling, upskilling programme available to every employee at every level.

I’ve described a future in which ambiguity is normalised. Some people are working from home, some from an office. You’re making more use of contractors and freelancers, each of whom is self-motivated in their own way. Amid these varied circumstances, you still need to cascade strategy and culture throughout the organisation; except now you have to do it via a series of remote relationships. How does this all play out?

I met the CEO of a large company some time ago who was running a 30,000-headcount business across 20 countries. His approach, which I’ve come to believe in strongly, was to clearly establish “the rules of the game”, and then allow your people to take to the field and play. In other words, make sure the things you’re not willing to compromise on are well understood so that everyone’s playing the same game on the same playing field. But within that context, allow space for creativity and autonomy. If you try to legislate every behaviour and process there will inevitably be misinterpretation, and employees will find the atmosphere stifling.

By establishing clear ground rules, and allowing for autonomy within those boundaries, you empower people to perform in a way that you’re comfortable with. For example, I’ve made it clear that I would rather have one of our businesses fail than a single bribe be paid. That’s an incontestable rule. But I’m not going to lay out the precise rules for customer service. People still have to feel that they have the authority to make decisions. After all, it is pointless to hire the best managers and then tell them what to do.

Employees need a way to help them embrace the transition into a redefined hybrid workplace, one that offers a low-friction, zero-touch experience and a true connectedness – all driven by smart user support. On top of this, the environment must be scalable, flexible and secure.

It’s a big ask, but those who don’t embrace this will soon be at an incredible disadvantage. The key to business productivity and profitability is increasingly the employee experience, and the role of the leader is increasingly to understand and then enhance that experience.