The Covid-19 pandemic which began in 2020 has forced the greatest shift in management and leadership practice for over 200 years. The old ways of leading by command and control were forged in the Industrial Revolution in order to control and manage hordes of workers, but what worked then was never going to be effective for leading highly paid professionals who work remotely.
The pandemic has forced leadership to move from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century. Those changes were coming anyway – the pandemic merely hastened their arrival.
We are now in a new world of work. The changes brought about by the pandemic were not temporary, but a completely new paradigm shift. We can no more go back to the old ways of working than we can uninvent computers and the internet.
The pandemic and the move to hybrid working have accelerated changes that have been underway for decades. The biggest change to leadership has little to do with technology and everything to do with the shift of power in the workplace.
In the past, the boss had all the power. Unskilled workers in a one-factory town had nowhere else to go. But over time, the unskilled worker has morphed into the skilled professional who has plenty of career choices. Professionals can do more, but they also expect more; certainly, they expect a different sort of leadership. Most professionals do not like being micromanaged and probably think they can do your job better than you can.
WFH accelerates this power shift. In the office, the micromanager can still attempt to micromanage professionals. But WFH changes all that: you cannot see what your team is doing all the time and you cannot communicate with them all the time. WFH accelerates the move to far greater autonomy for team members, which in turn forces leaders to trust their team more.
As a leader you have to be clear on the goals and trust your team on the process: let them use their skill to deliver for you. The more you trust them, the more likely they are to respond by rising to the challenge. The joy of employing professionals is that they all have pride and want to do a good job, and most of them want to over-deliver. By delegating more and trusting more, you also encourage your team to grow their skills and build their experience.
Not all leaders find it easy to let go. Some are resorting to intrusive surveillance software to maintain close control. This is a sure way to show you distrust your team and it is highly effective at destroying morale. In the short term it may give you the illusion of control. In the long term it makes it impossible to recruit top talent: the best professionals simply walk away from such management practices.
However, the power shift to greater autonomy, trust and delegation does have a dark side: greater accountability and stress. This is accentuated by hybrid working and WFH. In the office, your team can more easily know what they have to achieve because they can check with you and colleagues in real time. And they can also show they are working by being at their desk, or at least they can show they are present by leaving a jacket on their chair. But when they are working from home, there is no evidence that they are actually working. The only evidence is in the results they deliver.
Focusing on results is clearly desirable, but it can have unintended consequences. Occasionally, it can lead to less work: “if I close a big sale on Monday morning, how much will I really feel I have to work for the rest of the week?” But more often it leads to overwork and stress.
Overwork comes from the ambiguous nature of office work. If you work in a factory, you can measure how many widgets you produced and you can measure the quality. Office work is harder to measure. If you have to produce a report, it could be one page or 100 pages long. However long it is, there will always be another fact you could gather or another opinion you could canvass. Effectively, you can never truly know when your work is complete.
WFH compounds the ambiguity of work. If professionals are inclined to over-achieve and over-deliver, they will continue working for as long as it takes to meet their own standards. WFH means that they have even greater incentive to over-deliver: they need to show that they were not shirking at home.
And if they are worried about the job market, then over-delivery goes into overdrive. The result is long hours and stress: even when they stop working, people probably do not stop thinking about work. When work is in your home, it is very hard to switch off. Covid-19 is not just a physical health pandemic: it has also led to a quiet pandemic of mental health problems caused by work stress and social isolation.
In this new world, command and control skills have to be replaced by skills based on trust, persuasion and influence. You have to become the leader people want to follow, not the leader people have to follow because of the vagaries of the assignment system. This is good news. Influence allows you to exert far more power than your formal budget and span of control might imply.
Excerpted with permission from Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbooks for Remote and Hybrid Teams, Jo Owen, Bloomsbury.