When the COVID pandemic suddenly appeared two years ago, our human tendency was to assume it would be a short-lived bump in the road. At the time, most of us quickly redeployed to our homes to work – and we treated it as a brief, albeit disruptive, adventure.
Fully expecting we would inevitably return to our normal work lives, month after month, we’ve continued to manage our businesses and people as if the whole experience would be temporary.
But in recent weeks, the universe brought us a yet another new variant of COVID, almost as if to – once and for all – underscore a truth many of us have resisted accepting until now:
“Life will never again be like it was in 2019, pre-COVID, and it’s time to let go of what was and embrace what is.”
As we prepare to enter a third year of the pandemic, it’s high time workplace managers accept the fact that most professional workers will be permanently working remotely at least some of the time. And tied to this, we now must evolve our leadership practices to effectively match the moment.
In late December, The Financial Times reported that “more than two-thirds of U.K. managers have yet to be trained to manage hybrid working.” While this stunning statistic (presumably true everywhere) punctuates the need for organizations to quickly develop a remedy, I offer the following stop-gap primer for workplace managers to employ starting today:
People Aren’t Quitting Jobs For Money, But To Retain Their Freedom
We’ve all been led to believe that the “Great Resignation” is mostly about workers wanting greater pay. But what people love most about working remotely is the control it gives them over their days, and having the autonomy to walk their dog at lunch or eat breakfast with their kids. Having greater freedom to direct one’s day-to-day activities, research has proven, leads to human thriving and well-being. So, it’s no surprise any of us would want to give up our new-found sovereignty, even on days when we’re working back in an office. Millions of people have already quit jobs to retain it.
Leaders Must Give People More Autonomy Wherever They Happen To Be Working
Regardless of whether workers are toiling away in the office or ensconced at home, what they now want from their bosses is far greater trust to get their work done without constant direction or oversight. This is a scary proposition for many managers, but it’s the pivot we all must make.
Having had the previous experience of managing large and widely disbursed teams, I used to tell my employees that, on most days, I really wasn’t concerned about when they arrived at work or went home. Instead, I set very high-performance expectations and fully relied on the fact that hard work would be required to achieve them. Importantly, my employees routinely excelled because they controlled the outcomes – and they experienced far greater joy and satisfaction in those achievements specifically because they owned them.
Accountability Is The Glue That Makes All Of This Work
The new work agreement I’m describing requires that managers extend far greater trust to their employees. Some people reading this may bristle at that idea until they realize all of the autonomy they will be extending to people also carries an equivalent amount of accountability.
Employees must be given very clear goals, have direct access to performance reporting that tracks their progress – and receive performance feedback on a regular and consistent basis. To be clear, there must be known rewards for meeting targets, and known implications for missing them. With independence comes responsibility – an inherently fair and appropriate exchange.
The year 2022 represents a brave new world in our workplaces. None of us knows how long the pandemic will last or when offices will fully re-open. But we can successfully live with that ambiguity as managers – and lead our teams effectively – if we become less commanding, less directive and more of a coaching resource to our people. With a leadership philosophy like that, it will be up to individual employees to determine their results. And if my experience is any predictor, you can expect most people will consistently exceed your expectations if only to honor the trust and autonomy you’ve afforded them.