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Leadership Trends for 2021: What Has COVID:19 Taught Us?

by Jackson B

By James O’Dowd, Managing Partner  of Patrick Morgan

As we enter a new year, James O’Dowd, Managing Partner  of Patrick Morgan, discusses  the considerations business leaders will have to take when implementing new management styles, in order to suit the new virtual working environment, while striving for growth.

As business leaders look to the future, they’ll need to reflect on the highs and lows of 2020, and build on these learnings in order to recover and thrive in this new year. The pandemic has become a catalyst for change for businesses globally, and for senior leaders who had to radically change management and leadership styles, it’s a pivotal time to make positive changes in order to boost productivity and retain staff in 2021.

Historically, flexible working was for the privileged few, or for those with a ‘nice boss’, and in many industries working for home was considered impossible. However, the pandemic disproved this theory, as entire workforces adapted to remote working overnight when global lockdowns hit. With COVID-19 vaccines now being rolled out we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and though office-based working is set to return, flexible working is here to stay. Nevertheless, there are several key considerations business leaders will need to review in order to successfully implement semi-virtual working for the long-term.

As more companies prepare to make permanent changes and implement new policies in order to retain the work-life balance experienced in 2020, business leaders will need to build a firm foundation of trust with their employees, offering opportunities for long-term flexible working for all, not just the minority. Not only will this approach promote staff retention, it will boost productivity and therefore propel growth during 2021’s recovery period.

Motivation While Working from Home

Since the shift to remote working has taken place, multiple executives have reported that they’ve not seen the ‘normal signs’ of employee discontent, often leading to valuable team members leaving. However, as many businesses look to implement remote working for the long-term, motivating a team virtually will be essential.

To ensure employees at all levels of the business are achieving optimal productivity while working from home, leaders have a responsibility to instill a sense of purpose for each employee, which goes beyond a person’s daily role and responsibilities. Creating a common goal around a meaningful, long-term mission, as opposed to keeping employees focused on their sole responsibility, will ensure everyone understands how they play a vital role and are part of a greater team, vision and purpose. If 2020 taught us anything, it was that people desire to be a part of something good, and build a brighter future.

Within middle management, business leaders will need to continue to review and strengthen how they effectively lead in a virtual environment. This will include how to rate performance, how to inspire and motivate teams, how to communicate effectively, and how to discuss mental health with employees and prevent burnout with regular check-ins

At a senior management level, business leaders will need to adapt company culture to engage the entire workforce in a WFH environment. Incentives can be introduced, long term strategies can be made more transparent in order to clear the mist surrounding company direction, and career development and training can be reintroduced as a top priority, in order to ensure internal promotions are prioritised over external hires, thus boosting productivity.

As we seek to leave the worst of the pandemic behind in 2020 and see businesses striving for growth once more, it is a novel opportunity for new joiners and junior employees to be introduced to businesses’ new, flexible culture from the get-go. Leaders should look to create a new starters programme that prioritises the individual with regards to burnout and mental health and encourages new employees to become actively involved with the business at the very start of their career.

Diversity and Inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated to business leaders that you don’t always need an office in order to work productively. However, many Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) spokespeople have rightfully pointed out that disabled and female employees have been requesting greater flexibility when it comes to working from home for years. While progress was made in 2019, as the UK government announced a review of flexible working, considering whether it should not just be available, but become employees’ default option in the Queen’s Speech. However, as the pandemic hit, 2020 saw a major shift in Westminster’s focus, and flexible working rights ground to a halt at the political level.

Some companies have taken strides to better overcome diversity and inclusion barriers, for example management consulting firm Bain & Company expanded on their Diversity & Inclusion policies last year to include ‘Equality’; stating that they’d look inwards, reviewing structures and processes to ensure equitable outcomes. They noted that investment would be required to level the playing field for employees, particularly for under-sponsored employees including women and those from ethic minority backgrounds, with the aim of closing the gap and ensuring talented individuals with varying opportunities apply for roles at the firm.

As we look to the future, and aim to bridge gaps, allowing  flexibility to work from home to continue on a permanent basis will enable previously overlooked employees to complete their work to a high standard while at their convenience, fostering a culture of mutual trust and balance as they work around other commitments or obstacles in their life. Furthermore, a step towards a formalised WFH culture could also be the catalyst that allows more women and disabled employees to progress into positions of seniority.

Solidifying HR Tactics in 2021

Junior and middle-level staff have always been looking for ways to ‘impress the boss’ in order to scale the career ladder. This will be a new challenge for both employees and businesses, to ensure progression opportunities remain.  There is a risk that organisations will avoid their normal volume of internal promotions due to the arduous task of gauging performance virtually – this must be avoided. Instead, business leaders and HR managers should consider structured and goal-lead reviews for employees to ensure promotions aren’t overlooked – the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ should not come into play here.

Though workplace flexibility will be widely adopted in 2021, it is by no means the end of the office. It is expected that many business leaders will choose to adopt a 3-2-2 policy regarding WFH, (three days in the office, two days at home, two days of weekend), allowing for all-important face-to-face meetings that encourage organic communication, creativity and problem solving. If businesses are to not only recover but thrive next year, it’ll require business leaders to macro-manage rather than micro-manage, to build trust with employees who share in a joint mission, grant flexibility for remote working and offer transparency.

Speaking with clients, we know that many, including the Big Four, took a long-term strategic view right at the start of the pandemic to ensure staff retention, boost morale and provide additional support in terms of mental wellbeing, including PwC who offered all employees a free Headspace subscriptions. However, we’re at a pivotal point in time, where business leaders can introduce new future-proof policies to further support employees and boost productivity that will ensure business growth, but vitally aid the UK’s financial recovery.

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