Have you ever wished that you could press the pause button on life? To take time out on the whirligig of life and work? I always thought that if we had the chance to pause it would be a great opportunity to reinvent so many things. And especially work. So much of what we do and the reasons why we do it have passed their sell-by date. And yet, despite constant “change” programmes we end up doing pretty much the same thing but with fewer people.
Well, be careful what you wish for. Because lockdown has given us that pause. It turned work upside down. Yet it seems that rather than take the opportunity to rethink work the danger is that we’re intent on going back to what we used to do. And it seemed to me that much of the reason for this is because too many leaders are using legacy thinking and legacy behaviours to deal with an entirely new scenario. Whereas many had some experience of the occasional home or remote working, there was little in their playbooks to help them lead effectively when all their teams were in the same boat. And certainly not during a long-term lockdown.
And so, I decided to write a short book to help. I wanted it to be a very short book and as simple as possible but no simpler. It aimed to do three things: to challenge assumptions about work; to change leadership behaviours and attitudes; and to inspire leaders to think differently about the future.
The book starts by exploring some of the issues around office-based work. Not everything about the office was good. It hasn’t really changed since the 1950s, despite the extraordinary advances in IT. Offices in their current incarnation are not entirely fit for purpose. They often encourage the wrong sorts of attitudes – eg deference, hierarchies, silos – and the wrong sorts of behaviours, such as presenteeism. And we still try and cram work into physical spaces and fixed working hours and weeks despite the fact that no-one lives like that. Rather than feeling nostalgia for offices I wanted to get leaders to focus on the nature of work and not a physical building. For too many, the mindset was that work was a place where they went not something that they did.
The second section explores some of the very real issues around working from home. Not everyone has an ideal home office and some are sharing workspaces. One of the key things that leaders need to learn is empathy. They need to understand that imposing work on home and family lives is not easy. There are babies that need feeding, toddlers that demand attention, kids that need supervision with their schoolwork, dogs that need walking or elderly parents that require support. Leaders cannot impose their timing demands or schedules on entire families. Concepts such as Close of Play are now meaningless. Leaders need to learn to trust more and accept that the more flexible and adaptable they are, then the more their business will survive. But gaining trust starts with empathy. One example would be video calls. Just because they’re fashionable doesn’t mean that they’re right for every communication. Zoom meetings can be intrusive. And there may be other demands for bandwith within the household. And why is your Zoom call more important than home-schooling? Too many leaders still think that they get to choose the message, the timing and medium just because they’re in charge. But true leaders think more deeply about their engagements.
Another section of this short book covers leading yourself. After all, as they say in the airline safety briefings, always fit your own mask before helping others. There are tips and ideas on both the physical and mental issues that come with leading at home. And there are suggestions on how to be a better leader covering topics such as communications effectiveness, coaching, and ethical leadership.
The likelihood is that we will be living with elements of lockdown for some time. Open plan and hotdesking are likely to be a thing of the past, and so office space will be rationed. There may also be restrictions on mass transit capacity in many countries. So, the future is most likely to be a hybrid: three days at home, two in the office. However, organisations will have to confront issues such as mental health (not having a commute means many people suffer from not having a decompression chamber between work and home), insurance, quality of home office work station, confidentiality, and digital exclusion. In fact, we’re at the foothills of understanding and dealing with these issues.
The final section of the book looks to the future. It tries to help leaders think beyond what’s immediately in front. Rather than focus on where work is carried out, they should question what work actually is. The danger is that too many leaders are trying to build on the legacy of the past, fighting the last war, rather than trying to build afresh.
It is, of course, difficult to be optimistic in the face of so many business closures. The impact on the economy, jobs, and livelihoods has been catastrophic. But there have to been reasons for optimism. Things don’t have to revert to exactly as they were before. Leaders need to imagine that lockdown was the best thing that happened to them. It forced them to confront real issues about their leadership style and their attitude to work. The job of a leader is not to provide certainty, but it is to inspire their teams to generate new thinking and new opportunities. The business that will thrive are the ones that are the most flexible and adaptable.
Leading from home will have provided many challenges. But the biggest will be to change mindsets and attitudes. And so, getting leaders to communicate and act differently will be key.
Lockdown turned work upside down. We now realise that work is something we do and not just a place we go. And the future is most likely to be a hybrid: three at home, two in the office. Many leaders had some experience of occasional home working, but there was little to help them lead effectively when all their teams were in the same boat.
My shory book explores office-based work compared with real issues around working from home. And it ends by looking to the future, aiming to help leaders think beyond what’s immediately in front. Leading from home will have provided many challenges, but the biggest will be to change legacy mindsets and attitudes.