Leadership and the future of work: The Big Pivot

Author Dominique Seal
June 24, 2021

This year, we were delighted to partner with Andrew Pullman, Founder – People Risk Solutions and Michelle MacKinnon, Head of Practice – People Risk Solutions on a series of virtual roundtable discussions with HR Leaders across Financial Markets.

We discussed everything from remote working, creating a coaching culture to SMCR. 

Here, Michele MacKinnon provides her insights on Leadership and the Future of work.

Say “Leader”.  What image does that conjure? 

For most people, over the past year, a leader has been a tiny, glitchy image on a Zoom screen, sharing facts and figures, exhorting the team to keep calm and keep going.  For a lucky few, though, there have been meaningful changes in the way leaders connect.  These changes have kept workers and teams focussed and innovating, and may give us a preview of the leadership we will need as we move to hybrid working.

Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

Statistics vary, but somewhere between 74% and 95% of workers expect to maintain hybrid or remote working.  Given that trend, the urgent question is ‘How can we engage and manage those who often work remotely, sometimes work from the office, but always need to work effectively?”

We asked remote workers how their leaders made a positive difference to them over the past year.  Here’s what came top of their list:

  1. Communicating Purpose

With so much unexpected and rapid change, workers needed a framework, a “What We Know For Sure” structure to anchor them.Traditional business plans were revised almost daily in the uncertainty of the early pandemic. A leader who was able to engage in a conversation about the purpose of the firm and the employee’s place in that purpose created security, helped workers deal with ambiguity, and encouraged the rapid innovation necessary when Business as Usual is gone for good.

  1. Demonstrating Trust

It wasn’t just what leaders communicated, but how they did it, that made a big difference.  With teams working remotely, leaders took pains to remain visible, committing to regular communication (with individuals as well as teams) across a variety of media.Importantly, they were consistent in keeping the conversation going.

The strongest leaders made it a habit to share their thoughts and feelings, as well as information.

One employee described it like this: “Its like he moved out of his office and into the centre of the team – he showed us what it took to do his job, what he was worried about, what he celebrated that day….and he took time to hear our worries and wins, too.”

Demonstrating trust was in the words the leader used and in their willingness consistently to dedicate time to sharing information and listen to the team.

  1. Building Team Resilience

By the second lockdown, many employees were tired.  6+ hours of Zoom every day left social capital reserves at an all-time low.  Asking  individual workers for more amped up the burn out.

When it was crunch time, leaders explored ways of building resilience in their team, not just in individuals:

Bending the clock:  remote workers often “bend the clock”working outside the 9 to 5 to address customer expectations, respond  to nonwork commitments and to fit in with their individual energy patterns. 

 Leaders explicitly respected boundaries between work and non-work time.  They helped teams think flexibly about time and tasks. And they went further,  considering time as an asset to be shared across the team.   

 Leveraging overlapping skills:  When workers sit side by side in an  office, it’s easy to know who is the go-to person, the guru,  the guy who knows a man who can.

Remote workers need more help in mapping out who has what skills, and how they prefer to be asked to help.  Leaders help by sharing their knowledge of the team’s skill map, by encouraging mentoring and by  acknowledging and rewarding those who are willing to share skills.

War gaming:  Things go wrong.  And when they do, leaders of remote   teams use the learning moment to scrutinize the mistake or problem.  Then they go further, making sure that the fix is a topic for team discussion (what was the root cause?  Was that the best fix?  What will we do if the problem surfaces again?).  By taking this extra step, the create the habit of sharing  stories of effective team work.  No shame, no blame.

(Asynchronous) Communications: WhatsApp, Slack, Yammer, Friday – there are 100s of asynchronous communications tools out there and each has a slightly different use.  They give remote team members a place to collaborate, contemplate and lodge ideas that may be useful to other team members. 

Asynchronous communications tools  encourage a more thoughtful approach and provide a method of checking in that is especially valued by more introvert colleagues.  Leaders who use these tools themselves can be role models for flexible, thoughtful, open communication.                            

  1. Fostering Social Connection:  Is it paradoxical to talk about social connections for a remote work force?

We are social animals. We need social connection to stay motivated, to strengthen our self-esteem, to feel engaged and committed.If we are not physically in the office to create connections, substitutes must be found.

Over the past year, leaders have risen to the challenge, creating virtual and actual space for their team members to connect.  Some have got out of the office to share a coffee in a park near the employee’s home.  Some have been active in virtual spaces, encouraging teams to set aside social time in their working day.  Almost all have taken part in conversations about the how and when team members will use   social spaces when they return to the office.

Transforming Leaders/Transforming Organisations

So far we have discussed the pivot that leaders have made to support their teams through the pandemic.  Some were coached in their effort to change, some made it up as they went along, almost all listened carefully to their teams.

The work continues.  Creating organisations that free leaders to become role models for a new way of working is the next step.

About People Risk Solutions

PRS is an HR consultancy specialising in supporting financial and professional services firms since 2006.  We take a pragmatic approach to advising, guiding and supporting our clients through transformation of their people culture with a recent focus on hybrid working and SMCR.

To register your interest for the next series of roundtables, please complete the below form.Full NameName *Company *Job Title *Email *

Ben Wood
Frazer Jones
020 7332 9627
Dominique Seal
Associate Director
Frazer Jones
020 7332 2174
Andrew Pullman
People Risk Solutions
Michele Mackinnon
Head of Practice, Culture and SMCR
People Risk Solutions

​​For more information or to discuss your people culture aspirations,  please contact Dominique Seal.