Leadership in the time of pandemic report
A year of the pandemic has just elapsed and without hesitation we can easily voice the truism „the last year has turned our lives upside down”. The dynamics of family life, work, leisure activities were upended. All of us, business-wise and personally, had to adapt to the new circumstances. Many of these adjustments have been surprisingly „easy” but at the same time there have been many unexpected consequences of these changes – often very difficult ones.
It seems that the world is no longer the same, but how is it really? After a year of living in the throes of a pandemic, what are the real challenges for business professionals? What are the challenges they are dealing with now after this very unusual year?
We decided to ask CEOs and executives of organizations operating in various industries and countries about this issue.
In January and February 2021, we had a series of conversations with leaders in Poland, UK, USA, Hungary, South Africa, Russia, Czech Republic. We received a large number of replies (over 50 responses).
The material turned out to be so inspiring, rich and varied, we decided to cite verbatim what our interviewees relayed to us.
There is one certainty already, no one shied away from such a discussion or was afraid to be open during our conversations. This inspires our gratitude, but also respect and optimism!
On the basis of these sincere interviews we have prepared the following compilation. We would like it to serve as a source of comfort (we are not alone with our „headaches”), inspiration, and also as a call to action for all of us to quickly learn from our mistakes. Above all, not to demonize the existing reality, but to have faith in our unique brains. The very social brain that enabled our species to succeed. Let’s decide to learn from instead of fear the situation we find ourselves in.
Fear is a reaction, Courage is a decisionW. Churchill
We have grouped the statements of our respondents into the following areas:
LEADERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT
A DIFFERENT KIND OF EXHAUSTION
Leaders are tired. Lack of face-to-face contacts, lack of travel negatively affects their motivation; they have nowhere to draw inspiration from. I used to get my energy from working with people, from meetings. Now most things happen online.
Having to make „quick decisions” is stressful. Quick can sometimes be messy,
A tired team is an extra energy expenditure for a leader. Being attentive to one’s needs, a leader’s energy balance is essential.
Lack of time and motivation for self-development. Problem with setting priorities and incorporating self and self development into the schedule. How do I make it so that I am one of the top three priorities for myself?
People are stressed and very dependent on the leader’s emotions. They expect calm and positive leadership.
THE ON-SCREEN LEADER
The leader spends more time interacting with the employee. The role of soft skills has increased. BUT It’s hard to be a coach for others when you lose the ability to talk and sense emotions. How do you maintain optimism when there are so many pessimistic signals around? When I walk into a remote meeting with a smile, everyone leaves with a plan. When I walk into a meeting without a smile people are overwhelmed with anxiety. I don’t always have the strength to smile.
In remote work, you have to trust more, which is hard, but how do you do that so that the work gets done, and that I’m not seen as a Cerberus guarding everything and everyone. I have to allow the team to set their own priorities.
Artificial harmony has become an issue. We no longer have the space for constructive conflicts within teams. Things are swept under the rug.
Online meetings don’t make it easy to see problems at their inception stage. It’s only when they accumulate or escalate that they become apparent. In a normal situation we sit down and talk. Now when conflict reaches me it is already massive, toxic.
It’s hard to convey passion and commitment, motivate and create a sense of unity online. I’m normally a very physical communicator. Contact via digital media should somehow be more intense, take place more frequently, and above all with greater discipline. This includes clients.
Working remotely does not encourage optimization. If they can delay something, they delay it.
It’s hard to work out conflicts over the phone, and the close relationships have suffered. We used to go out for a drink and work out problems, now we no longer do this.
Communication is also shallow: There are no deep discussions about challenges, and if you examine this further, you will discover that such discussions are not welcome. No one is addressing the very normal issues that accompany teamwork. As well as feedback: There is a lack of meaningful praise and an abundance of less specific, sometimes empty praise.
How to keep everyone aligned if there is no efficient communication?
Remote work has reduced or eliminated all informal, casual and the sort of ad hoc circulation and exchange of information. People know less ‘what’s going on in the company’ than they did before the pandemic. This leads to a focus on a narrow slice of their tasks and responsibilities – siloed, sectional thinking, focused on accomplishing their tasks rather than „big picture” goals. In turn, this leads to alienation and estrangement – so another problem is integrating teams and building a sense of community.
A CLOUDED VISION
It’s hard to lead with vision and purpose when that is so unclear now…and I need to lead. Who is leading me, though?
Lack of strategic focus. I feel like in a crisis it becomes very much about anything you can make work so people over-extend and entertain too many options and spread themselves too thin… basically causing burnout.
How to keep the vision when you work from home and you get bored.
WHAT IN LIEU OF A SCEPTER?
It’s hard to be a leader without the attributes of a leader – a „corner office” and an assistant. Such visible insignia of authority make a leader’s life easier. Without them you have to manage differently.
There are voices testifying to doubts about one’s competence. I do not feel like a leader.
The current work of a leader is more like project management, tasks are distributed, discussed and checked, but it is not real leadership, in which there is room for reflection, observation of people and their reactions, sensing emotions.
Decreased team motivation and commitment translates into more mistakes and conflict.
How do you manage and motivate people when your organization doesn’t have good PR?
I have a concern that the team is falling apart. There isn’t a great vibe. There is a sense among the team that we are like electrons and not a team, a whole. I’m afraid that in the long run it will break up the team. I’m afraid the company will split; so far no one crucial has left, but I have that fear.
It is fairly easy to get people excited and energized on a Zoom call, but as soon as they come off the call, some of them are alone, and in environments that do not keep them energized – and they can lose momentum and enthusiasm quickly.
It feels more difficult to create that sense of urgency at the top (senior management and the Board).
I am finding that not all of the group are asking questions when they don’t understand something during a meeting… in the past they could ask a colleague in private for more explanation (which was easy to do as they walked back to their desks after the meeting or grabbed a coffee after the meeting). Now though, they seem embarrassed to ask for clarification and remain confused after the meeting.
Limiting contact to that which is factual decreases the chance of identifying employee needs that are not directly articulated, this provides less opportunity for appropriate motivation.
In remote work with certain roles, it’s harder to have reliable verification of engagement and work output.
We used to have large team-building meetings twice a year in the normal times. They provided a sense of belonging. You could feel the energy of the company, the team, and the power of community. Now it is more difficult to build belonging.
A huge problem is onboarding newly hired employees and integrating them into the team and the company.
In most of the statements in the area of leadership and management, there were challenges related to the team: motivation, arousing enthusiasm, building commitment and relationships, conflict management and the need to build an organizational culture for new times, as well as strategy: building long-term plans and budgets, defining goals and direction for the development of the organization.
WORK-LIFE BALANCE AND MENTAL HEALTH
SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG
People can’t manage their time well while working remotely.
People aren’t motivated by the video calls, they are just tired. They are more aggressive, the boundaries are gone. Work and home has blended, wellbeing will be a major focus for us.
People are exhausted, they don’t take vacations; they have more and more tasks,
There have been strong signs of decreased mood, the very first people with depression and burnout.
People have started to freak out.
Two noticeable trends emerged: some of the team is exercising more often than before the pandemic, most of the team has gained weight.
The team is less responsive to change or challenges.
One difficulty I would mention is morale and burnout. People are definitely starting earlier and working later than they did when we were in the office. The computer is always there and it can be hard to separate life from work. Vacation days aren’t being taken because travelling is not a safe option… In general it’s been a stressful situation for everyone in their personal lives and until recently lack of a light at the end of the tunnel made things difficult.
People are fed up. They lose patience more easily.
Working from home and combining family and work is a challenge. I’m having feelings that I’m still missing something. When I am with family, I am thinking about work and when I am at work I am thinking about family. I know it’s about defining borders and time management. Just saying that even knowing and trying to manage that it’s hard to separate those two worlds – work and family.
More and more people are complaining of all sorts of back pain.
How to deal with people’s frustration and anxiety?
People are stressed, uncertain, and highly reliant on leader emotions. They are looking for calm and positive leadership. Everyone is having their own ups and downs. The pressure to deliver, anxiety of loved ones being affected; the mixing of professional and personal spaces with work from home; even the thought of a return to office causes a mix of emotions. All of this is real and normal. Some colleagues feel the mental and emotional strain more than other, and other a physical fatigue. How to revitalize and reenergize?
Another aspect is the use of alcohol. People are stressed, drinking on the job. Disintegration of teams, lack of trust. No one knows what’s going on. Paranoia.
Dealing with mental fatigue of people and self… kind of lack of motivation in this era where we don’t have enough contact/diversity to keep our interest going.
ORGANIZATION OF WORK
… IE NEW SOFTWARE WITH AN OLD USER MANUAL
Employees’ expectation of a high degree of autonomy in where and how they work – forced remote working has shown that you can do your office duties from outside the office, so why come to the office even if there is no longer a COVID risk? How do we manage this while maintaining the employee satisfaction we measure annually?
Creating a new work environment and employee experience (work experience and employee experience).
Office – buy or continue to rent (how much% office, hybrid, remote?).
How to implement a cultural and organizational change so the company is prepared to function in the VUCA era. How to monitor, reorganize and implement such changes on an ongoing basis? How to manage such an organization?
Empowerment for digitalization and innovation (the cycle experimentation – failure – learning – growth); preparedness for the new normalcy.
Ensuring productivity of people who work in home office mode.
Old frameworks do not adapt to the new reality. The challenge is the „ossified processes and procedures imposed by the corporation (network) for shaping compensation policies, promotions, promotions, hiring, layoffs and new competencies.
We can’t keep up with all the changes. Everything is being digitized, and we only have time to implement the ‘must haves,’ and even that goes slowly.
We have had to accelerate digital transformation as the shift to remote working revealed big gaps in IT, planning and digital upskilling.
Digital change management getting resources and staff to embrace new automation tools and learn new ways.
Remote working – among task workers, efficiency has increased; among those working conceptually, efficiency has decreased.
Business-wise we operate mostly online. Which is changing the function of the office, which is no longer the natural place for organizational culture to take shape. What’s more, you can see that the people who still frequent the office are generally more engaged. In our culture, yes we’ve long been technically well-digitized, but virtual reality has always been seen as a substantively less valuable, substitute version of real reality used only for utilitarian reasons. And since our team is inclined to think more deeply, any attempt to give higher value to digital reality will be perceived as artificial. What will we do about it in the long run? I don’t know yet, but I’m curious to hear others’ ideas.
A huge challenge is the discipline of online meetings and their effectiveness.
Making sure not to miss out on the opportunities during these times of shifting paradigms, and shifting needs.
How to plan our business and profitability in a changing environment. New ways are needed including scenario planning.
Changes in consumption priorities in the face of recession.
Volatility in multiple dimensions: both market and social.
BUSINESS AND MONEY
THE COST OF SAVINGS
The owner is cutting costs; some good employees are quitting because they can’t handle the pressure. The amount of work has not decreased; there are fewer employees. Frustration is growing. Mine and people’s.
Business-wise 2020 was a difficult year, not looking at the spring and second quarter where there was panic – it was all the while a kind of anticipation of what might happen; business-wise we operate all over the world and in different countries the reactions to the crisis were and still are very different, which makes it unstable all the time and which affects all plans. Ultimately, the year was very good, people were very engaged with the work under the Board of Directors’ bolstering that we are fighting for jobs, for the result, for the company, for jobs, etc. At the end of the year, the owner announced record-breaking results… People expected the company to share in the profits (for two quarters we worked in reduced FTE for less pay, but everyone completed 100% of tasks and more because the result was the best ever). Employees ask us if they will get something from it, we asked Management and got a negative response. People are demotivated and I already know that they will not try so hard in the future when a bigger crisis comes, because they feel cheated.
We had a lot of limitations due to COVID restrictions (periodically limited number of shifts in production) which resulted in the fact that we could not meet the demand for our products. A lot of orders were overdue, not everyone would listen to the explanation of COVID and we would get penalized.
In the beginning it was mandated – we cut costs, we don’t raise wages. Now I’ve got a beefed up profit, truncated costs and a high benchmark.
We are having difficulty raising project financing.
Business-wise it’s not easy – customers are tightening their belts, saying it’s hard for them, so you have to feel it too – and they’re cutting our margins.
Large swings in business create the need for constant savings, potential layoffs. Leaders are under DAILY pressure to make (difficult) decisions.
Widening gaps between people’s salary expectations and company capabilities. This is especially true for today’s most in-demand digital, data, analytics, technology competencies.
COVID has changed the landscape of the market. The big players have imposed solutions that are marginally beneficial for them, not necessarily for customers. My fear is that things will go back to normal and some of the solutions will still be in place.
Lack of business confidence among advertisers.
THE EMPEROR IS UNCLOTHED – THE RELATIONSHIP LITMUS TEST
A challenge we are having is relationship building with clients. We are not sure if a deal will close, there was something about getting that verbal confirmation at the sales meeting that is lacking now.
The virtual is a nice pivot but just not an engaging and meaningful way to reach clients. Zoom fatigue is real. In person coffee is a connection.
Lack of social connection via lunches, cocktails, events etc. that are necessary to keep me up-to-date with the business at a high level of granularity.
The virtual world presents challenges for sales – not knowing if something is a real lead or someone is using you for info – not being close enough to feel out or really build the relationship.
These excerpts from our interviewees most clearly illustrate the complexity of the current situation and the level of challenge that leaders face. So what now? What questions, what situations require new approaches and solutions? What trends for the future emerge from this snapshot?
1. The energy and well-being of the leader has additional significance. Taking care of oneself, one’s health, one’s vitality is no longer a „nice to have” but a „must have”. The workload is so severe that a leader is easily exhausted, and teams now need a double dose of energy.
2. Mental well-being of employees is becoming an important aspect of management. Increasingly, concepts such as depression, burnout, crisis, addictions, nervous breakdown, anxiety are being used in a professional context. There is a need to develop competencies (in leaders, in HR departments, in organizations) to deal with difficult situations and emotions of this kind. Emotional intelligence and empathy are becoming important managerial competences.
3. Ensuring psychological safety is becoming a priority in management – open feedback, the ability to listen, creating an atmosphere in which employees are not afraid to talk, ask questions or have doubts and all this in the remote working scenario is becoming a real challenge. Vulnerability is not a weakness!
4. New boundaries need to be drawn between what is private and what is professional. The old division is blurred and the new one has not yet been created, which leads either to workaholism and exhaustion or lack of efficiency.
5. Building trust and nurturing relationships in remote relationships will require more than just online coffee drinking together. So what will it take? Let’s seek out and share best practices!
6. Dealing with uncertainty – a different perspective of time in planning, lots of flexibility, speed of adaptation, at the expense of perfection. Time for flexible (shape shifting) structures and organizations.
7. Need to avoid the pitfalls of categorization and putting new solutions into old packages. Leaders need new knowledge and competencies to build resilience in the face of an uncertain future. Where from to draw inspiration? From nature? From other parts of the world? The ability to learn, to learn fast and to adapt, are now of particular importance.
8. Increased importance of values, identity – both in relations with employees, as well as customers and business partners. Authenticity, consistency with declared values, caring about something more than business.
9. We noticed an interesting trend – differently distributed emphasis in the statements of European versus American leaders. In Europe, the themes of motivation, involvement and well-being of employees were in the forefront. However, in the statements of our American respondents, the dominant theme was that of customer relations and the difficulty with finalizing agreements resulting from the lack of direct contact.
10. It was a challenging and completely new experience for all of us, which showed how dependent and interconnected we are. We can take it as an invitation to work together not only to resolve the current crisis, but to create the kind of world we would like to live in.
You, as leaders in a dilemma-ridden world, will have to figure out how to thrive in this space between judging too soon (the classic mistake of the problem solver) and deciding too late (the classic mistake of the academic). I believe that the next ten years will be twisted and splintered – the most turbulent years in all of our lifetimes – and the most hopeful, if we play it right.Bob Johansen, leading futurist – „The New Leadership Literacies” published in 2017