Jun 28, 2023
Many of our clients have told us that Covid and especially remote working situations, revealed a lot about the leadership frailty of their organisations. When everyone was in the office, the inability of mid-level leaders to lead was effectively masked. However, once the big homeward bound migration took place, sizeable gaps suddenly became apparent. These gaps were around the communication of the firm’s strategy, direction, the alignment of the team and getting things done. Each of these aspects had to be updated in a rapidly changing Covid environment, where in the early phases, there were no vaccines and people were dying in droves.
The latest Covid variants are highly contagious, but less lethal. The government has moved Covid down the scale to be equivalent with the flu. Current numbers are about 70% of firms are back in the office in Japan, so there is now a more complex hybrid challenge to deal with. Communication becomes more difficult when some staff are meeting colleagues in person and others are at home not joining those spontaneous “water cooler” conversations. This creates a two-tier work-force of those in the know and those who suffer “FOMO” – the fear of missing out.
The boss’s job is to make sure the coordination of the work and communication across the firm are working. This has become more difficult and so new tools are required. More frequent all-hands meetings create opportunities to get key messages out to everyone simultaneously. Mid-level managers then need to drive that messaging further. We all know, a message once told, melts very quickly and people don’t recollect it for long. The forgetting curve is vicious. We forget half of what we are told in an hour, seventy percent in a day and ninety percent in a week. No wonder we have to keep hammering important content to make sure everyone hears it and understands it.
A simple thing like the “chorei” or morning team meeting become more complex. These were a standard tool for coordinating within the team and for messaging to the team from their supervisors. If they are being held in the office again, then those at home cannot attend. If it is held on-line, with those at home and those in the office all online, then what is the point of having people get together in the office? We can easily find ourselves getting the worst of both worlds, if we are not careful.
Email and different apps become important tools of communication, which allow people to access the information at their pace. Getting key details written creates a permanent record which can be referred to, easily shared and stored. Verbal instructions and information sharing are effervescent however and don’t linger long. Email becomes a bit of a pain because we are inundated with tsunamis of email into our inbox and we can quickly become overwhelmed. The balance between the spoken and written word needs some consideration, to ascertain which communication vehicles are now needed, work best and also how the whole messaging strategy should hang together.
Teamwork is like a muscle which atrophies when not exercised. Trying to build teamwork when everyone was at home was difficult and probably for most firms, unsatisfying for the team members. Even though we may troop back into the office, the assumption shouldn’t be made that we can just pick up the threads of where we were and everything will automatically fit back into place again.
There are some bound to be some people who have become isolated during Covid and have retreated into themselves over these last three years. Issues which may not have been apparent when everyone was mixing every day in the office may now require some close observation and monitoring. We can physically bring them back to the office, but they remain isolated and avoid others, seeking seating arrangements where they can work alone, away from everyone. Mental health issues become a concern in these cases and we need to gently and gradually re-tribalise some of the team.
Many firm’s CFOs are re-thinking the layout of the office space to make it smaller, given there are rent savings to be had by outsourcing to the staff, to have them pay for and provide their own working space at home. Others are keeping the same amount of space, but removing desks and creating more collaborative areas and also quiet spaces, to cater for a variety of working style preferences. These are issues we never faced before, when we had traditional office working arrangements and naturally it all becomes an experiment to some extent.
There is also a new question which is popping up in staff interviews. In the background are certain expectations, given there are more jobs going than candidates available to fill the positions. The potential new hires are asking, “Can I work from home” and if the answer is “no”, then many are declining the opportunity to join. Having everyone back together after three years may instil some buzz. We may be getting better engagement back into office, with people laughing and chatting together again, yet this new hire demand for isolation defeats the purpose of re-grouping. Are we going to trade off the teamwork we want to resuscitate against the recruitment requirement to source more resources? This is a tricky path we have to tread and sadly, there are no simple answers for this one.
The post -Covid world of work has changed. There is no reliable road map we can use and it will probably take a couple of years before some conclusions can be drawn about which path is the best one. The keys will be greater flexibility and a willingness to host dual, possibly even contradicting systems simultaneously, until there is greater clarity about how best to move forward.