Leadership   //   February 9, 2022

Unpacking which harmful work practices the pandemic exposed, and which are — hopefully — banished for good

It’s crass to argue “the pandemic has been good for humanity.” It has, though, effectively taken an X-ray of society and highlighted where sickness lies. And, most agree, much remedial work is required to restore total health.

Whether acute areas are treated — or, indeed, treatable — is a matter for incumbent politicians and business leaders. In this article, we turned to the latter cohort to reflect on what harmful work practices were exposed by the coronavirus crisis and how they’ve evolved as a result, for the better.

End of command and control culture

Many bosses initially struggled to lead at the start of the pandemic. It was an uncomfortable time as leaders everywhere grappled with how to manage during a period of such uncertainty. But the near-overnight shift to remote working forced a new type of communication from those in charge.

Traditional command and control culture will disintegrate in successful businesses, making way for a coaching mindset, according to Gary Ashworth, founder, and chairman of recruitment business InterQuest Group, and author of “Eat the Pudding First” — a book about how to be successful in business. “Leaders who coach and mentor, rather than shout and order, will unlock potential and drive incredible performance,” he said.

For some leaders, the shift has been a relief. “The pandemic showed how showing vulnerability is a superpower,” said Paul Szumilewicz, retail transformation director of continental Europe at bank HSBC. “Resilience is overrated. Too often, we have unrealistic expectations of people, particularly leaders.”

Szumilewicz, who has led teams of more than 2,000 staff in various roles, now believes that admitting “we don’t know the answer, but we are working on it” shows strength, and added that there has been a positive shift in leaders accepting that being vulnerable makes them more relatable.

Tara Ataya, chief people and diversity officer at social media management platform Hootsuite, agrees, but notes for many leaders, this more open way to communicate is a work in progress, not helped by having to adapt to hybrid working. “Leaders are considering how to ensure our people feel engaged and considered while working remotely,” she said. “To reimagine how we communicate, and not assume that the way we did things in-person naturally translates to the digital environment — it takes some creativity,” she added.

Rigidity on where we work

For some, no longer being tied to a physical office five days a week has been the most long-lasting change. “It’s also the most seismic. It’s something that’s from a different era now,” said Lucy Doubleday, managing partner of social media agency We Are Social. She described having more flexibility on where you work as a “game-changer for employees,” as they can better strike a work-life balance.

However, Tim Oldman, founder, and CEO of Leesman, which measures and analyzes employee workplace experience for organizations in the U.K., is unconvinced enough businesses have grasped the potential of this. “So many business leaders still don’t recognize ‘workplace’ as a critical component in enhancing employee performance and therefore leveraging their organizational competitive advantage,” he said. 

Oldman singled out two businesses that have seized the opportunity to transform their workplace models: London-based bank Standard Chartered Bank and U.S. tech conglomerate Cisco. “Standard Chartered Bank co-created a strategy with employees that will see them deliver twice the experience in half the space by 2025,” he said, referencing the bank’s year-long flexible-working trial in which its 95,000 staff can decide which of its 35,000 offices they can work from.

Meanwhile, [Cisco is looking in] “immense detail at specific work activities and considering the role of specific centers where these can be designed for,” he added.

Another progressive organization is U.S. file-hosting service Dropbox, which shifted to a virtual-first strategy. “No one misses the dash, or hunt, for the meeting room,” said Andy Wilson, the company’s U.K. lead. “In our past office-working, the domain of the meeting room was always a crunch point. Now we enjoy the flexibility of the virtual meeting room. And by freeing ourselves from the physical room, we’ve also changed our temporal thinking.”

Underestimating human connections

Some believe the past two years shed a light on how human connections had been taken for granted in the workplace. “I wince at how much, pre-pandemic, we underestimated the importance of human connection — with each other, with deeper purpose and with accomplishment,” said Robert Ordever, managing director at employee-recognition software firm O.C. Tanner Europe.

The rolling lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 exposed the organizations that didn’t strive to bring people together emotionally as well as technologically, he added. As a result, when employees needed their leaders, colleagues, and a strong organizational purpose more than ever before, some workers “were left isolated and struggling,” said Ordever.

That isolation has been one of the key triggers for the so-called Great Resignation, alongside outdated policies, according to Scott Chao, chief marketing officer at workplace platform Appspace. “Many companies have policies dating back to the 1800s with draconian concepts still in play.” The traditional workplace hierarchy, he said, has recently been “exposed as a weak link” in numerous businesses. 

“Internal communication has been pushed to its limits during this time, with even larger gaps forming between management and employees. Lack of upwards communication has been linked to employee dissatisfaction and decreased retention rates,” added Chao.

Chris Holmes, managing partner of culture and engagement at business management consultancy Brandpie, is concerned. “Workplace culture has been slowly eroding since the start of Covid-19. Organizations need to reimagine how they define culture in this new world. Why we work, the type of work we do, where we work – these are questions that are not going away, and it’s courageous, visionary leaders that have an opportunity to affect change.”

Farewell corporate lip service

Against the backdrop of people continuing to resign their jobs en masse, pressure is on employers to meet newfound requirements around flexibilty and work-life balance, and also uphold their ethical and social values. “The old status quo, in which management would monopolize the highest salaries and offer only limited flexibility to the workers responsible for generating value for the business, has come under severe scrutiny,” said Ian Chambers, CEO of U.K.-headquartered change-management company Linea Group.

Meanwhile, efforts to do more than just pay lip service to improve diversity, equity and inclusion have become a corporate imperative in the business world. “Many have questioned the level of societal imbalance for some time, but there is no doubt that the pandemic magnified and intensified these thoughts, resulting in a growing awareness of the various ways in which the world of business was simply not fair,” added Chambers.

Rohan Maheswaran, associate director of Futureheads Recruitment warns that those businesses that don’t match deed with word, in terms of DE&I, will repel talent. “Perception and practice is everything. People consume so much content around a company’s image, values, and employee happiness that can easily be found online through sites such as Glassdoor,” he said.

Breaking down of geographical barriers

As has been widely reported, attracting and retaining top talent has never been trickier. It is the fundamentals, though, that some businesses are getting wrong, even today, according to James Lloyd-Townshend, chairman and CEO of technology training provider Revolent Group. “When I think of the mainstream model most companies adopted before the pandemic, I struggle to remember how we managed to operate without the flexibility that’s become increasingly necessary and widespread throughout these past two years,” he said.

Clodagh Murphy, director for U.K.-based recruitment firm Cathedral Appointments, agrees. Due to the ongoing recruitment crisis, talent sourcing has needed to change rapidly. “The biggest evolution has been the breaking down of geographical barriers, thanks to better flexible working and remote working models,” she said, adding: “Whether top-quality talent is five miles or 50 miles away, there’s no need for employers to disregard anyone in the hiring process anymore.”