Humane Leadership; How Do We Lead Post Covid?

Louise Cantrill – Managing Partner – Skylite Associates

For most of us those early stages of this pandemic were a bit of a sprint. I have seen organisations transform in days – areas that would have taken years to complete normally with huge numbers of people working from home.   

We were working on Agile and Flexible plans with organisations in the Public Sector back in only last February and well that got taken over! We watched as shops, bars and restaurants switched to delivery-only models. My local pub opening a wonderful takeaway service to survive – which is now closed again!  

We are also grappling with the complexities of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, furloughing staff rather than let them go, with the government paying 80% of the wage bill. After hearing the word furlough at the horse races it is now an everyday word – 9.5 million jobs furloughed! Who would thought this back at the beginning of last year?

However, a year later, it has become painfully, exhaustingly clear that what we thought was a sprint, was actuall,y a marathon. The additional adrenaline rush – that we felt ourselves – of new ways of working wore off. People are fatigued and fed up. 

As you know we speak with HR leaders on a regular basis. This fatigue has only increased with leaders and managers looking for external support and peer connection.

Something that has raised its head in recent weeks through these conversations is what I think of as a “fracturing” of the workforce. Many organisations now know when they can bring people together physically, but the more challenging issue—one that can’t be solved with one-way walking systems and Perspex screens—is bringing people back together psychologically. Organisations of all sizes and across all sectors and regions have such a disparity of employee experiences of the pandemic, that creating a sense of “oneness” is a formidable task.

“That sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ has long gone,” one chief people officer reflected recently. Another, rather gloomily, added: “The kindness has left the room.” It’s being replaced with resentment (Why am I putting myself in danger every day while my colleagues sit at home on full pay?) and anxiety (Am I going to lose my job?).

We are seeing cracks appear.  There are always challenges with staff – we wouldn’t have a business if there weren’t but this crisis made things more visible and more profound. As a Covid survivor myself lets pull no punches this is a matter of life and death. 

This uniqueness of experience challenges the concept of fairness. How can you be fair and consistent when the spectrum of needs varies so dramatically? Should you even try?

  • Fed up with furlough or angry about staying on
  • Reluctant returners against those that can’t wait to get back
  • Covid casual as opposed to Covid concerned

Rather than trying to second guess the future ways of working we see the need to recognise how individual our working experiences of the pandemic have been. And more than recognise, we need to care. 

As INSEAD management professor Gianpiero Petriglieri put it recently: “We need more humane leadership. We need leadership to care, with a bigger focus on community, connectivity, and bringing people together.”

Compassion and humanity will be key at all levels to knitting back together a psychologically fractured workforce. The question for leaders then, is as much about how to engender empathy, as it is about what the new, post-COVID-19 strategy should be.

As human behaviour is messy and unpredictable, there are no easy answers to solving this but being as open and inclusive as we can be, where honest conversations are welcomed. And we need to give people voice and choice. Autonomy in our ways of working is sorely lacking right now. Enforced home working, without the option to go into the office or a café for a change of scene, is not the same as flexible working, as it lacks the element of choice.

Moving forward, we are going to need to be innovative, creative, and compassionate to engage, motivate, and connect our teams. Fostering togetherness will not be easy. We can at least start by acknowledging the incongruity of experience within our workforces and building from a place of honesty and compassion.

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