The Covid Leadership Challenge

by | Nov 19, 2020 | Insights

The Covid pandemic has led to many more people working from home; what should leaders and organisations do to reflect this major change in working patterns across the globe?

Richard Finn gives leaders some answers.

Working from home has many benefits, but it also creates real challenges for leaders.

The number of people who work in virtual teams is increasing every year: the Telework Research Network reports that there are 2.9 million virtual workers in the US, a 61% rise since 2005. In the UK, the BBC estimates that there are 1.3 million full time virtual workers and 3.7 million part-timers – and these numbers were before Covid.

There are clear upsides if virtual teams are managed well: they can be very creative, including experts from all around the world and they can increase coverage, for example of a sales team. But there are significant potential downsides: lack of trust, isolation, disengagement and hidden performance.

Have organisations and leaders adapted to this relatively new fact of business life?

Consider Company A; it has over 50,000 employees, with production facilities all over the world, customer and distribution centres in many countries and for each of their brands, and sales and service technicians wherever they have products. Senior executives have global responsibilities, sales technicians often have country-wide coverage. This is not an untypical structure in global manufacturing and service companies.

In distributed global organisations like this, almost every good leadership practice is stressed by virtuality: performance conversations, coaching, engagement, teaming – you name it they are all very much more difficult to do well. So the question is have the Board and the C Suite of dispersed organisations faced up to the fact that leading in a virtual environment is very different to leading face-to-face?

Take span of control; numbers of direct reports have been increasing in recent years, the rule of seven is long gone, some say with experts, 21 reports is possible. Leading a virtual team member takes a great deal more time than when you have them close to you. There has to be more preparation for every one-to-one, performance conversations have to be longer to ensure alignment, understanding and feelings need to be surfaced. Sustaining values and culture becomes very much more difficult as employees disperse and the organisation becomes more individualistic.

Or consider how difficult it is to manage a person’s performance when you rarely see them. Resorting to KPI’s takes us back to management by objectives rather than the more effective regular coaching conversations which can include behaviour as well as output.

So what might Boards and the C Suite in a Covid or post-Covid world do to prevent the inevitable reduction in performance and mass burn-out that becomes ever more a probability?

  • First Boards must recognise that there is a cost to going virtual; leaders need more time for talking to their people and influencing their ecosystems. Spans of control will need to be reduced, travel budgets must not be the first to be cut.
  • Performance needs to be more visible, so assessment, coaching, performance conversations and much else needs to be shared with someone closer to the employee. A triangular relationship between the employee, their manager and their local supporter is one way of creating greater performance visibility.
  • There has to be a serious investment in technology and a strategy for internal communications; most digital communication systems are at best unreliable, and they need to be accompanied by clear protocols on when and how to use them.
  • Organisations should research the competencies required of virtual leaders and virtual employees and then select on the basis of the results. Extraverts are unlikely to find it easy to dial up the time and effort they need to spend with their people; virtual employees will need to be independent, self-disciplined and able to cope with isolation.
  • We know that engagement is a significant factor in performance; leaders will need to have the tools to have very regular pulse tests of the engagement of their people, not just the more usual annual or biannual employee survey.
  • Leadership will need to redouble their efforts to create a purpose- and values-aligned culture across the organisation. Virtuality kills culture through isolation and the inability of employees to see their leaders demonstrating the values.
  • Virtuality creates huge costs in life-work balance; senior executives and some middle managers are forced to travel extensively to do their job creating real costs for their families and their health. Organisations should consider more generous holiday and sabbatical entitlements for virtual leaders.

What can individual leaders do to maintain high performance levels?

  • Adapt their style and how they spend their time to the realities of virtual working
  • More talk about feelings; more questions seeking facts; invite more feedback
  • Invest in relationships; build small talk into calls
  • Invest regular time in discussion of personal Missions and Vision; these will help to ensure invisible work is aligned to strategy
  • Plan and prepare even more for one-to-ones, meetings and the selection of new team members
  • Be culturally sensitive on the timing of meetings and language
  • Ensure there is a collective purpose firmly in place for the team
  • Arrange a local “people” manager/coach to support you in those activities that require observation or immediacy.

Virtual working is not new; what is new is the extent to which businesses depend on it, especially since Covid has led to many more people working and leading from home. Organisations need to be more respectful of the sacrifice that their leaders make to ensure the system works, manage the downsides of virtual working and invest in practices that recognise the reality of virtuality in organisational design.

Richard Finn is an internationally-experienced coach, educator and business adviser, and has recently worked with senior executives in Sage, DeutschePostDHL, Atlas Copco, BUPA, and UK Sport. Richard has particular expertise in the areas of strategy, change leadership, culture, coaching and performance management, and he also works closely with intact leadership teams to develop their collective capability.

During his career Richard was Managing Director at Penna plc, he worked as HR Director for the IT function of Societe Generale, and he was Marketing Director at Henley Distance Learning. Richard is a qualified Chartered Director, a Liveryman of the City of London, and a founding member of the City Values Forum, dedicated to restoring trust in the City of London.

Kourdi Associates​ ​work with current and potential leaders to develop their mindset, skills and effectiveness. Jeremy Kourdi is formerly Senior Vice President with The Economist, he has worked with London Business School and Duke Corporate Education as well as market-leading businesses worldwide, and he is the author of 27 books translated into 17 languages, including​ ​The Truth About Talent​ ​and​ ​Coaching Essentials​. ​His business​ ​Kourdi Associates​ ​provides coaches, expert content and consultants that help leaders successfully navigate a changing world.

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