Leading Teams in Times of Transition

team of people around a table

Teams look to their leaders for direction and support and here’s how you can make sure you are ready.

As our sense of normal continues to shift, slide and stumble to find its place in our home and work life, leaders must rise like never before. Who we are in a transition says a lot of about what we care about and how we imagine the future of our people.

We are in the midst of significant business changes once again! Leaders are likely dealing with a bigger mental shift back to work life, than merely a physical shift back to the workplace. The norms of leadership have challenged us over this turbulent time and called upon leaders to dig deeper into their sense of courage, empathy, mutual trust and belonging. And then translate these into leadership practices teams can feel, observe and lean on in a time of deep crisis and uncertainty.

Rethinking purpose and commitment

To say we are unsettled is an understatement. Also, uncertainty affects us differently. Some double down to reconfirm their faith in who they are, what they believe in and what the future holds for them. While many others might take a step back to rethink and reassess their choices in life as their foundations continue to rumble and shake. Leaders can be empathetic to the fact that while we are pulling ourselves together outwardly and getting on with the business of life, deep down, we are not out of the woods. Our sense of normal is still elusive and our professional focus maybe fragile.

The transition back into office, or partly office and home, is easier said than done. In this prolonged health and economic crisis, we not only lost our workspace, but our place at work. Maybe, who we were and what we cared for before the pandemic, was brought in to question with the barrage of relentless news cycles, job and financial uncertainty and widespread fear. Many amongst us likely had to replace who we thought we were with the person we needed to become when alone and feeling vulnerable and unsure of ourselves and our future.

Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, notes in his HBR article this useful insight, “One of the effects of social distancing and working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us? Who are we without all the external recognition? No fancy clothes and cars to project an image. No praise or even rejection. No feedback at all to define us. This can leave us feeling…unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?” 

A leader’s hard work now lies in cultivating a sense of deep understanding that some people are lost, and their purpose and commitment blurred. It would be counter-productive to admonish anyone for drifting away from their purpose and taking a pause. As people make their way back to the workplace, and a semblance of routine, they might still be grappling with the confusion and mental exhaustion of not having known what lay ahead these past few months. And continue to not know enough as they enter this transition. Some of us, including our leaders, are flying a bit blind, perhaps. We can all be empathetic to that human aspect of this transition.

Maybe, a short and planned mental pause is what is needed. Can leaders make this a legitimate exercise, so it’s no longer something that lurks under the surface like a dirty secret we have to deal with? What if a leader could offer space and time for everyone in their team to speak about the uncertainty they feel? Reflect on what had changed for them as they made their way back to a semblance of normalcy. What valuable lessons had they learned about themselves, their work and others in this trying time? Could they get together and hear each other out without judgement or advice as the first step in their transition as a team? 

Think of what tremendous insights and mutual purpose could flow out of such a conversation for everyone. With this, the leader might also receive the support and information they need to grasp the enormity of the change that lay ahead of them all. And how purpose and commitment were different perhaps, but maybe, no less than earlier. In fact, even richer and more intimate now that we had a probable brush with mortality, the fickleness of our lives and how scarily interconnected our world is.

Recalibrating empathy and concern

A leader’s first stop on this long and arduous journey of transitioning back to work is to perhaps show empathy and concern towards themselves. To have a moment of reflection and think about the many ways they might have tried to be there for their people, and the times they failed to do as much. To forgive themselves for those times when they didn’t know what might have been the best course of action. The pandemic did not descend upon us with a user manual in tow for leaders and their teams. 

Their next stop is to ask this vital question in context of their people, what should they be empathetic and concerned towards? This question seemed to have been answered for the most part in our pre-pandemic era, which seems like a long time ago now. Much has shifted and churned in this short time since we went to office every day and the world was spinning as it should have. What leaders can be empathetic towards now is a wider range of personal and professional dimensions that they hadn’t imagined ever. That peek into someone’s kitchen or their kids’ playroom as they also focused on a Zoom call has shifted us in ways we can’t describe, perhaps. It has changed what we knew of each other, our perception of what our personal lives entail and who we are when we sit in front of our screens in comfy bottoms to solve prickly work problems.

Leaders traditionally showed empathy when an employee placed a concern before them at work or went through a home, health or mental crisis that needed their leaders’ understanding and support. It was so much easier to filter out the private and more intimate parts of our struggles. It seemed much less daunting to have dealt with these concerns as we could shield ourselves from the full brunt of what that person’s life was like back home. Plus, leaders have been taught not to get too involved in anyone’s personal problems. Now that curtain has been torn off for many. The scope of what a leader can be empathetic towards and how much they might get to know or see lays uncomfortably wide open. 

You might have read this one-liner early on during the lockdown that describes how work and professional dynamics changed rapidly, it says, ‘we are not working from home, we are at home trying to work’. It tells you how the model of what our professional and home life looked like has been flipped. Many people suddenly had options they had never thought of before! For example, can we send off an email while helping our kids with their home-schooling or even speak with a teacher about how our child was coping with the fear and uncertainty all around? Or can we take some time off in the morning to do shopping for an elderly person who was struggling to buy their own groceries in the initial chaos? 

As a leader do you have the capacity to continue to understand that things are not as ironed out just because the lockdown lifted? That some of that flexibility hangover might need to be discussed and dealt with now that the person makes their way back to office? Did they value they could care for their family better while being home and didn’t need to cut corners with their work to do that? Is that what they prefer going ahead and is coming back to office harder than they had thought? 

For some others, they are likely heaving a sigh of relief to get their separation of office and home back on track. They are burned out. They can now move away from those excruciating times when they couldn’t figure out when work began and leisure started. They, like many others, got caught up in productivity and forgot balance. Or they never had a home life set up for prolonged work from home, and this had been a rough ride for the most part. It has maybe exhausted them and made them less productive overall.

In this uncertainty and the unplanned work from home compulsion, an unlikely winner has emerged that many of us might never have suspected. The interest in and uptake of surveillance technology and software products to monitor employees, sharply rose. 

Patrick Wood a journalist and producer with the ABC and digital lead for the national morning news program, News Breakfast, recently wrote, “For an increasing number of Australian workers, it is now the norm to have every movement tracked: what websites you visit; how long you spend on social media; how many keystrokes you do each minute and even when you go to the bathroom. Sales of software that monitors employees working remotely have surged since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, with some companies reporting a 300 per cent increase in customers in Australia in the last two months.” 

Monitoring employees is not a terrible thing to do, but how one does it and with what intention matters. Unfortunately, active surveillance and trust don’t go hand in hand, and trust is an important aspect of empathy. 

Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, has a blunt assessment of this type of software, "I don't want to mince words here — these are technologies of discipline and domination … they are ways of exerting power over employees," he said. A lot of the productivity tools, as they're called, have the ability to be installed secretly onto computers. Others are very upfront about it, because that's part of the disciplinary power, knowing that a screenshot is being taken, that you are being watched and tracked and recorded." 

How does deep empathy and genuine concern coexist in a work relationship when the employee knows you are intrusively tracking their time during toilet breaks? Where does trust sit in a system where technology can replace it and put the employee on the backfoot defending their productivity score instead of being honest with you about how they faired during a workday that was unconventional and came with challenges?

Reimagining inclusion and belonging

The temptation of the one-size-fits-all approach in our search for the silver bullet to diversity and inclusion and its thorny challenges hasn’t simmered down. On the one hand, it’s understandable that leaders want to maximise their time, and that customising one’s approach to every employee is not always pragmatic. And yet, while not burning out, one still needs to think of inclusion and belonging individually. Then also think of the group as a whole. It’s not an either-or choice, leaders need to do both if they are to prevent people from disengaging and falling off the wagon. 

For example, there are plenty of complaints and frustrations amongst employees about being on video calls every day with one’s team, even if for a quick check in. On the face of it, this strategy to keep everyone connected seems so intuitively appealing that it’s almost understandable why leaders would fall for it en-masse. The rapid and dramatic acceptance of Zoom, and similar platforms, has accelerated the ‘face time’ that leaders thought everyone needed and would universally benefit from. 

Someone shared recently how they had come to resent and dread these daily catch ups. It was positively grating on their nerves now. Being an introvert, they liked having a choice in when and how they engaged with their manager and colleagues. Instead of being forced to show up repeatedly on a medium that inherently felt uncomfortable and even the opposite of inclusive; it felt intrusive. Also, they weren’t feeling like they didn’t belong because they couldn’t sit next to someone in office, they felt like an outcast because no one had yet told them they were appreciated or valued in the team. 

Another one-size-fits-all approach is the recent inclination for companies to give people a ‘Work from Home Forever’ option that shook up the business world. Companies like Twitter and Square were among the first few who made such announcements. This was soon followed suit by others who took their lead from Silicon Valley.

Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey and his team said, “any reopening of its offices will be careful, intentional, office by office and gradual" when conditions permit. Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back will be theirs. With very few exceptions, offices won't open before September 2020. When we do decide to open offices, it also won't be a snap back to the way it was before." 

On the face of it, this seems like work-life-balance utopia just came true. The message is loud and clear from these companies, get back to office life if you choose to or never work again in an office if you don’t wish to. It nearly places a key part of diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, namely work flexibility, squarely in the hands of the employee. What could go wrong? You might ask, and rightly so. Haven’t we hankered on as HR professionals for ages to make senior leadership more comfortable with the idea of offering more flexibility?

Satya Nadella the CEO of Microsoft had something sobering to say on this wave of ‘forever work from home’ announcements. He said, “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he said. 

Nadella warned about the consequences of embracing telecommuting permanently: “What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?” 

Given connection is a key link in the efforts to make diversity and inclusion goals come about for organisations, it’s worthwhile to think of what will replace this sense of connection and belonging. This sense that uniquely forms over time as diverse people experience each other’s differences in close quarters and those spaces in which we build up our courage to understand and accept differences over time. How we engage remotely is different to how we do so in person and sitting across from people we may not have much in common with. These organic, social processes of connection and inclusion fuel workplace diversity to become a meaningful part of business outcomes. 

Dana Browniee a careers contributor to Forbes writes, “Corporate leaders who find themselves both revelling in the short-term success of forced virtual working while also desperately seeking to reduce operational expenses may be tempted to swing the organizational design pendulum to the extreme and sign up for a near ubiquitous remote working business model. While remote working can absolutely be part of an effective, contemporary organizational design, moving to widespread, long term remote working could in fact be a grave mistake for many. There’s been so much celebration of the benefits of virtual working that we have possibly neglected to soberly consider the risks as well.” 

Given that leaders can’t mind read. So, the hard work now lies in having those labour intensive, but crucial one-on-ones, so we don’t fall into mass strategies for transition back to work. Not everyone either enjoyed, dreaded, burned out or succeeded with flexibility and work from home. Some will rejoice being back at work and some will hang back in nostalgia for what could have been, and everything else and messy in between. We continue to look to our leaders for what is most important to us. Our concerns don’t necessarily reflect the larger, more popular concerns, some imagined and some known. The idea is to go forth with the curiosity of a child, fall back on what we know of that person already and go from there. Check in not to provide your pre-planned strategies on being inclusive, but to get ready to formulate new ones as new information surfaces. 

Inclusive leaders are here to stay. Being inclusive as a leader, much like empathy, is not just important to effective leadership, but central to its core mission. 

By Sonali D’silva is a Principal Consultant at Equality Consulting in Adelaide and a presenter of University of Adelaide short courses. 

Hear more from Sonali in one of her intensive courses as part of The University of Adelaide Online Short Course series, including upcoming courses Developing Inclusive Leadership or Leadership and Management Essentials.

Tagged in Leadership, Short Courses