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What COVID-19 has taught us about engagement and leadership

Dr Andy Brown, CEO - ENGAGE
three men using MacBooks

The second half of 2020 looks very different to how most of us will have pictured it six months ago. Having emerged from the initial phase of the coronavirus crisis, we’re now firmly in adjustment mode. As well as adapting to new working environments and processes – a long-term change for many – organisations are having to adjust approaches to everything from communications to employee wellbeing.

At the same time, leadership teams must rethink everything at a strategic level. Balancing short-term requirements with long-term planning is now critical, affecting every aspect of business from finance to HR, from sales to product development, and from customer experience to employee engagement.

The world (of work) is very different

Enforced societal and economic changes have shown us that having a single-minded plan is no longer viable. Agility and adaptability are the key to the future success of any business in any industry. This has huge repercussions for leaders, managers and employees alike.

So, how do we learn from what we’ve been through and keep the best aspects? How can we prepare for the ‘next normal’ or the ‘new normal’ if such a thing will exist – and be ready to cope with further disruption and uncertainty as the pandemic continues its course? And how can we apply this knowledge to re-evaluate how we lead, manage and engage?

Strategies for a return to the workplace form a large part of the answer to all of these questions. Whether centralised offices remain at the heart of your business strategy, or there’s a new hybrid approach to office and home-working, or you’re making a permanent move to a remote model, the impact goes far beyond tactical issues such as cleanliness and safety.

That’s because your future business structure has implications at every level: the way leaders lead; the way teams communicate, collaborate and innovate; and the way you attract, recruit and retain talent.

Critical long-term lessons

There are five fundamental lessons that organisations need to learn in order to craft a strong strategy that encompasses all of these considerations. These will not only underpin a successful transition from crisis mode, but will also serve as the foundations for a newly-strengthened business that stands the best chance of thriving in the long term:

Challenge your ‘normal’

  • New habits and behaviours across the population will stick, as will new working models and organisational structures. How can you adopt and adapt these to increase your chances of success?
  • Take a look at how you’ve approached things differently during this crisis and which elements have served your business well. Many businesses have seen they can make decisions much more quickly than they thought when ‘red tape’ is removed, for example. Others have experienced greater collaboration despite physical distance.
  • Decide which behaviours to take forward and which to leave behind. Has increased empathy at leadership level driven better employee engagement? Or have your communications processes become more streamlined and transparent in the wake of the crisis? This is also an opportunity to identify the gaps in desired behaviours and plug them.
  • Remember that your business is likely to be under greater scrutiny beyond the crisis – financially, politically and socially. How will you be measured for doing right by your employees and customers? Environmental, social and corporate governance will move much further up the agenda from now on. Consider, for example, how organisations have been perceived based on their handling of furlough, redundancy, customer service or their employees’ return to work – how does your organisation want to be perceived in the long term?

 Build agile, proactive leadership

  • Times of crisis remove traditional barriers to decision-making. Leaders are forced to be more dynamic and responsive and take a ‘one-day-at-time’ approach while also keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Embracing this approach in the long-term will deliver greater agility and adaptability across your organisation.
  • Times of crisis also bring new leadership talent to the fore. Now is the time to nurture and develop this as these leaders are more likely to be proactive and grab opportunity even in challenging times.
  • Challenge the concept of leadership across your organisation. The most successful leaders have emerged as those that combine human empathy with laser-like business focus. There is no better time to define a new, balanced framework for your leadership strategy that incorporates the soft skills we’ve realised are just as critical as hard business measures.

Embed a flexible, diverse and future-proof talent strategy

  • Look beyond what your talent delivers today. What are the critical capabilities you need to survive, recover and grow? By identifying these you can also pinpoint the gaps in your team and take action to fill them.
  • Rethink traditional roles. The crisis has show that we should embrace capabilities and skills, not qualifications. The workforce of the future needs to be much more flexible and agile to cater to continually changing scenarios, so it’s critical that your employees and teams are appropriately aligned and equipped.
  • The success of remote working over the past few months has shown that the traditional constraints of face-to-face recruitment, training, coaching and development need not apply. If you consider that your potential workforce is now much broader and more accessible, this can strengthen your organisation significantly.

Intensify your engagement efforts

  • If you didn’t recognise it before, the crisis has shown that your people are everything. Without them, you can’t continue to serve customers – simple.
  • At the same time, the crisis has helped to highlight who is – and who isn’t – engageable. Focus on the energy that your engaged talent will bring to your business for the long term.
  • Now, more than ever, it’s critical to address the basics of engagement – and even more critical to note that these basics have shifted. As well as being engaged with your business, purpose and strategy, employees need to feel assured on health, safety and wellbeing. This will be a fundamental differentiator as we move forward.
  • Amplify the positives and celebrate what’s going well. Highlighting where individuals have stepped up or gone the extra mile with customers or colleagues goes a very long way to boosting engagement – and encourages repeated positive behaviours.

Embrace a digitally equipped workforce

  • Technology has meant the difference between surviving and thriving for many organisations during the crisis. Maximising the technologies we’ve used as short-term communication tools and adapting their use for our long-term gain will be a critical part of our recovery.
  • The rise of AI and robotics to help make work tasks and some customer interactions more efficient is not going to go away. Creating a balance between the human and technological elements of our business will be a key differentiator in the future.
  • Innovation and collaboration are borne from our ability to embrace new ways of working, not just from our ability to communicate within our own teams or office buildings. Organisations that see technology as an enabler of communication, regardless of their structure or location, are those that will thrive as we emerge into a new working ‘normal’.

A changed but bright future

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted what we believe to be normal, and the impacts will be felt for a long time to come. But as we have seen time and again, necessity drives new behaviours, many of which are ones we can learn from and hold on to.

Seeking opportunity from the crisis is crucial to organisations’ survival, recovery and accelerated growth. Nowhere is this more apparent than with our people. How well our business is led, how engaged our employees are in altered times, and how well-equipped with talent we are for the long-term, are all critical indicators of our ability to thrive well beyond today.

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