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Can remote working help us become more agile and inclusive leaders?

Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus, Honorary Professor - Alliance Manchester Business School, Author of The Agile Leader

The pandemic has caused us to transform our ways of working. For many organisations this has helped to reduce bureaucracy and hierarchy and create more inclusive workplaces.

The rapid and widespread shift to remote working has had a dramatic impact on our organisations and the role leaders play. Many organisations were already building (or aiming to build) more diverse and inclusive workforces. All too often, bureaucracy, hierarchy and ingrained ways of working got in the way. Suddenly, we have seen that we can sweep away long-held beliefs and assumptions. The hierarchical resistance from many leaders to changing ways of working has been overwhelmed by the reality of Covid.

Every leader is now faced with challenges they have never had to deal with before. Many who have previously had a strong preference for sitting in a shared office space with their teams have had to make changes to their leadership style. This isn’t always easy, and organisations can provide valuable support.

Agility – the ability to adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances with speed and focus – has become a highly-prized asset. Agility is more likely to flourish across flatter organisational structures. Hierarchy can be a barrier.

Remote working has been a great leveller for many organisations – we’re all in it together. The switch to virtual working happened almost overnight for many, and it is a powerful example of the way organisations have been able to achieve transformational feats of agility in a remarkably short time.

Becoming a more agile leader
Disruptive times require disruptive thinking. We need to let go of much that was precious in the old world if we want to embrace the new. Leaders have a fundamental role to play in creating an environment where all employees can break free from old assumptions and rethink how best to meet future challenges.

It is often very helpful for leaders to involve a wide and diverse group of employees in conversation to make sense of what’s going on. Discuss what has changed and what the implications of that change are. Draw on diverse skills and experiences to create a coherent and inclusive vision that can drive success. As you map out the changes going on around you, identify the ones which fit with what you are good at. Where is the overlap? How can you play to your strengths? If there isn’t a very good fit, think about the skills you need to build.

Building a more agile workforce
Collaboration, team working and inclusivity are critical to developing a more agile workforce. You need to engage everyone on the journey. So as well as developing agile processes such as prioritisation, you need to build the skills of team working and collaboration. Encourage cross-functional working, enable people to experiment without fear so they can learn from mistakes as well as success, and ensure that feedback is widely shared.

To build a more agile workforce, you need to draw on a diverse talent pool and develop more multiskilled employees. Often this requires a significant investment in L&D supported by widespread cultural change, which can be quite daunting.  In practice it is best to start by ‘lighting fires’ across your organisation wherever you find real problems that need creative breakthrough. This inclusive approach generates a bottom-up momentum, a movement from within the organisation, which attracts others so that they want to join in. Create diverse, inclusive, multifunctional teams to address specific challenges and nudge them regularly to be bold, to challenge old ways of doing things, and to achieve real innovations through an iterative process.

Building a more agile business
Inclusivity is key to driving agility. Through building trust, engaging employees at every level, creating a culture that brings a united sense of purpose to the organisation, and empowering the teams around you to take responsibility and make decisions with speed, you will be well on the way to building an agile business – one that is more customer-focused, innovative, resilient, and competitive.

How can a focus on diversity help us become more agile?
Diversity helps to drive agility. Many of the leaders I work with value diversity across their organisations because diverse teams share different perspectives. They look at things from different angles. Together they can form a diverse understanding of the challenges they face, which helps encourage deeper collaboration and richer solutions.

Why does agility matter in times of uncertainty?
Agile organisations are better placed to handle an uncertain future. If your business is an agile one, you are typically better at innovating to create new solutions with focus and speed. You can react and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

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