The world of work was already changing before the pandemic, but COVID accelerated
trends ranging from staff burnout and mental health issues to a need for engagement
and concern for the planet. While some leaders cling to the notion that things will return
to the old ‘normal’, most are committed to finding a new way forward.
For advice on navigating the changing workplace, ITWC CIO Jim Love abandoned the
usual one-on-one interview format of ITWC’s podcast series Leadership in the Digital Enterprise, instead assembling a panel of three executive coaches: Julie Foxcroft, Dr.
Jennifer Card, and Lorene Phillips. “This is the perfect team to address areas of
uncertainty,” said Love, “and there’s a real need. I think most of us have more questions
than we have answers.”
An Unpopular Decision
Love seeded the panel discussion by relating the story of a CIO who has struggled to
keep his company responsive and collaborative over the past couple of years. Although
this individual was looking forward to getting his staff back in the office, he understood
the attraction of remote work, so thought he would split the difference by asking people
to return to the office for just three days a week. His decision did not go over well,
prompting Love to ask his panelists how this CIO could have been so unprepared for
the reaction to his hybrid work announcement.
“I don’t think that’s unusual,” noted Julie Foxcroft a Leadership Coach and Wellbeing
Advocate with over 25 years of corporate experience. “We make a lot of assumptions
about what people will like and this is where it becomes super important to take the time
to engage in conversations and experiment before making big proclamations about the
way work should be.”
Building on Foxcroft’s point, Dr. Jennifer Card stressed the importance of listening to
what people want in order to map out what this new non-normal is going to look like.
“We have this rush to want to get back to the way things were and I think that we have
to reset that expectation,” said Card, founder of EQ @ HQ Consulting and a former
employee engagement leader. “If we can actually expect things to not be normal, it will
help us engage with whatever comes next.”
Finding a Balance
As a former (re)insurance executive turned founder of Clarendon Wallace, a corporate
and executive coaching and leadership consulting firm, Lorene Phillips agreed that active listening is key to navigating the bumps in return-to-the-office plans. She admits
that it won’t be easy to find a balance between remote work and actual face time in the
office – which she sees as having premium value – but cautions against causing anxiety
by summoning staff back to the office without first smoothing the way. “It’s how you go about doing it that will affect the buy-in,” she said.
Foxcroft’s biggest concern is when organizations over rotate to trying to please their
talent and create ideal work conditions, only to rotate back in the other direction when
they are about to miss hitting business goals. “It shouldn’t be an ‘either/or’
conversation,” she said. “It shouldn’t place all the burden on the employee and it
shouldn’t put it all on the employer. We need to look at rethinking all of our work and it needs to be an ‘and’ conversation, not one or the other, because both are possible.”
Understanding Boundaries and Sharing Outcomes
Card concurred that there is no room for ‘command and control’ leadership in the new
workplace, yet acknowledged that empowering workers must be balanced with
accountability and responsibility. “Understanding what your boundaries are as an
organization, as a leader, as a team member, and as an individual may help,” she said.
“I think people will respect realistic boundaries that makes sense to the system if you
are clear about why you are setting them.”
Love’s three guests were optimistic about the ability to hold on to good things that came
from the global pandemic – the heightened concern for psychological health, greater
flexibility in working conditions, extended support for diversity and inclusion, and keener
attention to employee engagement. On the subject of moving teams forward, Phillips
encouraged leaders to admit they don’t have all the answers and invite their people to
help find solutions. “It seems a little bit like giving up the power, but I don’t think you’re really giving it up,” she said. “I think you’re just spreading the power so that everyone can share jointly in the outcome.”
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