‘Leadership refocus’ needed to tackle challenges in post-pandemic workforce

Intentional connections with employees key to strengthening remote work environments

‘Leadership refocus’ needed to tackle challenges in post-pandemic workforce

Time and time again, research from the O.C. Tanner Institute has found that leaders who cultivate genuine connection with their employees create a sense of belonging that bolsters engagement, strengthens workplace culture and ultimately drives business goals.

Reminding people how they individually and uniquely contribute, and how it ties in to shareholder value and overall purpose, has never been more critical, says Gary Beckstrand, Vice President at the O.C. Tanner Institute. And as organizations are faced with the extra hurdle of remote teams, “finding opportunities to connect and support one another is a leadership refocus.”

“Leaders are moving from doers to influencers, and intentionally reinforcing that role to connect,” Beckstrand, who recently moderated a series of roundtables with HRD Canada, says. “The skillset is moving from a traditional approach to leadership to a different, more modern approach.”

The question is, will these marked changes in how leaders and employees interact continue as organizations move forward with back to work plans? The answer, according to the experts who participated in the roundtable discussion, is that they’ll have to.

Susan McGann, Senior Director, Enterprise Learning at ADP Canada, says she loves the increased emphasis on connecting because it recognizes the fact that we aren’t face-to-face any longer.

“There’s no water cooler to walk around — we have to create a water cooler-esque experience in a virtual space,” she says, noting one way ADP is doing that is by encouraging senior leaders to write blogs about their experiences that “give everyone an opportunity to lean in and understand their world.”

There’s an increased focus on what Assad Mallick, VP, Global Total Rewards at LifeWorks, calls “the basics around the human element of leadership,” which includes traits like authenticity, vulnerability and sensitivity.

“It used to be results, results, results — and that’s still there — but people are the assets of an organization,” says Mallick, formerly VP and Head of Total Rewards at Cineplex at the time of the roundtable. “What was your team engagement score? What did you do when you had crises on your team? Those are the things were beginning to intertwine into our hiring practices. We’re hiring the leaders of tomorrow. ”

McGann calls employees “the secret sauce” of organizations, and says engagement isn’t just overall satisfaction: it’s about how emotionally connected associates are to the company. Driving that connection starts with a people-oriented, supportive management and leadership style. Understand people need flexibility, check in frequently and ask how they are before jumping into work, she suggests.

“One of our mantras is, ‘We can to anything, but we can’t do everything.’ It’s critical you focus on the most important things and, as a supportive manager, give your associates permission to say no sometimes.”

The most important thing is encouraging trust in the organization’s leaders. The fact they’re seen as honest and transparent has driven record engagement at ADP, McGann says, as employees are inspired to drive the corporate mission forward.

As people adapt to the realities of work long-term, mental health and wellness will be “one of the pivotal focuses of HR globally,” Mallick says. Cineplex is equipping leaders to remove some of the stigma associated with the topic, and all organizations should provide leaders with appropriate tools and techniques to evaluate issues; ensure they have the right resources at the right time; and provide the support of HR business partners.

At Colliers International, there’s “a new notion of leadership called leading from the heart” and it’s all about being authentic, says Shereen Batarseh, Director, People Services Technology, Strategy & Operations. Leaders are encouraged specifically to have conversations about mental health issues and be transparent about what’s going on for themselves in order to help others feel at ease to share too.

Recognition has also increased in importance in a remote environment, and Colliers implemented a new recognition platform that’s not just about work: it also gives kudos for personal goals achieved.

“It's about building a culture of celebration — let’s celebrate the small things,” Batarseh says. “It reenforces that positive culture.”

This modern approach to leadership will have the longest term impact on an organization’s ability to attract and retain talent — and has already “accelerated the business tremendously, and driven our mission forward much quicker than originally planned,” says Maria Fraga, Head of Global Benefits & Wellness at Manulife. Of the company’s values, “share your humanity” has been most demonstrated over the last 18 months and while COVID brought many negative things, when she looks at leadership she sees “a lot of positives that happened as a result.”

As everyone moves forward in a time of great uncertainty, it falls to organizations to intentionally improve culture, and “one of the major factors is how leaders interact and make connections to purpose, accomplishment and one another,” says Beckstrand.

Business results and the shift in leadership requirements are not mutually exclusive, he notes, and COVID has actually allowed employers to see more clearly what O.C. Tanner’s research has indicated matters most to employees in their decision to join, engage with and stay at an organization — and that is connections. This has prompted leaders to respond intentionally in ways that create those all-important supportive work environments.

“When people feel connected, and know how their unique contributions make a difference, they can thrive and bring their whole selves to work and engage fully, and those business results take care of themselves.”

To hear the insightful discussion in its entirety, tune in to the roundtables, What are leaders doing differently to connect and communicate with their teams? and Strategies to improve engagement and productivity.

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