By Jana Reserva
Jun. 16, 2020
Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor, award-winning author, and global management and leadership expert, recently caught up with us to share her insights and advice as the workforce continues to go through rapid transformation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. From digital transformation, team relaunch, to leading in times of radical change, she gives a picture of the future of work and essential advice for employees and leaders alike.
Workforce: What do you think are the most significant changes that were brought about by the pandemic to the workforce?
Neeley: The most significant changes that were brought about by COVID is the fact that between 88 percent to 90 percent of the workforces particularly knowledge workers, meaning people who work in offices, have migrated into remote work. A lot of people for the very first time in their professional lives have attempted to get work done virtually, collaborate virtually, be productive virtually, work with partners, customers, consumers, distributors, suppliers virtually in a context of a global pandemic.
The other thing that we’re seeing is the digital transformation for many organizations. When you go to remote work or what I call the virtualization of work, you have to have more robust enabling technologies to support it – communication tools, the tools for cybersecurity, repositories, content management systems. So we’re seeing some virtual and digital advancements that just really have accelerated because of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Even now, if you think about the rush to get a vaccine for COVID-19. Some of the companies are using AI and machine learning. We’re seeing all of these things in action and I think that we are going to be forced to be much more intelligent. I also think that the companies that have had some form of digital capacity are going to do better during this economic times because they will have the predictive analysis to be able to understand how to use the right data, to have the right approaches, to make the right decisions, to come up with countering measures to support their strategic response.
WF: A lot of the working dynamics have changed. What are the ways that leaders can support their team during this time?
Neeley: It’s very important for leaders to ensure that they do what’s called a team launch. If you haven’t done a team launch by now, you should do a re-launch. Which means that you set your team off on a course.
A team launch is one of the success factors for any team. It breathes life to a team. It helps increase the performance of virtual teams by 30 percent. A team launch or relaunch is where you collectively determine the following:
Today, many parents are homeschooling, and many are working in shifts. Days can be longer for them and their hours are not necessarily coinciding with the rest of the group.
Leaders need to understand who is in that situation and the constraints that go along with them. They must accommodate people who have those scenarios because the apparatus that people had built to support their children, to support them as families – the entire support structure has gone away in this global pandemic. You need to understand those constraints.
People have been raising concerns about video conferencing fatigue, and it’s important for you to pick the right media for the right needs. As a group, you need to agree on what’s going to work for you in order to remain connected. Think about informal contact too like virtual lunches and virtual coffee breaks.
WF: What do you think the future of work will look like as businesses start operations again, especially those that have actual establishments?
Neeley: Opening up does not mean that we go back to our old system immediately, especially when we don’t have vaccines yet. So there are many questions around the use of space and technology.
For example, I recently spoke to a company that specializes in beverages and their business has never been better. They’ve started e-commerce first. Businesses need to think about whether it would make sense for them to begin a robust online delivery system in order to supplement their revenue, serve their customers, and remain very present.
Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind that when businesses are reopening and they are not using the full capacity of their staff – meaning some are at home still and some have gone into work. There actually creating two groups – those who are out risking exposure to COVID to start the business and those who remain safe at home. What can that create? That can create an us-versus-them culture. Leaders need to be very careful about those dynamics and make sure that no group feels privileged or excluded.
WF: We are talking about leaders being at the forefront of this. So for leaders, where do they get support because they are in a unique position of experiencing the effects of the pandemic and taking care of a team?
Neeley: That is an excellent question. People need to ask that question more.
Every organization needs to have a very visible CEO who is communicating regularly so that leaders can lead. The leaders of leaders have to set the tone. They have to help them figure out how to lead through a crisis.
There are two things that are important for them to identify. They need to recognize that they are leading during times of crisis, which requires a certain type of leadership. They are also leading radical change, but many of them don’t think they are. When your entire workforce has shifted to work from home; when your client base is in this extraordinarily dynamic period; when your entire patterns of work have changed, you are going through a radical change during a time of uncertainty. You don’t know what the future will look like. People are anxious. People need new skills. People need new equipment. Entire organizations have turned upside down. It’s a radical change. And you’re leading it.
Organizations need to set the tone and they need to equip their leaders to be able to lead accordingly. That’s the first step.
Second, leaders should form groups or task forces to help align their messaging, to help align their movements and actions and to bring together the best ideas and best practices. This way, no leader is trying to figure it out all on their own especially since no one has gone through a global pandemic of this scale in our modern times, right? To create the best practices collectively within the organization, that’s a way to get your support system.
Finally, leaders always need to have a set of mentors or kind of their own board of advisors, not formally necessarily. But leaders should have three or four people who they can turn to to think through things. These are not ordinary times and during times of crisis, you need your mentors. They are people you trust or people you build trust with if you don’t have them yet. These people have some serious expertise in a certain area that you really want to thrive in and be unafraid to hear truth from. You need to reach out to make sure that you have those.
This is not a time to be a solo leader. Leaders need to understand how to lead change, lead during times of crisis, and innovate. There are so many things that they need to figure out very quickly and they can’t do that alone.
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