Future of Work Series Part 3 - Leading blind: Successful management behaviours in unfamiliar territory

By Robert Half on 17 August 2020

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to ripple through the Australian market, Robert Half organised the ‘Workplace of the Future’ roundtable and invited six business leaders to a virtual panel discussion on COVID-19’s implications on businesses as well as evolving priorities that may shape future growth opportunities.

The panellists included:

  • Andrew Bain, CEO at Recreo, a cloud-based administration platform for the superannuation industry;
  • Andrew Myers, VP APAC & Global Digital Strategy at WorkJam, an employee engagement platform for hourly employees;
  • Simon Turner, CIO at AxiCorp, a provider of margin Forex trading services for retail and institutional markets;
  • Hayden Vowell, Financial Planning & Business Performance Lead at Culture Amp, an employee engagement, retention and performance platform;
  • Richard Raj, Director, Principal Consultant at Knight's Move Consulting, a consulting firm specialising in Lean Digital services;
  • Clinton Marks, Director at Robert Half.

The roundtable was hosted by David Jones, Senior Managing Director at Robert Half.

Part 3 - Leading blind: Successful management behaviours in unfamiliar territory

As with most things in 2020, there is no ‘business as usual’ and ‘being a good manager’ moving forward will require a recalibration of priorities, behaviours and skills. Over the past two articles, we have covered some of the fundamental changes to workplace culture and corporate operations that have in turn demanded a reimagining of team management.

In part 3 of this series, we ask leaders to look at strong management through the lens of rapid change and how they can most effectively unify, motivate, and lead their teams into and well beyond their recovery phase.

The rise of multidimensional leadership

Managing through a crisis requires leaders to lead with honesty and calm through uncertainty, manage long-term business outcomes against threats and engage their team to uphold productivity under challenging circumstances. In such a fluid market, strong leadership cannot afford a singular focus on one business priority – be it operations, or driving bottom-line results, or staff management. Instead, a multidimensional style that drives towards stability across all fronts is central to cultivating a resilient business model capable of navigating uncertainty and accelerating their recovery.

Clinton Marks mentions that “adapting to remote working coupled with domestic challenges like the closure of schools or the growing impact of unemployment has called for leadership to take a ‘people first approach’ that adjusts expectations to fit the context”. Andrew Bain recognises the importance of providing emotional support and prioritising empathetic relationship management to cultivate a happy and productive workforce equipped to drive performance and long-term gains.

“We retain people because we've got a good relationship with them and deliver a proposition that makes it mutually beneficial for each other to be wedded together. When you are removed to remote working, unless you complement your working relationship with new leadership skills, the relationship can become transactional,” Andrew says. “My priority is now working with my leadership team around connecting with people to make sure they're okay and we can help them through this.”

The end of micro-managing

While every manager has a different style and approach, remote working has demanded management styles to evolve as quickly as the working arrangements to accommodate for decentralised team structures and digital communication channels. Without physical oversight, this has highlighted the importance of a trust-based and macro-approach to management.

In particular, Andrew Myers feels that the shift to remote working will require a new form of virtual leadership which calls on a specific suite of skills to foster a sense of connection and empowered autonomy without traditional oversight or social interaction.

“Different management styles have come through. Some have been very quick to adapt to the new working arrangements, particularly those that have been in that situation before or had that type of capability. However, we have had to work with some of the managers to adjust their approach and adjust the metrics employed to assess performance, because you can't micro-manage somebody in today’s environment,” says Simon Turner.

Measuring outcome over attendance

Rather than taking the ‘command-and-control’ approach of top-down leadership generally associated with short-term crises management, the extended uncertainty and remote working style that COVID-19 has presented calls for a management approach that mobilises employees through a clear framework of priorities and business goals, and empowers them to work collectively and independently towards these.

As Richard Raj raises, “managing on attendance was the old skill and a lot of people felt powerful managing on lunch hours or chit-chat. This has highlighted that it was never an effective method anyway, because employees could be surfing the net while you see them behind the screen.”

Instead, he suggests an outcome-based management style that emphasises providing a framework of clear expectations, deadlines and instructions to empower the employee to self-manage their output.

“What we found is that by building trust, you receive a lot more discretionary effort. For instance, many people compensate for not having to commute by giving an extra 30 minutes of work that wasn’t available to them previously. As you build trust, teams often find more creative ways of doing things and going the extra mile,” Richard concludes.

The importance of bespoke engagement and recognition

While for many, the enhanced sense of freedom and autonomy that comes with remote work has sustained or even enhanced an employee’s engagement with their role. For others, the distance and loss of team interaction have proven to inhibit their productivity. In Andrew Bain’s eyes, this has given rise to a new mode of leadership that heavily prioritises bespoke engagement techniques to understand and drive individual performances.

“For those who are motivated from being in the office and direct accolades, their performance is probably not going to excel in a remote working environment. We need to put in place structures to help orchestrate work better in a new way.”

Similarly, as Simon Turner raises, the personal or professional ramifications on employees has exemplified the need for a mutual trust between managers and their staff in order to engage in one-to-one dialogues with every employee, ensuring they have the opportunity to confidentially voice their challenges.

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