Amidst the chaos and crisis of 2020, senior organizational leaders were tasked with simultaneously overhauling their customer experiences, reevaluating their culture and values, and enabling their workforces to function in a suddenly wholly remote, virtual model. For workers, new skill adoption with home and work life in a blender presented the ultimate challenge to keep all the balls in the air. As we all hunkered down at home – often in a closet or on the porch for privacy and quiet – author Damian Barr summed it up, “We’re not all in the same boat. We’re all in the same storm.”
While a mighty challenge for all, the burden of weathering the storm usually weighs most heavily on the captain. And this was the inspiration for Dreyfus Advisors to collaborate on a leadership study with Marijo Bos, Facilitator and C-suite Thought-partner, President of Bos Advisors, after she conducted a dozen qualitative conversations with her clients about shifts in their leadership styles, strategies and behaviors. These conversations uncovered themes with positive outcomes that got us wondering how extensive these shifts might be, and to what extent they might be sustained.
To find out, we surveyed 75 global senior leaders from our client base, with a geographic skew toward the USA and Europe, and industry skew toward technology and media. It’s true that the pandemic forced a near universal and mandatory remote work experiment, but this study suggests that remote work may not be working just by virtue of required scale. Rather, because the surrounding circumstances also demanded mass adoption of a different leadership style, presenting the beginnings of a blueprint for a more productive, inclusive, and engaged workforce.
“Human” becomes the new lingua franca
More than 8 in 10 agree with both, “I urged my team to strengthen relationships across the business” and “I am now more deliberate in building an optimistic outlook for my team.”
Communication shifts were a theme throughout the results, with nearly every leader acknowledging their communications have become more frequent, inclusive of more levels, and more compassionate. Leaders have implemented more personal and informal inquiries with team members, with a focus on emotional well-being, beyond the work itself. They were developing deeper relationships by deliberately starting meetings with a personal check-in, including more levels of people and people who are remote geographically.
New virtual habits are healthy habits
Nearly nine in ten senior leaders (88%) in our study agree that they “have identified smarter, more creative work protocols that will remain in place.” What’s remarkable is the speed with which leaders were able to challenge established assumptions and make these changes. “Accelerating initiatives we had tried to put in place for years…they are now done in weeks,” said one respondent.
Other awakenings include:
- Living a life of constant travel as a “road warrior,” once considered essential, has proven optional — and may remain that way for the foreseeable future
- Environmental benefits to the planet have been acknowledged and appreciated
- Time savings and productivity boosts from ditching the traditional commute have been celebrated
- Leaders get to see and know their teammates on a more personal level as pets and kids stroll through the background
Leadership adapted and leveraged new ways of working to get things done. Tech tools were a key part of this, of course, but empowerment was also a key theme. The pandemic forced a loosening of the managerial grasp, giving way to an autonomy that took the fear out of decision-making, resulting in stronger team performance.
Purpose makes remote teams fonder (and more focused)
When asked whether “It’s now imperative to cultivate a stronger explicit purpose connecting our business to our people,” we got the top “strongly agree” response. Renewed focus on purpose rallied teams around “The Why”, and improved teamwork as people found a new unifying common ground despite the shift to remote work.
Leaders have also more effectively deflected distractions, focusing their time and energy on the most important tasks. Their teams are pulling together and showing agility, focusing on crucial goals, and leaving distractions behind. This shift to renewed purpose was mentioned frequently by leaders as a reason for improved productivity for teams.
Almost unanimously, leaders intend to continue remote work in some shape and form. They have discovered everyone can, in fact, stay connected, pull together, and ultimately accomplish more if the focus is on what matters most.
The question on the table from here is not whether we can keep the momentum from here, but how? Just two in ten senior leaders “strongly agree” they are “having reflective dialogues and debriefs with team members to identify developing skills and behaviors.” Now is the time for leaders to create formal practices for teams to intentionally (and safely) operate from the “head and heart” as the new modus operandi. Already, a playbook appears to be emerging …
- Leverage the power of purpose at the collective and individual level to unite teams and ensure the highest level of investment. Link team members’ unique contribution to the “why.”
- Make space for the whole human, not just the worker. Invite personal stories and sharing, acknowledge home life, and let your teams get to know you as a mortal, too.
- Note and name the new behaviors that are specifically resulting in greater connection, engagement, and teamwork (not just financial outcomes or productivity). What gets measured gets attention.
- Let the little things add up. It’s the mindful moments, heartfelt check-ins, forgiven misses, and acknowledged moments of uncertainty that allow people to bring their best to work.
These leadership shifts during the pandemic have deepened relationships on teams and led to improved productivity and stronger sense of purpose. Compassionate leadership is having positive effects on employees and teamwork despite high stress and physical distance. While most admit new leadership practices have not yet been formalized, the shifts and the resulting impact on the engagement and performance of teams bodes well for an emerging era of increased remote work – and suggests that compassionate leadership may have been the missing ingredient that kept us from believing it was possible before.