In our potentially recessionary, post-pandemic landscape, the future of the workplace is unclear. As the fog of uncertainty looms along the horizon, it is critical that we view the future with a refreshed perspective and playbook. During tumultuous periods especially, there are certain characteristics that distinguish good companies that get by – or even struggle – from great companies that thrive.
So, what’s the answer for navigating through times of uncertainty – especially when the path forward is difficult to see?
What makes a company great, anyway?
What’s something that organizations can consistently turn toward and rely upon to succeed – regardless of what’s going on around them?
One answer for this burning question: effective leadership. There’s a compelling argument to be made that, for employees, managers play the most prominent role in:
- Engaging talent
- Inspiring connections to the workplace
- Bestowing a sense of purpose and direction
- Improving workplace culture
- Retaining talent
In fact, the role of the leader in our modern workplace has never been more complex or more critical, because there’s never been more at stake.
Gallup research has found that one of the most essential aspects of the human condition is the need for a “good” job – that is, being employed at full capacity in a job they enjoy.
But the most resilient and profitable businesses are the ones that focus on creating “great” jobs. A great job:
- Makes people involved and connected with their workplace
- Generates enthusiasm
- Gives a sense of purpose and fulfillment
- Inspires people to do their best work
A great job is the foundation for physical, emotional, social, financial and community wellbeing. In this sense, it improves an employee’s overall life, and it’s very important to get this right.
Moreover, following the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have expanded their priorities. They also consider a great job to be with a company that prizes individual wellbeing and enables work-life balance.
Who is a major factor in ensuring the continued existence of great jobs? Again, it comes down to effective leaders.
The unique state of our current workplace
What’s going on right now in the workplace is unprecedented. A number of factors have merged to create an unconventional, highly dynamic environment plagued by uncertainty. Two of the biggest factors adding to a foggy forecast include:
1. An evolving job market
The Great Resignation continues and an elevated numbers of employees are voluntarily quitting their jobs. Most are moving to a better job, pursuing new educational or career opportunities or escaping post-pandemic stress and burnout.
Companies are focused on how to do better to avoid being understaffed. Because an employee’s direct manager is their most significant and meaningful relationship at their company, these retention efforts should include building up effective leaders.
2. A shifting economy
Today’s headlines are filled with questions over whether the U.S. is in an economic recession and what will happen next. Compounding this issue, we are also facing a 40-year high in economic inflation. Companies are left wondering how to respond to these challenges in ways that preserve their long-term viability without exacerbating challenges associated with The Great Resignation.
Even if the U.S. goes into a deep recession, it’s not clear that the gap between job openings and hiring will close. It’s likely that there will still be many job openings.
Effective managers will be extremely important in maintaining employee morale and demonstrating support for employees during this time so that they’re not tempted to go elsewhere for a perceived better opportunity.
What are the biggest pressures for leaders today?
This environment has placed greater-than-ever pressures on managers to:
- Increase employee engagement
- Lead dispersed teams
- Prioritize employee accountability
- Understand employee needs
1. Dip in employee engagement
Jim Harter, chief scientist at Gallup shared that, employee engagement, which had been on the rise for a decade, has now suddenly dropped four points. Just 32% of U.S. employees are engaged versus 36% a year ago (2021).
In its research, Gallup has identified a proprietary set of specific elements that most impact employee engagement, such as whether employees:
- Understand the expectations of them
- Have what they need to do their jobs
- Have the chance to do what they do best at work
- Are recognized for their work
- Are involved in setting their personal goals
- Feel connected to a larger mission or purpose
- Feel like they belong and are connected to their colleagues
- Believe their opinion counts
- Experience progress and growth in their careers
These are all “basics,” but they are often overlooked, very real human needs that never change despite external conditions.
Managers are in a position to greatly impact each of these areas.
2. Leading a hybrid workforce
Certainly, there have been many advantages for workers. Employees cite reduced commute time, and therefore more time in general, along with greater freedom and workplace flexibility.
However, the separation of remote and hybrid work can present significant challenges, too. Vulnerabilities in the workplace now include:
- Lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities
- Less understanding of how employees can do what they do best
- Diminished workplace culture
- Fewer opportunities for personal connection, which impacts how employees link their work to a larger mission or purpose
- Reduced collaboration, along with a shaky understanding of which tasks call for collaboration and when office time is necessary
All of this contributes to lower engagement and even performance issues.
We have realized that for effective leadership, in-person, face-to-face interaction can’t be entirely replaced by videoconference or other forms of collaboration technology. It’s when we’re directly in front of people that we pick up on cues ore make connections that may not have happened over a distance.
We have lost, and have to correct for, in-person time when it’s important.
When should employees go into the office to collaborate? Most people say it’s when their manager tells them to or when they decide to do so themselves. The lowest number of employees say it’s when they decide as a team – and yet, this group reports the highest levels of engagement.
3. Higher need for accountability
Workplaces need criteria in place so that autonomy becomes more rational. This means that employees view their decisions about their work less about what works for them individually, and more about what works for the team as a whole – and what leads to better outcomes.
Systems of accountability must be present and based on:
- Individual performance
- Team collaboration
- Customer experience
Who can facilitate conversations with employees, so they make the “right” decisions for the team and their company while still enjoying autonomy? Effective leaders (specifically, direct managers).
Who can clarify expectations, strengthen workplace connections and facilitate employees’ day-to-day needs so they can be their best? Again, managers.
4. Shifting employee priorities
Many of these shifts that we’re seeing in worker priorities – the desire for autonomy, flexibility, work-life balance and wellbeing – are the result of younger generations.
Many of these trends were already emerging and may have taken a few decades to come to fruition, but two factors accelerated their adoption and acceptance:
- The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced everyone to rapidly change the way we work
- The growing presence and influence of Millennials and Generation Z in the workforce, who bring a different mindset toward work
What do Millennials and Gen Z workers want, generally?
- A purpose, not simply a paycheck
- A job that encourages their career development, not one that merely satisfies them
- An ongoing conversation with their manager and involvement in why certain decisions are made about their jobs, instead of an annual review
These evolving employee preferences are reshaping the role of managers and driving significant changes in how, and over which topics, effective leaders engage with their team members.
|The past||Our future|
|My paycheck||My purpose|
|My satisfaction||My development|
|My boss||My coach|
|My annual review||My ongoing conversations|
|My weaknesses||My strengths|
|My job||My life|
The key to seeing the future through the fog: Effective leadership
As we have discussed the factors complicating the modern workplace, there has been a common theme woven throughout. Effective management is a solution to many of the problems companies face today – as well as in any work environment.
But what does effective management mean in our current climate?
How do managers need to evolve going forward?
What new skills do they need to acquire or enhance?
1. Managers as coaches
A manager is no longer a “boss” or a delegator, but instead acts as a coach and facilitator of success for their team members.
To be an effective coach, managers must engage employees regularly so they can:
- Have meaningful conversations that allow them to understand each employee’s personal situation, preferences, strengths and professional goals
- Involve employees in establishing performance goals
- Set expectations and systems of accountability
This builds trust. Furthermore, by accentuating their strengths, helping employees plot their career paths and guiding them toward opportunities that will help them accomplish those goals, managers can boost:
- Employee confidence
- Feelings of inclusion
Engaging employees in this way also helps to eliminate common areas of frustration and perceived disrespect. If a manager knows who their employees are as people, including their personal challenges, desires and innate tendencies, they can cater their management style to each person’s needs. Because everyone is wired differently, managers can’t expect to treat everyone the same and expect consistently good results.
As an example of how employees can be so vastly different, Gallup recently conducted a survey of 15,000 workers asking them whether they prefer, post-pandemic, that their work and personal life are separate or blended. Surprisingly, the result was 50% in favor of separation and 50% in favor of a blend. Now think about the people you manage – and imagine the friction that could be created if you didn’t know which category each of your employees prefer.
2. Effective leaders as deliverers of a consistent culture
In times of uncertainty, organizational culture can be a powerful differentiator between good and great workplaces. A culture with desirable qualities can:
- Attract and retain star employees and, as a result, elevate the customer experience.
- Can help employees to be more resilient and enable companies to better weather tough times.
Despite the increased focus on employee wellness in company culture, Gallup has found that the number of employees who strongly agree with the statement “my employer cares about my wellbeing” has dropped from nearly half to less than a quarter. This is a major problem, and managers must work to combat this perception and help to close the gap between executive leadership and employees.
Managers are the leaders who employees interact with the most. To many employees, their direct manager is the face of the company and represents the brand and culture to them. Therefore, managers have the most regular opportunity to embody and model the organizational culture to employees.
4. Effective leaders as architects of resiliency and engagement
Leaders must build resiliency and engagement in their employees to counteract negative emotions, such as change fatigue. To do this, they must balance flow and burnout.
- Flow is the state at which employees experience challenges, but they rely on their strengths and manager’s guidance to perform at their best.
- Burnout is when employees experience challenges plus barriers in their way.
Both flow and burnout share “high challenge” in common. Challenge is good and you don’t want to remove it from the workplace. What effective leaders should remove from the workplace are the barriers that hold employees back and frustrate them, so they can help employees accomplish what they need to do.
There’s also the recent phenomenon of quiet quitting, which really just means that employees are not engaged. If managers understand their employees and their personal situation, and take steps to intervene, quiet quitting doesn’t have to happen.
As Gallup has found, the average engagement level in the U.S. is at 32%. At great companies, regardless of geographies or industries, engagement levels are consistently at 70% or higher. What this statistic tells us is that high engagement is achievable and that leaders have an important role to play.
Summing it all up
Today’s workplace landscape has presented significant challenges for organizations and much uncertainty about how to proceed and realize success. The good news is that we know of a main factor that can help organizations transition from good to great and even thrive in any environment: effective leadership. This is a constant that organizations can lean on to do well in any work environment, no matter what’s going on.
To succeed, today’s leaders must:
- Act as their employees’ coach
- Deliver a consistent experience with the company culture
- Help to close gaps and misperceptions between leaders and the people they lead
- Build up engagement and resiliency – despite employees’ temptations to give in to change fatigue and burnout
To learn more about how to lead an organization that will thrive in the future, download our free E-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.