(+) plus: What challenges did the pandemic create for managers?
Susanna Achleitner: At first, it was about grasping what this crisis meant for their own organisation. We experienced completely different impacts in companies. Some areas ground to a halt, while others were swamped and had far more work than they could handle, such as HR and IT departments. In this first phase, managers were called on to provide the required hardware to all the employees who were working from home.
They had to set up rules for the new situation, organise testing, manage groups that were working separately, manage daily crises with colleagues who were infected and ill, digitalise processes and workflows – all while keeping the business running with services and production.
(+) plus: What are the leadership tasks during the pandemic?
Achleitner: The key leadership tasks are always to manage yourself and others, make decisions and steer the organisation. In a crisis, leadership has to do with extreme complexity. It requires a variety of methods and approaches. In the wake of the pandemic, questions about things like resilience have taken on an entirely new meaning. Managers who have navigated the crisis well so far are well aware of that. At first, Covid brought the realisation that predictability is something of an illusion. At the same time, it brought remote work and a tech boost.
Managers should definitely up their personal digitalisation game. It starts with the question: How can communication work in the digital world? How can I create formats where sharing, feedback, dialogue and conversations about critical issues are possible? Breakout sessions, chats and audience response systems are tools executives can learn about.
(+) plus: What skills are required?
Achleitner: Apart from the aforementioned tools, clear agreements are particularly important for remote work, along with trust instead of control. The amount of self-organisation that has been on view in the past year is extremely impressive. Managers should appreciate that and set up frameworks that are better suited to enabling self-organisation going forward. That would be a key takeaway in order to master future challenges.
Things that are in plain view in the office are often hidden when people work remotely. How can managers still notice when their employees are getting sucked into an unhealthy work rhythm? How can they tell when employees are slipping toward a mental crisis? And what should they do about it? These questions have always been important. Today, they are mission-critical.
Phases of such fundamental change call for a mix of clear instructions and increased dialogue. Decision-making processes that used to happen in meeting rooms need another setting when they occur online. The key task for managers is to create this framework and manage these processes.
(+) plus: Leadership is based on social interaction. Does that get the short end of the stick when people are working from home?
Achleitner: We are already seeing a huge desire for presence and contact. That’s why many companies are shoring up their in-house safety measures so that people can return to the office. When people communicate in the virtual realm, a great deal of potential perception gets lost. Executives should plan each meeting well, prepare a kick-off question or occasionally launch a virtual event.
Rituals like shared brunches and after-work happenings are certainly positive, although I have the impression that people are getting a little tired of them. If someone does not contribute at all or seems very quiet, managers should be on the safe side and not hesitate to ask if everything is all right. Of course, this depends on everyone turning their camera on; without that, the personal level is lost entirely.
(+) plus: Is agile teamwork possible even in changing teams?
Achleitner: International companies were already working together online even before Covid. Working together in changing teams is definitely possible. This is another area that shows how beautifully self-management works once the framework is clear. Of course, hybrid solutions are also an option at the moment. But these meetings are harder to lead and call for good preparation to make them work.
A lot will remain of remote work, for example, because meetings are noticeably more efficient. In light of the climate crisis, too, many managers are questioning the value of flying or driving long distances for a meeting – and that’s because it has become so clear that there is another way.
(+) plus: How does onboarding new hires work?
Achleitner: HR departments and managers in some organisations are coming up with quite a few ideas for that. Buddy and mentoring systems have proven especially valuable. Right now, good leadership means paying close attention to what’s going on in-house and externally. You don’t always notice right away when someone is not being integrated into the team.
(+) plus: More flexibility and personal responsibility are being asked of employees. But can all managers actually deal with this loss of control?
Achleitner: We have a very firmly established “presence culture” in Austria. The illusion of knowing what and how much people are doing in the office had held up well before Covid. I have since had experience with several managers who are astonished and proud to see how well their teams have performed in the past year. Now they see that they can focus on results rather than presence. That is impressive.
(+) plus: Do we need to rethink leadership in the wake of the experience of the past year?
Achleitner: Yes, but I don’t put that down to Covid. The pandemic merely brought the situation to a head. We have a climate crisis to deal with and we’re in the midst of sociopolitical changes that are calling the previous theories of economy and work into question in fundamental ways. Customers and employees are already demanding more sustainability, and companies are well advised to strike a balance between pursuing profit and taking responsibility for shaping the future.
Due to the necessity of relocating work to home offices and planning work with separated teams, the pandemic triggered a broad-based technisation. But a change in leadership patterns is a different matter altogether. In general, company management still tends to be guided by a linear, mechanistic mentality.
This paradigm will change, even if not everyone realises it yet. What is right for technology does not apply to organisations and people. Those are complex systems that follow a completely different logic. They need to be understood in completely different ways.
(+) plus: Do we have to kiss predictability goodbye?
Achleitner: Covid has shown us that managing normal, routine business calls for different leadership qualities than a crisis or complex change and development processes do. We need to radically question our belief in predictability. Guidance will still be necessary, but the way deviations are handled will have to change entirely.
Leadership will not become obsolete – quite the opposite: managers must constantly seek dialogue and provide frameworks. Companies that keep these developments in view will come out ahead.