What post-pandemic workplace demands of leaders

04 May 2022

Michelle Gibbings

Melbourne-based Michelle Gibbings has more than 20 years' experience in leading and guiding people through change across multiple sectors and industries.

As the world returns to some normalcy following the COVID pandemic, now is the perfect time to rethink and create the optimal workplace environment for you and your team. Michelle Gibbings provides four steps to help financial planning practices thrive.

As we move further into 2022, we’re beginning to regain some post-pandemic normalcy with our lives, particularly as people return to their workplaces and offices. This makes now the perfect time to reflect on your workplace, leadership and team, and map a course to ensure the months ahead will be successful and progressive.

There has been much uncertainty and change over the last two years. Not all of that change has been bad. For example, the discovery that remote working can work effectively, the demonstration of the adaptability of humans, and what we can do – very quickly – when we need to. Much of that you will want to retain and sustain.

Creating the optimal workplace environment for you and your team to thrive doesn’t happen by accident. It involves deliberate, focused and frequent steps. Here are four important steps.

1. Refresh your culture

Leaders play a crucial role in setting workplace culture, and it’s never one-size-fits-all because organisations have different needs and workplaces have varying pressure points.

What’s common, though, is the old workplace is gone, and the future workplace will be where colleagues and teams come together to socialise, brainstorm and collaborate. Your workplace is an integral part of your organisation’s culture.

As part of the return to work strategy, reflect on your organisation’s culture. How has your culture changed over the past 24 months? What elements do you wish to retain, shift or discard?

Use those insights to deliberately decide what you want to take into the future and what you want to leave behind. Such analysis will also help you understand the steps to restore or retain employee connection and your team’s dynamics.

2. Safety comes first

International studies reveal the increase in mental health issues, with experts warning the ramifications will extend far into the future. This impact has financial consequences, with the World Health Organisation estimating that depression and anxiety cost the global economy over $1 trillion in lost productivity.

The need to focus on mental health at work won’t go away. Many workplaces recognise the criticality of having practices to support and promote a mentally healthy workplace. A core part of this is establishing an environment where people feel not just physically safe but psychologically safe, a term coined by Harvard Professor, Amy Edmondson.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2019, she said: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.” It is knowing your team and leader won’t embarrass, reject or punish you, and where there is mutual trust and respect. It is an environment where people feel comfortable to be their authentic selves.

3. Agree on balance

It’s stressful when expectations are unclear, and the workload is unrealistic. As the leader, set clear goals, responsibilities, and ways of working together, and ensure realistic expectations about workload and deadlines.

Economist John Pencavel from Stanford University found that productivity declines when people work more than 50 hours each week. Even worse, working 70 hours or more a week causes the person to get the same amount of work done as people who worked 55 hours. His research highlights the impact of employee fatigue and stress on productivity and the probability of errors, accidents, and sickness.

A core part of managing workloads is setting boundaries. There are two types of boundaries – the ones you set with yourself and establish with your team.

For example, as a team, agree on the protocols about handling calls and emails outside set work hours. As the leader, set the standard. If you always take work home and answer emails late at night, you create a pattern of behaviour for yourself and your team.

4. Lead from the front

People want to feel they are making progress on work that matters and that their leader ‘has their back’. When that happens, it builds their commitment to their work and elevates progress.

The best leaders get amongst it and understand what it is like to be on the front-line serving clients or working at the coalface. Regularly check in with your team and listen to them. Be genuinely interested in their ideas and challenges. Doing this will leave you better placed to make decisions.

Leading from the front can’t be done in isolation. So, as the workplace evolves throughout this year, take the time to roll up your sleeves and get involved. Lead the change you are seeking to make in your team, inspire their confidence and commitment, and progress will happen.

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