Recently I reconnected with an old friend who runs a factory. Throughout the pandemic, he went to work in Nairobi’s Industrial Area every day. His partners, cautiously staying at home, were surprised. His managers, many of whom chose to work remotely, were unsettled. His staff, who had no option but to come to a workplace that had been fully converted to COVID compliance, were quietly pleased.
During the long period of uncertainty that followed (and is still with us, to some extent) he made sure his workers could see and hear him. To use an old maritime expression, he was the Captain and he walked the deck. As a result, he believes his staff are now more engaged than they ever were. More collaborative, instinctively covering the gaps that can arise when a complex series of processes is being run by fewer people. More communicative because, in times of uncertainty, people naturally place more importance on communication. Even if it takes more effort from behind a mask.
As I look across the organisations I coach, they all did a good job of blending human interaction with technology to keep their businesses running. All of them have recorded stronger employee engagement scores in their annual surveys. Employees appreciated the extra effort leaders and managers took to check on them – not just their work, but their mental and physical health. So, as we move into the ‘new normal’ I hope we take these habits back to the workplace. Workplaces will continue, because organisations are social constructs.
As leaders, the most valuable habit we can take back to work is visible leadership. When we do this we build trust. Employees are able to report more than, ‘I’ve seen my leader.’ They can add ‘I recognize my leader’s voice.’ and I’ve had the opportunity to read my leader’s body language.’ (One of the reasons videoconferencing is so tiring is that it’s hard to read facial expressions or body language accurately in one dimension – so we strive harder to do it.)
Many of our modern leaders have mastered the ability to be consistent and authentic. To appear as ‘the leader I wish to be’ regardless of trying circumstances. To manage, but not suppress, their emotions. To choose when anger is appropriate, when to radiate optimism, when to be peaceful.
The bigger test comes when that responsibility is extended to the wider leadership team, many of whom are managers. It’s hard for a group of individuals to demonstrate one face, one voice (or small individual variations of the same). This requires careful coaching and diligent practise. But employees will notice.