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Covid-19 and the future of work

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  • Picture of Jo Owen FRSA
    Jo Owen FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

The radical changes we are seeing in the world of work are not coming about purely because of Covid-19. Instead, the pandemic has been accelerating trends that have existed for a long time. Jo Owen FRSA explores the lessons learnt and what this means for managers and leaders.

For the first 20 years of this decade we thought that we were changing faster than ever because of technology and globalisation. Then the pandemic hit and many organisations changed more in two months than in the previous two decades As Lenin said, ‘there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen’. The pandemic made the future arrive at warp speed.

The RSA’s Future of Work series has identified how work has been changing and will continue to change: for example, the emphasis on life-long learning, employability versus employment and the impact of automation. Covid-19 is accelerating all these trends. Although the pandemic caused immense suffering, it might also just be the best thing to have happened to leadership and management for two hundred years. We discovered three things in the pandemic, each of which is good news for leadership and management.

First, we learnt that change could occur further and faster than we ever thought possible. Many organisations never even considered working from home but found they could switch overnight. Teach First, which recruits great graduates to teach in schools in challenging areas, relied on face-to-face contact to attract, select and train candidates. It is a high touch operation. Overnight, they had to switch to a remote operation and found that the new model works even better than the old model in some ways: coach/trainers no longer spend half their time travelling between schools, but can spend more time on task with their coachees.

The challenge for all leaders is to identify what other assumptions you should challenge, how else you can reshape your business. Going back to the old ways is dangerous: comfort zones soon become uncomfortable in a fast changing world.

Second, we learnt that managing people and projects remotely is hard work. We have discovered that the office is a very forgiving place for management. You can see who is doing what, who is struggling and who is coasting; if there is a miscommunication it is easy to spot and quick to fix. None of this applies when working remotely. Even setting goals is harder: the absence of a sustained dialogue about the goal, the trade offs and the context makes it harder for remote workers to understand the ‘why’ and build commitment to the goal. 

Team members consistently report that motivation, mental health, communication and trust are far harder to sustain remotely than in the office. New team members, who do not have established networks of influence and support, struggle more than established team members.

Remote working forces managers to be much more purposeful and deliberate in everything they do and is pushing them to learn new skills ensuring they support, motivate, build trust and communicate well. These are the skills of 21st century leaders, which 19th and 20th century leaders never worried about greatly.

Third, command and control is, finally, on its way out. It is easy to be a control freak boss in the office because you can see everyone all the time. You cannot oversee a team directly when they are all working from home, unless you install always-on video and keyboard trackers  that is the sort of arrangement that makes you the employer of last resort who will probably only retain employees of the last resort.

When your team is out of sight, you have to trust them to do the right thing. Instead of commanding, you have to influence, persuade and trust. The future of work requires new skills.

Command and control was already under assault from three long-term trends.

 Professionalisation. During the Industrial Revolution the bosses had the brains and the workers had the hands. Thinking and doing were separate activities. But as workers became more educated, they could do more and they expected more. Today’s professional probably thinks that they can do their boss’s job better than their boss, and the role of the boss is irrelevant anyway. Professionals do not like to be micro-managed. Manage them less and trust them more: they want to do well, so do not get in their way.

 Globalisation and specialisation. In the past, firms used to be like medieval walled cities, which contained everything they needed to sustain life. Ford even owned its own forest in the Amazon to secure its wood supplies. But today’s firms are specialists, not generalists. To achieve anything, you rely not just on colleagues in other departments (who may not share your priorities), but also on external partners, suppliers and customers. This is a world of influence and persuasion, not command and control. You have to be the manger people want to follow, not the manager people have to follow.

— The changing nature of work. It used to be easy to measure how many widgets were produced at what quality level. But professional work is far more ambiguous. A report could be one page or 100 pages, but it is never complete because there is always another fact you could check or opinion you could canvass. The ambiguity of work makes command and control harder and makes trust and delegation far more important.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift to a new future of work, and a new future of leadership and management. In the new world of work, managers need to be far more purposeful and deliberate in all they do: they have to raise their game. They also need to learn new skills: influence, persuasion, motivation and building networks of trust and support beyond their formal span of control. For the best managers and teams, this is the start of a new golden age of management.

Jo Owen is co-founder of Teach First and seven other NGOs with a combined turnover above £100 million. This article is based on original research for Smart Work, to be published by Bloomsbury in September.

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