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How leadership style must change for the new world of work

27 Sep 2021 By Vlatka Hlupic

There is a need for more humane leadership and a culture based on trust and transparency, says Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic

The reset of the global workforce to a hybrid model now seems inevitable. Financial Times’ Andrew Hill summed up the current situation as: “Technology companies: remote and flexible. Financial services companies: office-centric and more rigid. Everyone else: hybrid.” 

Various studies are emerging around what employees and leaders need now. For example, a survey by Barrett Values Centre, which had over 2,500 respondents, showed that what really matters for employees right now is purpose, leaving a legacy, and making a contribution to make this world a better place. 

Also, people want to be able to adapt to all these constant changes that we all have had to cope with, and having a healthy wellbeing for themselves and their families is very important. They want to work for caring organisations with caring leaders and managers; they want to be able to spend some time with the family; and they want to keep doing all those things as we move forward. 

Other research studies show that employees need clarity, ability to trust their leaders, psychological safety, compassion, and they want the leaders to give them some sense of stability in this very unstable world. They want leaders to give them the flexibility to decide where, when and how they will work.

The findings of these studies seem like common sense, there is a need for more humane leadership, before the pandemic and particularly now. However, we still see some leaders taking actions that are not aligned with these findings. For example, leaders such as Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and many others want their workforces back in the office and are ignoring their wishes.  

A hybrid approach, where employees have the flexibility to work both from home and in the office – which can help maintain human connections and promote creativity and innovation – could work better. Creating a more open culture based on teamwork rather than command and control will be essential to organisational profitability in a hybrid workplace. 

One of the biggest barriers to achieving this was the inability of some business leaders to move ahead with their own psychological development. Hiding their heads in the sand and ignoring the new reality; focusing on shareholder profits rather than understanding and creating conditions for their employees to do their best work, will inevitably lead to loss of their best talent, and with it the profits they will create, to competitors.

A new type of management and leadership is needed for hybrid workplaces, to move away from traditional, hierarchical command and control, following strict rules and regulations with centralised command and decision making. None of these practices will work in the new hybrid world of work where leaders cannot have complete control over employees. 

Leaders should support autonomy and collaboration and encourage experimentation with new ideas. They can influence employees indirectly through empowerment and inspiration, and create the conditions for change. They need to show that they trust their employees to do their work well and employees will decide when, where and how they are going to do their work, while being accountable for the deliverables.  

Decision making should be decentralised, and it should be made based on knowledge rather than a formal position in organisational hierarchy as people dealing with customers have the best knowledge about their preferences. 

Culture based on trust and transparency is particularly important for the hybrid world of work as leaders cannot closely control employees that work remotely. They should focus on the results achieved, not on the time spent in the office or time spent working from home. Feedback should be provided regularly, rather than using yearly performance review meetings.

Successful leaders of hybrid workplaces allow some flexibility with procedures, rules and regulations, within reason. This is essential for innovation and progress. They should allow people to work from home for at least half of the working week, while creating office environments that will entice people to spend some time there, interacting and networking as genuine human connections often lead to the creation of the best ideas.

The above examples of strategies leaders need to use now to create high-performing hybrid workplaces, which are supported by research I conducted over many years before and during the pandemic. This includes a study of 58 CEOs for my book Humane Capital. All findings point to the fact that humane, people-focused leadership leads to numerous benefits for individuals and an organisation, especially now when the world needs to recover from the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Leaders can play a pivotal role in this recovery and spread the biggest ripples of change.

The old systems are crumbling and now we have a chance to create more humane workplaces, fit for purpose in the new world that is emerging. The time to take action is now. 

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is professor of leadership and management at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, founder and CEO of Management Shift Solutions, and author of The Management Shift and Humane Capital

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