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Sashaying on the ice floe

9 Feb 2022

We are all aware of the huge personal, professional and psychological cost of the pandemic. The damage to individuals, now and in the longer-term, cannot be underestimated. But in our work as business psychologists, we have also observed significant issues for organisations. One particularly problematic by-product of Covid has been its impact on collaborative working, team effectiveness and the quality of decision-making – not least at the top-level.

In the early months of the emergency, many leaders were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly their people adjusted to virtual working. Benefits flowed from wholeheartedly embracing digitalisation and challenging old ways of working. Fundamental changes were introduced at stunning speed. And as the first year of lockdown progressed, it became clear that homeworking was not causing the decline in productivity which traditionalists had predicted. So thoughtful companies began to revisit some assumptions and consider how best to reinvent themselves.

The mood music at the beginning of Covid Year 2 – spring to early summer 2021 – was mixed. There were two huge positives. The development and delivery of effective vaccines, much earlier than anticipated, had transformed the zeitgeist; the NHS too had confounded pessimistic predictions that it would buckle under the dreadful tsunami of serious cases in the early months of the pandemic. Cases and constraints were declining, and leadership teams were eagerly looking forward not just to getting back to work, but to experimenting with new ways of working and applying procedures developed under extreme pressure to a new normality.

Then the virus fought back, its mutations making a nonsense of a universal longing to call an end to the pandemic and its impact on every aspect of our lives. Homeworking still had compensations, especially for introverts and for those whose circumstances allowed them to create a comfortable and productive workspace. But the cracks were showing. The novelty of the situation had worn off, as had the belief that we were ‘all in this together’. Political leaders, who had enjoyed a rare surge of popular support and protection as a result of “simply following the science” were now meeting push-back.

In corporate life, too, forbearance was giving way to frustration. Complaints of Zoom/Teams fatigue became commonplace. The pandemic may have made people more cautious about changing jobs, but it hadn’t altogether stopped the flow of talent between organisations. What was different was that almost all recruitment was now being conducted virtually, at every level. New CEOs, appointed on the basis of their performance on-screen, were seeking to establish their credibility with senior colleagues they had never met in person. Informal exposure was severely reduced, but there was no let-up in the need to make decisions, many of which reflected changes in Government policy affecting working conditions and social practices. They were tough decisions, even for experienced senior teams of individuals who knew each other well, led by someone they respected and following an agreed modus operandi.

By late 2021, at least some of the organisations we were supporting were suffering from the absence of clear, confident direction. Their leaders were struggling to unite people around a common goal. As a result, we observed a tendency for those reporting to them to narrow their focus and revert to what felt like a safer approach to their job: just get on with the business of the business, get your head down and plough through the workload, without worrying too much about what other people are up to. It may not have been a conscious decision, just something that evolved, but it was detrimental to effective teamworking at a time when organisations had never been more in need of collective and inclusive leadership.

Its absence continues to cause problems at all levels as we approach the second anniversary of ‘Covid working’. But given the disproportionate impact of leadership teams – positive and negative – issues at the top are what cause the most damage to performance and morale. Planning and decision-making have taken a hit. Siloed working, despite best efforts, has started to creep back in. Some leadership teams have stopped communicating to wider audiences altogether. Why? Because they are exhausted by having to deal with U-turns in rules and requirements, trying to keep their companies afloat without breaking the law, and exhorting their people to display a level of optimism they themselves find it increasingly difficult to muster.

So here are a few words of advice to all those leadership teams aspiring to ‘sashay on the ice floe’…

  • Get together in person – for work and play – get to know each other (again).

  • Re-contract – the rules of engagement for teams need to be revamped, or at least refreshed – and everyone needs to know what they are and how they can act in line with them in this new context.

  • Agree the process for decision-making – as a collective, not as heads of individual siloes.

  • Acknowledge and discuss the context – it’s been difficult. Don’t use it as an excuse, but definitely an explanation – and, without being complacent, allow yourselves a little forgiveness.

  • Re-engage with the people who work for you – many leaders realise that they have become more insular and have stopped interacting with their people, let alone empowering them. It’s time to recognise this valuable resource and re-connect with them.

Written by Jane Clarke & Dr John Nicholson

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Sashaying on the ice floe
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