The importance of human-centric leadership in times of crisis

The COVID-19 emergency required companies to adapt to many new ways of working, including having thousands of employees working from home. Organizations had to rapidly spin up remote working programs, powered by connectivity and underpinned by robust cybersecurity, and change schedules, processes and procedures. But what comes next?

Virtually every company has been impacted by COVID-19, and thousands of organizations had to quickly enable work from home (WFH) initiatives. It was a priority for two reasons: one, from a basic perspective of safeguarding your employees’ health and safety by protecting them from the virus; and two, to enable business continuity and keep serving your customers as seamlessly as possible.

It was impressive how quickly companies did this. Orange helped customers in industries including mining, electronics and packaging to equip tens of thousands of employees to work from home practically overnight. Our Visibility as a Service tool enabled end-user monitoring and ensured application performance over VPN connections. This is essential when workers can’t simply call the company IT help desk for support in the event of a problem.

Leadership in the new normal

Gallup recently surveyed the chief human resources officers (CHROs) of 100 of the world’s largest organizations about their COVID-19 strategies and policies and concluded that the universal needs employers must provide employees with are trust, compassion, stability and hope. These four things should form the points of your leadership compass – the challenge then is how to deliver them to workers when you’re physically separated. Your leadership can be undermined if you allow remote working to evolve into your people merely feeling remote.

The resilience rollercoaster

But for every action there has to be a reaction: there is a balance to be struck between COVID-19-enforced WFH and a long-term, sustainable approach to business. The way that companies and workers have adapted to WFH has been impressive, managing home-schooling for their children alongside working in an unfamiliar way and still being productive. But now, cracks are beginning to appear. Collaboration isn’t as effective when you are remote as when colleagues are together around a whiteboard in the office. Projects are taking longer to reach conclusion, and training isn’t as easy to do. Mentoring is harder when you’re not able to sit alongside new, young employees and have them shadow you. Resilience becomes harder to sustain by default.

According to Laszlo Bock, Chief Executive of human-resources company Humu and formerly Head of HR at Google, in a recent Wall Street Journal article: “There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’” Business leaders need to find a happy medium between keeping workers safe by enabling them to WFH versus the necessary next stage of how we get back to some normal degree of business.

Defining the new normal

Opinions vary on what the new normal might look like: my view is that we are more likely to see a hybrid approach, a permanent combination of WFH and working from the office as we emerge from the pandemic. The harsh reality is that we have to consider the probability of a second wave and possible third wave of the virus, so governments will once again enforce a “work from home if you can” edict. Even as emergencies ease, we will need to design, implement and manage some form of hybrid WFH/work-in-the-office model that is highly flexible.

In terms of employee wellbeing moving forward, companies will need to do more. The first WFH lockdown was a great success, but it gave us no time to plan for it: the future does. With that in mind, companies will need to focus on personality types and giving WFH employees structured alternatives to the water cooler or coffee machine chat. Face-to face-collaboration will need to be replaced with something similarly effective for both extroverts and introverts. Workers are people like anybody else, and people are social beings – we need interaction with colleagues as well as the motivation and energy that brings. A few days at home each week and a couple in the office alongside colleagues could be the balance everybody needs.

The role of digital technologies

Digital technologies already played a vital role in enabling the first wave of WFH and will play a growing role in the new normal that is to come. They will be central to powering a hybrid approach to returning to work. Enriched interaction and collaboration tools can help workers keep in touch with you and with others, so you should urge employees to use video calls whenever they can. It’s healthy for the mind, essential to “reading the room” and is good for work productivity: social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection.

Regular team video meetings also help you check in with employees from both a work and a well-being perspective. You can support your employees by making these meetings not entirely work-focused – a water cooler chat about something that’s been on TV can foster a feeling of normality but must be authentic.

The hybrid model

With some workers back in the office and some continuing to work from home, the hybrid model has some implications employers will need to consider. Business leaders will need to examine what practices have been successful during lockdown and apply them to a more permanent way of working.

Examples of this include ensuring your teams are structured for agility, and consider converting key employees into team leaders. Employee well-being is a priority in the hybrid model, so pay attention to both the physical and mental health of your people. Encourage collective ownership of projects so that success is enjoyed by all, and emphasize the positivity that digital tools can bring – empowerment and a collective feeling go a long way.

Generation Z will soon become the biggest slice of the workforce, and they’re very keen on a hybrid approach to work, splitting time between home and workplace. 74% of them told a Salesforce survey they’d prefer either WFH or a hybrid model of some time at home and some at work. 64% of overall workers said they’d like to spend “some time” working in the office or another location that isn’t their house. The hybrid work model seems popular, so employers will need to think how to enable it.

Times have changed, and how we work has changed, possibly permanently. The hybrid model of WFH/some days in the office can hopefully give us a viable way forward, but it will require a lot of changes. Your HR policies and employee well-being practices will need to be robust and forward-looking. But it will be worth it as we have the opportunity to drive new levels of employee and customer engagement and satisfaction. As the saying goes, “never waste a good crisis!”

To read more about how Orange can help your organization adapt quickly to the new normal, telecommuting and effective collaboration between remote workforces, read our new ebook.

Kevin Griffen
Kevin Griffen is Managing Director, Australasia for Orange Business Services. He has over 30 years' experience in the IT and communications industry and is currently responsible for strategic development across Australasia. Outside of work, Kevin is a keen supporter of women in sports and has coached a number of soccer teams to success.