Regardless of the present troubling backlashes of the pandemic, professionals and organisations in large parts of the world have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and learning capacity for making “work”, well, work. Production of goods and services has continued, if not unaffected then largely uninterrupted for significant periods of time. To a large extent, this has been made possible by people at work having learnt to work from anywhere, mostly remotely from home.
This is undoubtedly a great success of management, of organising, executing and directing work tasks and processes enabled by digital technology.
By now, however it is becoming obvious that too many people are not faring all that well working from anywhere. If nothing else, they have started to challenge work becoming equated with being tied to 5+ daily hours of identically produced online meetings. And too many organisations are experiencing loss of collaborative innovation and decrease in sense of shared accomplishment and purpose. We fail at leadership and risk losing what we have used during almost a century for reinventing work into something so meaningful that many people started to consciously enjoy it. But what could be done now to add leadership back in and decisively improve the otherwise successful working-from-anywhere model of work?
Surprisingly, when looking for ways to reinvent present work, perhaps some of the biggest learnings for infusing leadership are actually take-aways from remembering how we learned to manage working from anywhere in the last 21 months.
Leadership for working anywhere can be learnt doing leadership from anywhere
Since the start of pandemic, we have learned to work from anywhere – not through being taught it at off-sites or training-sessions in a corporate conference center – but by actually doing work from anywhere. What is more, we have to work from anywhere largely without training manuals or designated learning projects. Our observations suggest that e.g. practises of increased leadership communication for sensemaking and shared meaning with individuals can be employed as parts of the flow of work from anywhere and immediately, without specific training and development efforts. Finally, there is an abundance of contemporary and viable reference material for anyone to consult who might be insecure about “good leadership” or its important dimensions such as psychological safety, trust and empathy.
In short, looking at learnings from the pandemic so far, there is no relevant reason not to increase leadership interventions immediately.
Leadership meets self-leadership
Another learning follows from observing the way people from early on in the pandemic engaged themselves in adapting to the new situation and got creative in learning to use the digital communication platforms and crafting their own routines and “workplace” at home. Today, the deeper personal reflection, understanding and mastering of one’s own work is most often referred to as “self-leadership”. (For an excellent short summary of self-leadership, see this blog post from Annika Häggblom.)
Becoming skilled at leading one’s workday, or even at reflecting on one’s personal expectations from work and work-life, is not the same as engaging in good purpose-related sensemaking, or e.g. as reflecting on personal development and growth together with one’s team and facilitated by good team-leadership.
But going further, self-leadership is going to remain a larger part of the approach for coping with work-related ambiguity and uncertainty of individuals. If duly recognised by the leader when engaging in leadership practises with employees, the result may be better communication, trust and alignment between personal purpose and shared company purpose.
Increased leadership can be supported digitally
A disappointing learning from observing two years of work-life in the pandemic is the almost total reliance of organisations on a few communication platforms for enabling online discussion. When the pandemic started these platforms were essential and their future importance will of course hardly diminish.
As the competence for working from anywhere grows, so does the need and potential for supporting leadership with other software that is focused on the goal of adding leadership. This has the potential to add meaning to the work-experience. Today e.g., digital leadership journeys can be adapted and used to guide leaders in increasing leadership in the flow of everyday work in combination with the established all-round communication platforms. Such learning journeys include personal and team actions e.g. for exploring personal and team performance, co-creating strategy, improving customer orientation, and the growing of personal capacity for learning.
Unfortunately, it is a strong and resilient belief that leadership and meaningful work can really only be achieved by returning to pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face interaction at work. While there is much to be said for increasing hybrid set-ups of work, it may be time to recognising that, for many reasons, the role of working from anywhere is likely to stay high. At the moment, adding the ingredient of leadership and meaning to work settings online is needlessly overlooked, to the extent that it is now affecting employee-experience and company performance.