It’s been 12 long months of COVID-19. A full year of leaders and workers learning how to stay connected, communicative, and creative from opposite ends of the digital ether.
We’ve learned plenty about how to navigate the new normal while being just as productive—if not more so—than we were before the entire world went sideways.
Upwork Chief Economist Adam Ozimek recently published “One Year Remote,” looking at key lessons from working remotely during the pandemic. The main takeaway was that work and the workplace, as we know them, will be forever changed.
“The pivot to remote work is the biggest, fastest transformation of the labor market since the World World II mobilization,” said Ozimek. “As a result, businesses must be prepared to adapt and alter their operating styles to accommodate this way of working. This means rethinking the basics of where, when, and how work gets done and even who or what type of professional should do it.”
Indeed, companies are changing. But so are business leaders who are thinking in some remarkably different ways. Last March, when the pandemic changed everything, executives had one initial goal: to keep everything running smoothly with large portions, if not all, of their people suddenly working from home. Many business leaders themselves were in the same boat, having been forced out of their office comfort zones into living rooms and kitchen counters. Like everyone else, they had to quickly come up-to-speed on new methods of communication and collaboration.
But as time went on, the real leadership lessons became less about how to operate in a remote culture and more about acquiring an entirely new set of leadership skills and traits to help teams adapt to the path the future of work is taking.
Leadership lessons from the pandemic
As the pandemic’s effects ebb and people begin returning to offices, they probably will not do so full time. Indeed, Upwork’s 2020 Future Workforce Report indicates many business executives anticipate more of a hybrid approach, where people split time between offices and remote locations. Businesses can save money on real estate, utilities, and supplies. Employees can strike a better work-life balance, shrink commute times by more than 9 days per year on average, better control their schedules, and escape high-priced cities for lower-cost locations.
“It’s a real win-win for those able to take advantage of it,” said Ozimek. “This shift to hybrid teams isn’t happening just because the economics make it attractive. Executives also see it as an opportunity to work with more diverse and distributed teams of full-time, part-time and freelance talent. In fact, our research found 36.1% of hiring managers plan to somewhat or significantly increase their use of independent workers in the next six months.”
Leaders that have truly embraced hybrid teams—and gotten the most from them—have shifted from a culture built around employees demonstrating exceptional attitude, aptitude, and amplitude (the AAA model for design-driven innovation) towards a model based on delivering business outcomes. “As much as we think we’ve adjusted to learning how to work remotely, leaders have adjusted to becoming outcomes-based even more,” said Tim Sanders, Vice President of Customer Insights at Upwork.
In the last 12 months, they’ve learned at least five essential things during the pandemic that has driven the move towards a more outcomes-based model, including:
- Remote work can and will produce successful results if approached correctly.
- The best leaders are those who are comfortable working with a mix of team-member types, including full-time, part-time, and independent professionals.
- They do not need to have these workers constantly under their watch in order for the team to be successful. In fact, having confidence and trust in a largely remote workforce is vital to success.
- Enabling connectivity and democratizing access to tools and technology across a hybrid workforce is essential for smooth, efficient, and effective new-normal operations.
- By defining and communicating tangible desired outcomes and then pointing the entire ship toward them in purposeful ways, everyone wins—the business, shareholders, workforce, partner ecosystem, and customers.
Embracing outcomes leadership
“When you shift to an outcomes-based leadership approach, you’re less reliant on individual performers,” said Sanders. “You can focus on the short- and long-term needs of the business and build quality teams around those needs.”
Sanders said you’re also less beholden to the whims of individuals who may or may not be loyal to you, might be thinking about starting their own business, or are contemplating retirement (as 28.6 million Baby Boomers did during the third quarter last year) because you aren’t reliant on local talent only. Rather, you maximize your access to skilled talent capable of delivering the outcomes you desire by casting a net far beyond the vicinity of your physical place of business.
Many leaders got a taste for how well this model has worked during the pandemic. Even if they were not already strong believers in remote work entering the crisis, by necessity they quickly learned how to not only adapt to it but also use it to thrive.
“Once leaders become good at managing outcomes, managing hybrid teams to produce value becomes instantly simpler,” said Sanders.
In fact, as they became more accustomed to working remotely and refocusing their energies on outcomes, work became easier for 68% of leaders surveyed in Upwork’s 2020 Future of Work Pulse Report. And these leaders were able to readily accept a future in which 36.2 million Americans are expected to work remotely by 2025, an 87% jump from pre-pandemic levels, according to the report.
Boston Consulting Group (BCG) indicates that “the transformation of work is accelerating toward more flexible and customized models. This shift is here to stay. If companies don’t rapidly reinvent how they serve customers and support their employees, they will lose in the new reality.”
Most of today’s leadership models were designed long ago around the idea that people would congregate in one or a few places and work relatively set schedules. But in the future of work, which is arriving faster because of COVID-19, leaders should “set objectives, modularize work, and enable teams” instead of focusing on supervising and overseeing, according to BCG.
The business world, as we know it, will be forever changed because of COVID-19. Even from a more traditional perspective, it’s safe to say the lessons learned in the last year will guide and influence our leadership styles and approaches for the foreseeable future. The benefits of remote work and hybrid labor forces cannot be undersold. This genie is out of the bottle. It’s time to embrace it.
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