Train those Leadership Muscles and Tackle the New Normal

Gloves, masks and super-cool apps

As we embark upon re-opening the economy, companies and employees nervously anticipate what the “new normal” of work will look like. From masks, gloves and plexiglass shields to Zoom meetings, Slack messages and working from the kitchen table – work looks very different than it did just 3 months ago.

We’re missing a magic ingredient

Until now, the recipe for working in our new normal has centered around introducing new PPE and technology. Rightfully so, considering employees are skeptical of safety assurances in the face of a virus without a treatment or vaccine. What’s missing in this physically distant mixture is the unique blend of behaviours leaders will need to grasp and bake into their new-normal-leadership-style.

  • Apps like Trello and Teams are great for helping leaders plan, delegate and follow-up on tasks, but they don’t replace the value derived from physical “drop by the desk” conversations people rely on for additional clarity or to simply find out how things are going.
  • Zoom meetings with the team are great, but the unnatural flow of video conversation often dissuades participants from speaking up and sharing ideas. Think about the uncomfortable pause after two people speak at once, then stop at the same time – unsure if anyone heard them because they were speaking at the same time. Participants can’t “read the room” to get a sense of the group’s energy or body language to determine if it’s the right time to ask a question or share a thought. Leaders can’t either. Lastly, once everyone clicks “leave meeting” there aren’t the same opportunities for the quick after meeting chats people use to informally follow up or offer ideas they didn’t share with the whole room.
  • Technology doesn’t provide the natural exposure to others that results in organic opportunities for networking, personal growth and learning.
  • Masks, face-shields and plexiglass are physical barriers that protect against viral transmission. They also introduce perceptual barriers. Despite two people being physically present, it can feel like they’re apart. Conversations can feel cold and clinical, which challenges how we process the verbal and non-verbal cues that are critical to building relationships.

What worked before, looks different now.

The things that employees felt were important before the pandemic haven’t changed, they’ve been re-prioritized. Similarly, the leadership behaviours that were important before are just as important today, but their application has changed.

Safe work environments have always been important, however in the context of the pandemic they’ve taken on an entirely new meaning. The greater sense of risk, trepidation and uncertainty compounded by the real or perceived distance created by the new normal will force leaders to tap into their leadership behaviour muscle memory. They’ll be flexing the same muscles, but the exercises will be wildly different. 

Retraining leadership muscle-memory

  • Clear, transparent and frequent communication – we’ve seen a great deal of change, with undoubtedly much more to come. Employees don’t expect leaders to have all the answers, but it’s reassuring to know that their leader keeps them top of mind and moving forward together.
  • Empathy – leaders will find themselves having many more sensitive conversations about employee personal and family matters. Conversations around mental health will become more frequent as employees continue to experience change – both at work and home. These conversations were once punted over to HR as leaders considered them a distraction from running the business. In the new normal, they’ll be an integral part of leading a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Leadership Presence – it’s tough to be present when safety measures are designed to keep us apart. Leaders embracing the new normal will need to create opportunities to maintain the human elements that no longer happen organically as a result of our new safety barriers and productivity apps – but employees long for.
  • Authenticity – “We’re in this together” is a hallmark phrase of the pandemic. Despite this statement bordering cliché, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s true. Blindly towing the line won’t work anymore. Leaders need to focus more on sharing their vision and how they’re feeling rather than just sticking to the talking points.
  • Change Leadership – In many ways change leadership embodies each of the leadership qualities discussed here, along with many others. Leaders now need to keep one eye on leading their teams to where the new normal is taking them today, and the other on where the new normal is heading. It’s easy to sink “into the weeds” in the midst of chaos, but successful leaders know that they need to manage today and lead the team toward tomorrow.

These are the early days of the new normal, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what it will look like a year from now. What’s certain is that many of the changes we’ve seen are here to stay, and there’s a great likelihood of many more to come. One thing that won’t change is the impact of good leadership and our desire for the human element in everything we do. The path to the new normal will compel leaders to create opportunities to bring the human side of work to an environment that now relies on arguably non-human technology and equipment to get work done.

How are you going to tackle the New Normal? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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