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Leading Off
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When we launched this newsletter ten months ago, we led off with an article about the opportunities that leaders would soon have to re-onboard employees after the pandemic and make a fresh start. Oops! This month was supposed to find employees commuting again and filling offices and experimenting with new operating models that mixed the productivity gains of remote work with new technologies to connect people socially. Instead, February 2022 now looks like the new September and, in some views, 2023 may be the new 2021. COVID-19 and its variants are pressing many employers to delay return-to-office dates, workers are mulling their options in what many are calling “the Great Attrition,” and HR leaders are beginning to ponder how to reorient workers who might not have set foot in HQ for two years. This week, let’s try (humbly) to navigate some of the tricky crosscurrents of the great postponement to help you lead effectively during this trying time.
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Return is a muscle, not a plan
McKinsey’s latest insights on the pandemic support the view that the spread of the Delta variant has effectively moved overall herd immunity out of most countries’ reach for the time being. Beyond that, a more realistic epidemiological end point might arrive not when herd immunity is achieved but when COVID-19 can be managed as an endemic disease. Leaders who have thought of the return to the workplace as a deterministic plan are coming to realize that what they have is merely a starting point that will need near-continuous recalibration and change.
Yet the pandemic offers lessons on how the most resilient organizations have thrived during the pandemic, as well as insights into strategy, talent management, and managing technology to unlock performance and maintain organizational health. At a personal level, you may need to tap new resources to close a “resilience gap” as your return to postpandemic normalcy is delayed again. “Five ways to train your brain for another covid season,” from the Wall Street Journal, can help.
That’s 68 percent of executives who say that they have no detailed plan in place or on the horizon for handling hybrid work. While top executives confirm that their organizations are shifting to hybrid work for all roles that aren’t essential to perform on-site, it’s also clear that many lack a vision for handling such a sensitive issue. The details matter because without them, anxiety can fill the void—increasing burnout, reducing job satisfaction, and lowering job productivity. Lead better by communicating more frequently with employees, even if plans have yet to solidify fully. Organizations that have articulated specific policies and approaches for the future workplace have seen employee well-being and productivity rise.
“You’re out of practice. Just putting on a good shirt and getting dressed is a thing.”
That’s Graciela Gomez Cowger, CEO of a Portland, Oregon, law firm with about 400 employees, as told to the Wall Street Journal. Like many bosses, she has delayed her firm’s plans for a return to in-person work, but also like most executives, she wants people back in the office. To that end, leaders are contemplating and trying a range of solutions, from soft openings to get people used to interacting again to rethinking vacations in order to minimize burnout among the staff. Some are looking to use flexible work as a recruiting advantage. Employees are under pressure, too, worrying about working remotely and missing chances at promotion. Amid it all, there are also signs that it’s possible to onboard and mentor new recruits remotely—and effectively.
Leena Nair
“One of my big learnings through this period has been we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat,” says Leena Nair, chief human resources officer at Unilever. Indeed, she has overseen the pandemic challenges and needs of 150,000 employees across 190 countries, including some that were at the front end of the COVID-19 curve, such as Australia and China, and some at the rear, such as Brazil and India. Amid a wide-ranging set of social commitments intended to raise living standards and transfer job skills, Nair describes an approach to employee management based on a “gritty optimism” that “the world is going to become more flexible; the traditional models of employment are going to be broken.”
Department of eudaimonia
frosted leaves
As leaders scan employee comings and goings amid workplace flux, ponder this, courtesy of Cal Newport in the New Yorker: “Many well-compensated but burnt-out knowledge workers have long felt that their internal ledger books were out of balance: they worked long hours, they made good money, they had lots of stuff, they were exhausted, and, above all, they saw no easy options for changing their circumstances.” It’s hard to say whether career downsizing and the Great Attrition will stick. But, Newport concludes, the pandemic’s disruption undoubtedly pushed many into a “transformative encounter” with the same fundamental questions of work–life balance economics that Henry David Thoreau explored in his 1854 classic Walden; or Life in the Woods. Just something to think about as the seasons change and ice begins to form on the pond.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office
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