The future of work: Guidelines for building change-ready and vulnerable leadership
Written by Lea Kimpele
In recent years, when we talk about the future of work, the topic is inevitably connected to the experience of the pandemic. The health emergency, with its consequent lockdowns, has confronted companies all over the world with the need to find new digital tools, solutions and methods for communicating, making decisions, and activating projects even remotely. The companies that emerged most successfully from the Covid experience were those that, although they were aware that they did not know exactly what was going on, decided to adapt and seize the emergency as an opportunity for change rather than as a hiccup in their daily work. Covid has only accelerated a conversation that, sooner or later, we would have been having anyway and which revolves around one question: how will work change in the coming years, and what skills will be required of leaders to manage their teams and lead them into the future?
The health emergency has taught us to look at the individual and at what they need to do their job best: as a result, the debate will increasingly focus on balancing the needs of businesses, teams, and individuals. This will entail the need to adapt or change one’s organisational culture and will add new challenges for future leaders. No longer having all employees available in the same room will lead to new questions about how to evaluate team performance, the most effective methodologies and tools — for example, conducting meetings remotely or working simultaneously on the same project — and how to make decisions. In this, the digital tools we have at our disposal for team communication — e.g. instant messaging platforms for storing and sharing files or for defining and managing team objectives, creating visibility, and enabling asynchronous work — can certainly be excellent allies.
Leaders and companies will have to learn to embrace change and new trends quickly by practising so-called agile leadership: this concept, initially rooted in software development and referring to self-organised teams, is now used to denote more generally an approach to people that focuses on enhancing adaptability in highly dynamic and complex business environments. For leaders, this also translates into feeling comfortable not having immediate answers but instead practising collaborative decision-making, fast ideation, trial and error, and sharing mistakes as learnings. Instead of focusing on long-term projects, it will be increasingly important to learn to move at a moment’s notice and not to make predictions beyond two years: it is a difficult but necessary change of mindset.
For some time now, there has been a move away from the idea that the leader is the ultimate expert in a specific field. Rather, their role today is to enable and build team security, ensure that people are motivated, and see that decisions are made collaboratively. In this context, one of the first skills leaders will have to learn is vulnerability. Risk is an integral part of success, and each leader is always called upon to consider the possibility of failure. Admitting this truth is not a weakness, and it is up to those in leadership not to let vulnerability be perceived as negative or as a value to be hidden. Sharing one’s weaknesses strengthens the relationship with one’s team and enables transparency.
Data will be a huge pillar on which future leaders, supported by the HR team, can rely to ensure diversity and equal treatment of employees: it will allow them, for example, to analyse employee promotion rate or to verify the existence of healthy salary inclusion; it will look at certain markers of diversity, for example, the presence of a healthy gender split in leadership positions. As talent searches open up globally and teams are established all over the world, it will become increasingly important to work on the concepts of collaboration, belonging, employee experience, and inclusion to ensure people are treated transparently and fairly.
In a volatile world where changes are rapid, communication is increasingly important to ensure that one’s employees feel supported, motivated and understand the business’ direction. Balancing how and what messages are sent is important — people want to understand and have context for what is happening in their organisation. But without being bombarded with messages that might not be relevant to their teams. Having an internal communication strategy is, therefore, essential.
It is also important for leaders to have a dialogue with their team and understand what motivates them. One of the phenomena which sparks the most debate today is quiet quitting. This is a practice in which employees are willing to do only the bare minimum within the contractually defined hours, refusing to work overtime, join extra projects, or take on extra responsibilities. This confirms that we need to rethink the relationship between leaders and employees and create new forms of involvement and interaction. For example, companies' employees are often only interviewed when they leave the company when it is too late. Instead, it would be more useful to offer opportunities for constant dialogue because employee satisfaction increases if employees feel supported and encouraged. In such cases, having the latest tools and software available can be very helpful in speeding up the process and offering timely, accurate and relevant data gathering and converting that to actionable insights.
The corporate mission is a key point within strategic planning and is a key function of a company’s management. Allocating resources and ensuring that everyone is working towards common goals and objectives has become critical. However, for strategic planning to be effective, two important tools are needed: a clear corporate vision and a mission. It is, therefore, important for leaders to ask themselves how clear the mission is for their employees and how aware they are of the value their work adds to the company. This also connects to internal communication. These messages often need to be repeated and linked to everyday work. At SumUp, for example, we know that our goal as a company is to support small merchants by offering them simple, convenient, and personalised tools to manage their day-to-day activities, from in-store and online payments to monitoring their finances and customer relations. What we do is make sure that this is clear and shared by all teams and that we all work in the same direction towards a common goal.