Thursday, November 30, 2023

Leader-shift for a hybrid world of work


Work must be refashioned into being purposeful to start with – this will be the first step in leading in a hybrid world. Read the first of a three-part series.

This is a watershed moment in the future-of-work debate. The global pandemic heightened the urgency with which companies must revisit tired assumptions about managing work for value. Most organizations have accepted, albeit grudgingly in some cases, that good work does not always require a physical presence. Yet discussion about hybrid work focuses too much on how many days employees should spend in the office versus working from home. That lack of nuance contributes to tension between employees, who demand flexible work, and employers, which have legitimate concerns.

Both sides can justify their competing claims. Employees state, correctly, that many tasks can be performed as well, or better, away from the office or in virtual environments. However, research also indicates that remote work is not conducive to all tasks. Hidden costs, appreciable over the long term, might significantly harm company culture and the ability to innovate – and innovation is contact sports that need a physical presence.

The English dictionary has perhaps never witnessed as many new words and phrases added to its list as it did in 2022. From ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘quiet firing’ to ‘permacrisis’, language mirrored the tumultuous period we were passing through and continues to do so even today. Just before the new year began, a new word enriched the lexicon – Leader-shift – leadership that needed to keep pace and a few steps ahead of tectonic shifts in work, workspace, and the workforce.

Organisations oscillated between complete work-from-home (WFH) to return-to-office (RTO), as the waves of the virus flowed and ebbed, while employees went to the extreme of work-from-anywhere (WFA) to even taking the drastic step of quitting when asked to RTO. A sort of compromise emerged – 3/2 – three days in office, two days WFH. It was called Hybrid Work!

Trust issues reshaped employer-employee relationships

Meanwhile, the equation between employers and employees changed dramatically in the last two years. Middle managers were burnt out while managing remotely. Organisations suspected employees of moonlighting. The exemplary firing took place as companies retaliated.

Productivity paranoia set in as managers felt employees were slacking on the job. This led to a complete breakdown of trust between leaders and their teams. Organisation culture – the glue that bound employees to each other and to the organisation – was critically dented.

To fully understand the context of the human relations drama unfolding over the last 30 months, one needs to realise that the workforce demographics have undergone a major change during this period. Millennials and Gen Z are now more than half the workforce in India.

In the information technology industry, the massive hiring of freshers meant that percentage of Gen Z and Millennials was today 68–70% of the total tech industry employee base in FY22, per a NASSCOM study. This youthful workforce was led by people born in the early to mid-seventies. According to a Deloitte survey, the average age of men CEOs in India was 61.1 years in 2021, and that of the women CEOs was 57.4 years.

Designing work with a purpose

This age difference between leaders and the workforce became a major reason for the trust deficit to emerge. For those born in the 1970s in India and currently in leadership, the purpose of why they worked is almost diametrically opposite to a youthful workforce in their twenties to early forties.

The seventies generation had witnessed the struggle of their parents to give them a good education. They went on to build a career using that education to give their children a good life that they themselves aspired for. While, for them, the job was a necessity, to this generation of the workforce, where and how they work is as important as why they work.

Especially after the pandemic, this has become the most important factor. A structural change has transformed work and workforces forever. We will never go back to the post-pandemic world of the world.

Today’s leadership must accept that the hybrid world of work is here to stay. It is then natural that remote work will be a reality that one must come to terms with. Finally, they are dealing with a workforce that places huge importance on the purpose of their work. Therefore, work must be refashioned into being purposeful to start with – this will be the first step in leading in a hybrid world.

[To be continued]


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