Several months ago, I went to the office to pick up a few things left behind after shifting to fully remote work last March. The rows of vacant desks were as orderly as an org chart, and the whiteboards still bore traces of strategies planned for a more predictable world. I felt a wave of nostalgia for this serene space, where for eight hours each day the messiness of real life was kept at bay by workplace norms and policies. But this office, now emptied by the pandemic, itself silently testified to the limits of our ability to contain or control forces of change and disruption.
Management and leadership have always been about establishing order amid chaos. Within the sphere of the organization, managers set rules, curate culture, and enjoy a sense of control. Some may try to fence off the organization from real-world conflict, like those who have recently limited workplace discussions to approved topics. Others may put too much emphasis on codifying “how we do things” rather than adapting to continuous change, that most relentless feature of reality.
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For many organizations, the transition to remote work during the pandemic upended long-standing rules and expectations about how work gets done, and many are now setting new policies. In doing so, they might consider the approach suggested by David R. Hannah, Christopher D. Zatzick, and Jan Kietzmann. The authors argue that rules should not be fixed and should instead change along with conditions and the needs of the organization. And rather than treat rulemaking as a top-down exercise, managers should invite employees into the process, acknowledging their keener understanding of how policies will play out in practice.
Such a consultative approach requires fostering a culture where employees are willing to speak up honestly, as Jim Detert and Evan Bruno advocate. This behavior takes courage, but it pays off in learning and growth. As the authors write, “It leads to greater reflection at all levels and increases the flow of new ideas about how the organization can operate and perform.”
That ability to stretch and develop is especially critical now, when businesses are grappling with the return to a workplace in flux. Hal Gregersen and Roger Lehman advise leaders to pay close attention to how organizational change affects individuals’ informal roles and deeply held identities — and point out that this often matters much more than what tasks they are taking on or giving up.
And finally, leaders who strive to be the effective agents of transformation that these times require will find many ideas and resources in our special report on advancing racial equality in the enterprise. Rosalind M. Chow, L. Taylor Phillips, Brian S. Lowery, and Miguel M. Unzueta explain how leaders can counter employee resistance to racial equity efforts while also working to educate themselves on such issues. Leaders will find useful insights on how to manage their implicit biases in the work of Sean Fath, Richard P. Larrick, Jack B. Soll, and Susan Zhu. And Rob Cross, Kevin Oakes, and Connor Cross show us how to cultivate an inclusive culture through personal networks. It’s been a long time coming, to echo the late Sam Cooke, but that change is gonna come.