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Just like post-pandemic physical workspaces will need revising, so too will the skill sets and capabilities of our employees. Yes, leaders absolutely need to reimagine the workplace, but organizations cannot lose sight of the people returning to those spaces. Focusing solely on redesigning the workplace or offering flexible work arrangements (such as remote or hybrid options) without considering employees will hamstring organizations by leaving their people in the lurch.
If new strategies cause changes to our workplace, then those same strategies certainly warrant a closer inspection of our workforces — both leaders and employees. The pandemic made it necessary for companies to make strategic pivots to adapt to rapidly changing environments. To meet these new demands, they must also pivot the people within their organizations. Pivoting people refers to a form of talent management that focuses on retraining employees so that they can fill those jobs or roles most closely aligned with an organization’s strategic direction. Preparing employees now, through reskilling and upskilling, will allow organizations to move forward without forcing their employees to adapt on the fly — or, worse, to fail.
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Focusing on Skills and Retraining
As the economic recovery from the pandemic gains speed, the emergence of new jobs created explicitly to support organizations’ revised strategic directions are inevitable. There are several reasons why it is important for companies to prioritize employee retention and retraining rather than simply recruiting new talent for these positions. The cost of hiring is often prohibitively expensive. In addition, institutional knowledge is hard-won and difficult to transmit in the short term to new employees via traditional onboarding. And finally, showing loyalty to employees is likely to increase their own level of commitment to your organization.1 Yet, before retraining employees, it is incumbent upon leaders to both understand and clearly define their organization’s new direction.
What Is My Organization’s New Direction?
With the sheer amount of commentary on the future of the workplace being published in leading business outlets, it is tempting to jump on the bandwagon and incorporate the myriad recommended changes into your organization. But it’s important to remember that no two organizations are the same. This is a mantra that all leaders should repeat over and over in this period of change — change that will be both rapid and expected, by both employees and customers.
Thus, we recommend that you set aside all the literature telling you where to go next (this article included) until you can answer this question: What is my organization’s new direction? When you know the answer, that is the time to gather additional information and to focus on the following question related to leadership.
Do We Have the Right Leaders in Place to Direct Us?
Good leadership is always important, but it is especially critical during a change in strategy. Pivot-ready leaders will be competent communicators and discerning decision makers prepared to identify shortcomings in the plan and the people. The workforce needs to change (quantity, quality, and location) to align with the organization’s changing strategic direction. To do so, certain skills and competencies are required. Below are five leadership competencies of utmost importance to those leaders looking to move their organizations forward.
1. Structural analysis. Organizational structure has long been under the purview of the executive. Junior and even midlevel leaders rarely find themselves with the authority or perspective needed to change the underlying structure of their organization. Now, in this time of fluctuation, when employees may work in new locations or in new positions, all leaders must keep their eyes open and recommend changes to the structure of the organization that might lead to greater efficiencies.
2. Contextualizing change. Change can be scary, and both the major and minor shifts in the organization have the power to elicit fear and frustration from employees who might feel left out of the process. Leaders need to contextualize these changes and focus on the purpose — the why — rather than just the how. Take the time to explain exactly why the organization will return to in-person operations instead of remote (or vice versa). When leaders put the focus on the purposes of changes, followers will pull with the organization instead of being pulled by the organization.
3. Building relationships. Maintaining a sense of community among staff members and other stakeholders and developing and maintaining relationships across the organization can keep employees and managers motivated and morale positive. Leaders who build these relationships are more likely to be seen as likable, a quality that research shows accounts for much of leaders’ favorability ratings from subordinates.2 The best leaders want the lines of communication between them and their employees to be open; strong relationships built on trust and mutual understanding will do just that.
4. Embracing empathy. Reskilling employees was a challenge even before the pandemic. The time and effort required by the employee to acquire a new skill set (often at the expense of one they had already achieved mastery over) can be cumbersome and draining. Add to this the fact that there might be conflict if people in some positions are allowed to continue working offsite while others must return to in-person operations. Good leaders will listen to and try to work with employees. The pandemic turned the world upside down over a year ago, and turning it right-side up may be just as stressful. Taking the time to listen to the reasons and rationale behind employees’ concerns about the upcoming changes to the organization and to their positions is how leaders demonstrate empathy and a genuine concern for their people.
5. Personal resilience. Being a leader and a helpful presence by keeping employees connected and optimistic is not only challenging but also leaves little room for personal balance. Leaders need to take care of themselves as well. Maintain a balanced schedule despite the increase of virtual meetings. Manage your time for collaboration, planning, and production by setting boundaries between your work and personal lives. Actively working toward balance will help ensure that leaders remain ready to help the employees they serve.
Do We Have the Right Workforce in Place?
At this juncture, with an idea of the coming changes and strategic direction for the next normal, companies and leaders must ask if they have the right people, with the right skills, to make that vision a reality. If an organization needs to turn right but the talent only knows how to turn left, then it may be time to pivot your workforce. Instead of forcing your organization to make three separate left turns just to head in the correct direction, pivot your workforce to align your organization more quickly with your new strategic direction. Assess the skills needed in the critical roles of the organization not only for now but looking ahead for the next three to five years.
Where Do I Focus My Efforts to Maintain Employee Engagement as the Organization Pivots?
Employees are interested in answering two questions: “Am I going to have a job?” and “Am I going to like the job I have?” Any change in strategy that propagates changes to the workplace will make employees wonder whether their revised organization has a place for them. If someone is going to have a place, it’s incumbent upon leaders to communicate that fact.
The second question is whether employees will like their potentially “new” jobs. Will the pivot in strategy move them away from what they loved about their previous responsibilities? Further, will a change in venue — from work to home — be something they want? Likewise, if their venue does not change, will they be able to accept a return to the workplace?
How Do I Communicate This to My Employees?
The key to maintaining employee engagement is constant and bidirectional communication. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Provide information. Listen to people’s concerns. This approach was easier when conversations happened naturally; quick chats in the hallways or in the minutes before a meeting started allowed everyone to catch up and build camaraderie. With the potential for large-scale changes, leaders need to get ahead of the rumors, and as Simon Sinek popularized, start with why.
Leaders need not have a concrete plan for their pivot before briefing their subordinates. This approach certainly unnerves those leaders who feel it is their responsibility to map out the way forward in its entirety. Yet, if leaders know a pivot is necessary, this may be the time to explain to the entire organization why it is necessary. This approach gives employees the opportunity to join the leadership in moving toward a goal. Additionally, brave leaders will seek feedback from those who will be doing the footwork associated with pivoting. Employees may see something leaders do not, and, if given the opportunity, many will feel empowered to share that information.
Additionally, leaders should embrace one-on-one leadership with their direct reports. Use short meetings, either impromptu or scheduled, to maintain your personal connections across your team to avoid feeling disconnected from your employees. Make time to connect with them in a way that is both meaningful and genuine. This is not the time for delivering news about upcoming changes but rather an opportunity to listen and understand employees’ current challenges, fears, and aspirations.
The workplace will be different when the world reopens, but one constant is the people within organizations getting the work done — whether in person or from home. To best prepare your organization, consider how to pivot your people now, so that when the redesigned doors to your physical office building open again, everyone knows not only what they are doing but also where the organization is going.
1. C. McAllister and G. Ferris, “The Call of Duty: A Duty Development Model of Organizational Commitment,” in “Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management,” vol. 34, eds. M.R. Buckley, J.R.B. Halbesleben, and A.R. Wheeler (Bingley, England: Emerald Publishing, 2016): 209-244.
2. M. Martinko, J. Mackey, S. Moss, et al., “An Exploration of the Role of Subordinate Affect in Leader Evaluations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 103, no. 7 (July 2018): 738-752.