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Three post-pandemic predictions for the world of work

May 4, 2021

What are the most consequential, lasting impacts on business and leadership after a year of crises?

I was reading an article recently about loosening travel restrictions, and halfway through, I came across a quote that powerfully captured what I think many people are feeling these days: “We can see a future, which is awesome.” After all, when the pandemic enveloped the world last spring, that ability to hope and plan for the future was shut down in our collective consciousness.

Yes, the daily headlines still bring troubling news about stubbornly high rates of COVID-19 cases, mounting death tolls, and slow vaccination rollouts in some countries. And the issues of social justice that have dominated the headlines persist. But companies also are starting to bring employees back to the office, people are beginning to think about real vacations again, and gloomy predictions of economic collapse are giving way to unbridled optimism about growth. First-quarter 2021 figures in the U.S. showed a 10 percent bounce-back from the same period last year.

When the pandemic started, people who have lived through a few crises before reminded us, “This too shall pass,” and even though it may have been hard to imagine given the extent of COVID-19’s damage worldwide, there’s a sense that their prediction was right. But this isn’t to say that we will be — or indeed, would even want to be — back to where we were in 2019.

How will business and the way we work change over the long term? There are some safe and perhaps obvious assumptions. Many of us won’t be traveling as much as we used to. Many employees won’t be going into the office five days a week. But what are the changes that are less obvious? Here are my predictions for three narratives that are going to play out in coming months and years at the intersection of leadership and business.

1. Corporations will have to strengthen their “social architecture.” Companies have long engaged in a variety of exercises to answer the step-back questions of why the organization exists and how people are expected to work together. That generally takes the form of a mission and vision statement, and a list of values the company and its employees will live by.

But these exercises often can feel like an afterthought, with companies adopting generic slogans about making the world a better place and believing in excellence, integrity, and customer-centricity. The crises of the past year — including the pandemic and flashpoints of social injustice — have created a kind of cultural stress test for companies.

Employees and other stakeholders are demanding that leaders step up and put some concrete action behind their words. What are the policies behind the mission? How are the outcomes measured? What does the company stand for? How is it showing commitment to those values?

Employees and other stakeholders are demanding leaders step up and put some concrete action behind their words. What are the policies behind the mission?

When there is a gap between words and action, people will spot it and call leaders out. For example, Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, wrote in June 2020, after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, that her goal was to make GM “the most inclusive company in the world.” A group of Black business leaders took out a full-page ad in several newspapers pointing out GM has long ignored Black-owned media companies. That pressure prompted GM to pledge to diversify its advertising spend, with 4 percent of its 2021 U.S ad budget going to Black-owned media (and rising to 8 percent by 2025).

As shareholder capitalism gives way to stakeholder capitalism, leaders can expect to be under a harsher spotlight to be more specific about what the company stands for, and to make sure its actions support those words.

2. Agility will grow in importance as an X factor that sets high performers apart. Between the financial collapse of 2008 and the pandemic, the world was relatively stable and assumptions about the future seemed far more reliable. That, of course, has changed, and CEOs and heads of HR are talking more about looking for talented people who understand the importance of embracing ambiguity — as well as people who are able to learn new things quickly and, if necessary, unlearn them just as fast.

All of which make sense, but I find it more useful to ground such discussions in terms of what these qualities look like in practice. How do you describe employees who have these skills? To me, they are manifested in people who are agile, people who can move easily between new and different challenges. These people are always on the lookout for new ideas and opinions. And they are always questioning the validity of assumptions, including their own, to build hypotheses for the best plan. “You have to make sure that you’ve got agile learners who will make the adjustments along the way based upon them seeing the world as a changing place,” Bill Strahan, the executive vice president of HR at Comcast Cable, told me.

3. The core skills of leadership will matter more than ever. Let’s face it — many executives in senior leadership positions do not invest much time or energy in the leadership part of their role. Instead, they might simply be swept along by the busywork of endless meetings, or they are focused more on advancing their own careers and engaging in corporate politics.

But the actual work of leadership is more intentional. With so many companies adopting policies that allow for remote work, the burden that is shifted onto leadership is greater. The C-suite needs to articulate the strategy in ways that provide clear signals to everyone in terms of what they should be working on and why it’s important.

And with so many people working out of the office, fostering and embedding the corporate culture will have to become a priority, given that colleagues may seem more like ships passing in the night (if they meet in person at all). Leaders will have to work overtime to share the company’s values, and the stories behind them. And they’ll need to reinforce those values at every employee touch point if people are going to adopt them as they did when everyone was together.

Finally, leaders will have to take more explicit steps to create a kind of listening infrastructure to understand what employees are thinking and feeling. When all employees were in the office, leaders could pick up those signals more easily. But it becomes harder when more people are working remotely. Listening has to be upgraded from a skill to an enterprise-wide process.

Yes, there is optimism behind each of the three predictions I’ve made above. If I’m right, these shifts will make for better leaders and stronger companies. Throughout the pandemic, there has been untold tragedy. But there have also been silver linings, and that silver feels like it’s shining a bit brighter these days.

The ExCo Group’s Adam Bryant wrote this article for his column in Strategy + Business. It was originally published here.