By Guest Contributor Atholl Duncan
Author Atholl Duncan explains what the new world of work looks like for for leaders, based on his newest book Leaders In Lockdown.
A WEE ICON
Little baby Willow has become very much part of our team since lockdown. She livens up our meetings and keeps us entertained. She loves our book “Leaders in Lockdown”. Her star contributions also mean that her Mum – who’s our marketing genius – can help Willow grow bigger and Black Isle Group grow bigger, all at the same time. In many ways Willow is an icon of the new world of work.
THE REMOTE WORKING REVOLUTION
Before we had ever heard of COVID-19, remote working was a novelty for the enlightened. It was one of the awakenings of the pandemic to see so many millions migrate to their kitchens without entire businesses falling over.
Nupur Singh Mallick recounts how the global conglomerate Tata moved 600,000 workers from office to home at an astonishing pace.
“It tells you how flexible people are and how advanced the technology is,” she says. “Before COVID-19, all of us were reluctant to adapt to work from home at this mass scale. Now there is much more collaboration. People are productive and more punctual in meetings. People are also a lot kinder and accepting than before.”
Her aim is to have only 25% of Tata’s workforce in offices in the future.
WORKING FROM ANYWHERE
Now we are moving from the concept of work from home to the dream of work from anywhere. Instead of the dreary trudge from suburbia to the rattling clamour of the central business district, millennials are adopting the idea of becoming digital nomads – the beach before breakfast and the virtual morning meeting.
Estonia and Barbados have created a new employment visa to encourage workers to base themselves in their countries. The concept of work from anywhere addresses issues of the cost of living in certain employment markets and could re-shape current mindsets around visas and immigration.
The new world of work also opens up new markets for businesses previously seen as based on the periphery. But it also allows businesses everywhere to compete with you. It makes geography history.
THE FUTURE OF THE CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT
The shift to remote working has huge implications for the companies and the pension funds who own our city centres.
Senior Vice-President of Global Communications at Phillip Morris, Marian Salzman says ”If I were in commercial real estate, I would be terrified. An office is going to become a luxury – and a liability.”
George Hongchoy is the CEO of Link Asset Management. They own swathes of shopping malls and offices in Hong Kong and China. He says, “I still think that work and social interaction go together. Employers will become more flexible. We’ll need more space for each individual. But I think most people will go back.”
However, over the longer term he sees the probability we may move away from the concept of the central business district. “Town planners have discussed this for many years. Maybe you don’t need a central business district. Maybe you need employment nearer to people’s homes and an end to the idea of commuting. An end to everyone going to one place.”
THE PROBLEMS OF REMOTE WORKING
Mark Thompson, who was the CEO of The New Times during the first months of lockdown, cycled round his Manhattan offices one day. He looked out over the deserted savanna of desks and observed,
“It was like going around an empty milking parlour,” I wondered why we’d had all these people sitting in rows staring at computers.”
He imagined his teams comfortable at home, getting more work done and pondered the ways of corporate America.
“I thought, there’s a big question mark over the office as an organizing principle of cities and I wondered whether it makes sense anymore. It made me wonder: should you sell your skyscraper?”
But Unilever’s Chief HR Officer, Leena Nair is only too aware of what we might miss out on if we abandon the office entirely in our enthusiasm for home working. She prefers a prefers a hybrid model.
“We should not over-celebrate it. We don’t yet know the long- term impact of large-scale remote working on human connections and our social capital. Work is a collaborative process. We don’t want to lose that, so we need to find the right balance.
“People will still need to come together to discuss ideas. People do greater things together because you trust each other. You respect each other. We have to tread carefully and take what we’ve learned and make sure we keep the diversity of thought and experience.”
Nupur Singh Mallick of Tata agrees that many issues still need to be solved around home- working.
“It is not something that can just be mandated. When you come up with a new way, the people need to be at the centre of the design. We don’t want to create division between the work- from-home group and the work-from-office people.”
THE NEW WORLD OF WORK
COVID-19 also marked a major shift in how leaders lead. Leena Nair of Unilever believes it has exposed the ‘Superman’ leader as a relic of the past. It may usher in a new era of compassionate leadership. She describes the attributes which worked in the crisis and sees them as the template for the future.
“Being kind. Being compassionate. Being empathetic. Being inclusive. No longer is the leader the one who has all the answers. The first thing they do is listen and acknowledge the pain and the answers will follow. Empathize, walk in their shoes. Lead with no hierarchies. Be willing to be humble and curious. These are the leaders who are succeeding at this time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ATHOLL DUNCAN is the Chair of the leadership development business, Black Isle Group. He worked as a journalist, TV producer and executive for the BBC for more than 20 years. He was Head of News and Current Affairs for BBC Scotland from 2007 to 2011. Atholl is an Insead certified executive coach, who has studied leadership at Harvard and Cranfield. He is currently Chair of the Scottish salmon industry, which is Britain’s largest food exporter; Audit Chair of a cinema business; Chair of UK Coaching, and is a Non-Executive Director and former Chair of the British Horseracing Authority. He works mainly in London and internationally and has a home in Scotland.
Leaders in Lockdown is a unique insight from the women and men who were on the front line of leading the business world’s fight against COVID-19. From New York to Singapore to Hong Kong to the City of London, it captures a remarkable moment in time – when the global economy was brought to a shuddering halt in the struggle to contain a deadly pandemic. These first-hand accounts of 100 days of lockdown tell stories of leadership in a crisis. They also share the wisdom of some of the world’s most thoughtful business leaders as they predict how the world will change because of COVID-19.
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