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Based on your coaching engagements during the pandemic, what shifts have you noticed around how leaders frame productivity?

Much of my work focuses on female leadership development and, a couple of months into the pandemic, many of my clients told me that they felt Covid’s organisational impacts would make them far more competitive for attracting female talent.

In the past, those organisations had equated productivity with showing up at the office – so they had often been fairly inflexible about that. But in the early months of the Covid era, leaders were shown in vivid terms that their workforces were capable of being highly productive – or in some cases, more so – working virtually.

One large client of mine in the midwest had lost a number of female employees because it had tended to be inflexible about its home state’s frequent snow days – even though bad weather keeping schoolchildren at home has obvious knock-on effects for working mothers. But the pandemic showed the leadership of this firm that they didn’t need to make women choose.

What have different staff demographics made of this whole period?

Many younger workers I have spoken to missed each other, the atmosphere of the office and the chance to build mentoring relationships with older staff. But people at a mid or senior level with at least 10 years under their belts often find they don’t miss the physical workplace all that much.

Ironically enough, there are some women who are eager to return to the office because they need time out from their kids! So, there are variations even within demographics.

How is this affecting the way leaders organise and manage staff, with an eye on maintaining productivity?

Leaders have inconsistently understood a very important point: whether or not staff return to the office, they have had a year-and-a-half of having to adapt on the fly – of having to find new ways of working and, in some cases, navigate sharp learning curves in their use of new technologies. These are significant productivity factors.

Indeed, staff have had crash courses in becoming almost like the self-employed – such as how to set up schedules for themselves; how to hold themselves accountable for sticking to those schedule; how to stay focused and ignore the distractions of the home environment.

And they want these skills to be acknowledged and respected.

To some extent, many workers would prefer to function as their own HR departments, rather than having to tick their way through reams of policies and procedures. The message I’m hearing from them is: “I’ve got this… I’ve been doing it for a while.”

For leaders, the challenge is that to show they understand this, they’re going to have to give their staff much more flexibility and autonomy. Not just in relation to home working – but in how they do their jobs as a whole.

Leaders will increasingly have to trust workers with their self-management, while at the same time supplying the resources and support that staff need to do their jobs in the ways they want to do them.

But what I’m seeing all too often is workers saying stuff like, “Oh, so they’re changing the whole IT system and sending everyone a 500-page PDF on how to manage: why are they wasting my time with this?”

And when it comes to the whole nature of workers’ relationship to procedures, that’s really the operative question: “Why are you wasting my time with this?”

What’s the alternative response that leaders should shoot for?

“Tell me what I can learn from you… what have you discovered in the pandemic about what makes you more productive?”

And no – the point is not to take all their workers’ answers and flow them into a whole new set of blanket policies and procedures! It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.

Instead, leaders must understand the extent to which people have, on their own terms, practised new skills and disciplines – and to maximise the scope for them to continue to follow those practices.

Naturally, some leaders will have concerns over fairness. But the fairness doesn’t come from, “What can we do to make you more productive as a unit?” It comes from, “Which resources and support should we provide on an individual basis that will help you be as productive as you can?”

It’s about accepting differences.

How should leaders make the most of their workers’ feedback?

Ask smart questions, and listen better. I was lucky enough in a number of discussions to be in the presence of Peter Drucker, and one thing that struck me about him was that as a policy, he would always speak last.

He was concerned that if he spoke earlier, it would encourage people to say they agreed with him even if they didn’t – or to suppress something they really wanted to say. There’s much that leaders can learn at this time from how Drucker encouraged dialogue.

Voices from our community: Sally Helgesen is a leadership coach, speaker and author, most recently, of How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job.

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