C-Suite Insider

Leaders must embrace the changing workplace

Our workplaces are irreversibly changing. Workplaces have always evolved but never before has our physical and conceptual thinking been challenged like it is now under COVID-19 conditions.

I have held a view for some years that CBD offices would be replaced by apartments possibly as early as mid this decade as technology and automation make their functions redundant. COVID-19 has been the catalyst, enabled (not the causation) by technology, to make this a reality far sooner.

Whatever longer term trend emerges from the current reshaping of our workplaces it has started a discourse that challenges:

  1. the notion of physical proximity required to be effective
  2. where and how work gets done
  3. the shape of the working week
  4. the importance of socialisation on our connectedness  at work

While clarity may not be apparent just yet, it is important is to maintain an open dialogue on these discussion points to find direction with the future of work. Moreover, leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to inspire, guide, foster and proactively encourage discussions with their employees that canvass these emerging workplace challenges. This is a function of building organisational capability and fundamental to their leadership responsibilities, skill set and daily leadership routine.

Redefining proximity context

I have always thought that proximity was a key precursor to effective collaboration, co-operation and healthy workplace relationships. I still hold this belief however, with Covid-19  providing a large scale experiment in remote working, I now view proximity as more than physical distance and rather a sense of connectedness facilitated by other means e.g. technology. Sure, many have expressed that they miss the office banter and physical presence of their colleagues but can this be achieved through other means?  Courtesy of COVID-19 the answer appears to be that it can and now, almost certainly, will be a permanent function of the new reality. This is highly likely to continue to be the subject of ongoing debate and research.

Careers facilitate socialisation and provide meaning in our lives.

Similarly, careers are being examined and voluntarily or involuntarily reshaped.  Many employees think about their careers and jobs every day. Their considerations may cover a range of thoughts such as career satisfaction, happiness in their job, attitude toward their boss and organisation, flexibility, colleagues etc. The important thing is that they are thinking about their work on some level whether their boss asks them or not. This is potentially heightened with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Careers play a key role in our lives well beyond the bottom rung (water, food, shelter etc.) of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. Careers facilitate socialisation and provide meaning in our lives. Therefore it’s unsurprising that we should routinely consider and evaluate our career options. It stands to reason that leaders are in a unique position to support their employees to navigate their career journey.

Paradox of retention and engagement

Effective career conversations are a great place to start when building trust and engagement. By taking a proactive approach to employee development leaders demonstrate commitment to their employees’ welfare and development and authenticity. One wonders why a leader would delegate this activity to others if they had the capability to support their employees in this way.

Career crossroads, identifying pathways and options and following though on career decisions can be one of the times when employees need the support of their leaders most. This requires leaders to always be working in the best interests of their employee even if that means an employee leaving the organisation to further their development. Some leaders, understandably, struggle with the paradox of supporting an employee’s need to depart as a retention and engagement strategy that may feel counter intuitive. However, this is not only essential to employee engagement, but a fundamental leadership imperative and requires a high level of trust to exist as well as reciprocal commitment upheld between both parties.

Career reinvention 

The social and other impacts of COVID-19 are bound to permanently reshape the future of work and leave an indelible mark on the careers of many.  This will now almost certainly mean rethinking where and how work gets done. The accelerating pace of technology, artificial intelligence and automation was well underway prior to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic however it is sure to inspire significant navigational change of our unfolding world of work. This will open up a wide range of exciting new career opportunities possibly never before contemplated. As individuals we need to have open minds and broaden our thinking in order to recognise new opportunities that may come in disguise and/or by chance. This may require imagination, innovation and reinvention combined with the courage of our convictions to act on our career vision.  Again, leaders have an exceptional opportunity to enhance employee engagement through facilitating and being exceedingly deliberate about encouraging self-reflection, refocusing of career goals and developing and aligning associated capability. This may require self-reinvention and reimagining careers and require leaders to have a high degree of self-awareness and coaching capability to support employees career development.

Leaders can develop career coaching capability 

The capability to hold effective career conversations as the key vehicle to build and nurture sustainable employee engagement has never been more obvious or powerful. While some leaders have a seemingly innate ability most, in my experience, need support to develop their skill and confidence in this capability. I firmly believe that all leaders, motivated and committed to their development, can develop the skills required to conduct effective career conversations with help and guidance in the basic steps for proficiency. Everyone benefits so why not start today!

Commentary by Greg Smith. Here’s what you’ve missed?

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Greg Smith
Greg Smith is an expert in career development, talent management and organisational leadership. The co-founder of HR consulting firm, deliberatepractice, he helps aspiring, emerging and experienced leaders to develop their everyday leadership skill set. He is the author of Career Conversations: How to get the best from your talent pool (Wiley), winner of The Australian Career Book Award for 2019. Greg Smith is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.