This article was originally published on City Press’ website
‘Running a business now is like white-water kayaking.” These were the words of John Sealy Brown, a name synonymous with innovation, organisational learning and complex adaptive systems. In Silicon Valley in the US, where he is based, his name is mentioned with reverence in this cutting-edge technology community.
It was a pre-pandemic era, and I was attending a masterclass where he used the analogy of white-water kayaking. Back then, he was referring to the technological disruptions business leaders were facing.
He said that we were moving from the digital age to the networking age, adding that leaders in the networking age needed to be like kayakers in white water – continually scanning the currents for disturbances and pre-empting what might lie beneath the surface.
The cross currents have become stronger, the twists and turns more acute and there is water constantly being blasted into your face
Sixteen months into a devastating pandemic, business leaders find themselves kayaking in seemingly never-ending stretches of turbulent waters. There are new, hidden dangers beneath the water’s churning surface: the cross currents have become stronger, the twists and turns more acute and there is water constantly being blasted into your face.
If technologies were accelerated by five years in 2020, so too has the call for corporates to shift from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy. The future of the workplace is no longer a long-term concept. The decoupling of “work” from “place of work” during lockdowns has kick-started an irreversible business revolution.
Not only are CEOs confronting the nagging question of unnecessary office overheads (that ripple effect is already affecting commercial real estate), but they must also decide how to coordinate a staggered or hybrid workforce.
Accommodating both a remote and in-office workforce will require a complete overhaul of the physical office.
Retrofitting an existing office environment for a post-pandemic world is as complicated as deciding which staggered, in-office formula to adopt.
The new tech required for hybrid conference rooms, over and above reconfiguring the office space to accommodate new health protocols, will be costly, not to mention the cost of retrofitting facilities such as bathrooms and canteens to fall in line with a new contactless culture.
Those are just the physical aspects of a changed office. Company culture also needs to be reassessed. Managers found out just how difficult it was to coordinate their teams remotely, while bringing new employees on board presented a completely new challenge.
While many CEOs have been planning a return to the office, workforces around the world are pushing back. Ironically, even at Zoom, an internal poll revealed that only 1% of staff want to return to the office full time, a quarter want to work from home permanently, while more than 50% favoured a hybrid approach.
Extended lockdowns have also resulted in deep introspection for workers around the world, sparking waves of “life audits”. Many families “semigrated”, moving to smaller cities for larger homes and a more relaxed lifestyle.
Life audits result in a change of priorities, which in turn mean that employees now view rewards and benefits in a completely different light
Some life audits have culminated in what is now referred to as The Great Resignation: people not only quitting their jobs, but, in many cases, pursuing a completely different profession.
For business owners and HR managers, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Life audits result in a change of priorities, which in turn mean that employees now view rewards and benefits in a completely different light. What was once a “nice to have” has now become a “must have”.
A survey by Prudential Insurance found that 52% of employees would leave their job for one with the “right” benefits, while Microsoft surveyed 30 000 people in 31 countries and discovered that 41% of workers were considering quitting their job.
It is unsurprising that healthcare and childcare benefits have become priorities, especially for parents who had to juggle working from home and home schooling. Flexibility and in-office safety protocols also moved up the list of preferred benefits.
And if all of this was not enough, there is now the complex issue of dealing with vaccine hesitancy and antivaxxers within a company’s workforce.
If CEOs found it lonely at the top before the pandemic, the sense of isolation now must be intense.
With so much emphasis on ensuring workforce wellbeing, I do wonder who is checking on the mental wellbeing of business leaders. Some would argue that they are paid handsomely to steer the ship, but white-water kayaking during a pandemic is a very different skill.
This is why I’m advocating a back-to-school initiative for CEOs to be trained to become CLOs – chief learning officers. CEOs are appointed for their experience and decision-making skills, but when the world has been upended, as it has been, then it’s not “what you know” that is important, but rather, it’s important to study a fast-evolving new rulebook.
Keeping shareholders happy used to be the primary goal, but the new leadership benchmark is ensuring the stakeholders are happier. That’s the difference between being a boss and being a leader.
Image credit: Hatham