John Ainley: A new normal

There are many changes taking place in the workplace right now as a result of the pandemic and some of them will become our new normal – who will we choose to be as leaders in a post Covid-19 world?

The pandemic lockdown has painted a new behavioural picture for leaders and their organisations

Fans of the TV programme ‘Through the Keyhole’ – where cameras are sent into an anonymous celebrity’s home and watchers try to identify who lives there – are probably getting some pleasure from seeing into their colleagues’ homes via the medium of Zoom, Skype, or whatever web conference package their business has chosen to help facilitate home working during this period of lockdown. I’ve even seen some businesses offering services to help curate a suitably well-read home office library backdrop to convey the ‘right’ impression during those web conferences. Doubtless there’s been some fine artwork moving into the home office too.

Many employees will also have enjoyed seeing into their leader’s home during these calls. For most – and careful ‘backdrop’ curation aside – it will have probably been the most personal thing they will have learnt about their boss and, in many cases, helped to reveal a new, more authentic side to the leader’s personality. One thing we’ve long focused on as coaches, is the need for a leader to be open, candid and authentic, and a consequence of the switch to remote working is helping to achieve just that.

It’s one indicator that a longer-term impact of the pandemic on business life might be that many of us will change the way we behave and work, fundamentally altering the culture of our businesses for the better.

Theory X versus Theory Y

Back in the 1950s, social psychologist Douglas McGregor came up with the concept of Theory X and Theory Y. Under Theory X, the idea was that workers disliked what they do and will try and avoid work wherever possible: they are gullible; self-centred; resistant to change; and, must be coerced into working and need constant direction.

Theory Y however, offers a more contrasting and positive picture of us as employees: that we are naturally inclined to put our effort into work; we can self-direct ourselves in pursuit of the organisation’s objectives; are capable of using our own ingenuity; and, are only given the chance to use a small proportion of the intellectual capabilities in the workplace.

While some management practices continue to adopt a Theory X mindset, recent events show that many of the attributes applied to Theory Y are starting to reveal themselves.

Employees up their discretionary effort

Right now there are many employees delivering a huge amount of ‘discretionary’ effort, reflecting a positive, get it done spirit. There is more openness, not just at leadership levels, but across businesses and organisations as people share thoughts on mental health for example, while also simply being kinder and more empathetic to each other. Many companies are seeing increased productivity which, in contrast to the belief of those who adopt a Theory X approach, shows what can happen when employees have less day-to-day direction and draw down on their own ingenuity and self-drive.

What does your organisation’s ‘new normal’ look like?

The question – and challenge – for many leaders will be that, whenever the pandemic recedes and businesses begin to return to their offices and the ‘new normal’, will they revert to how they behaved before – both as individuals and culturally as a business – or will they take on board the lessons learnt?

There is an opportunity to rewrite many of the business rules and change organisations for the better. CEOs who grab that opportunity will not have any regrets.

Now, if you’ll please excuse me while I move my favourite Modigliani print into the study.