Collaborative Leadership Blog

What is the “New Normal” for the Workplace?

From: HR Strategy & Planning Excellence

What Is The “New Normal” For The Workplace?

We are at an inflection point in the evolution of leadership and workplace cultures

November 24, 2020

Is there a post-Covid “new normal” for the workplace? It’s not clear yet. But, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security that Pfizer’s potential vaccine for Covid-19 is going to end our 2020 national nightmare. They still have to get formal approval and solve the distribution challenge of giving 350 million people 2 doses, while preserving it at -100o Fahrenheit. How will they get it to people in rural America, let alone rural Africa, China, India, or Latin America? The truth is that even with a vaccine, a recent survey found that close to 50% of the country wouldn’t take it. Furthermore, more than 100 new coronaviruses have been discovered that could impact us in the future. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurie Garrett has documented in The Coming Plague, we are facing a future where tiny microbes will continue to unsettle global markets, nations, workplaces, and our personal lives. Covid-19 has fundamentally transformed how we work, lead, and live for the foreseeable future.

For most of 2020, the greatest challenge we faced was whether to reopen and if so, under what conditions. We had to balance the health and safety of our workforces with the need to keep the doors open. It was, and is, an ethical choice best resolved if we engage the workforce directly in making that decision. With the realization that we will never return to the January 2020 “normal,” our greatest challenge is to reimagine what the new normal for the workplace will look like. Jobs are disappearing. Whole segments of the economy, like transportation, hospitality, and more are being redefined. Global work is in decline. In this context, what will the new workplace culture look like? How will work get done? How will we lead? How will we keep people motivated, especially if they work remotely?

20th Century Hierarchical vs. 21st Century Collaborative Cultures

We are at an inflection point in how we lead and manage. In the age of Covid, we can no longer afford to lead using the 20th Century Industrial Age hierarchy. Top-down, control-oriented leadership is out of step with our new 21st Century reality. We are working remotely. A super-majority of the workforce is Millennial and GenZ, who insist on collaboration, where the principles of psychological safety, ownership, respect, and trust are the bedrock for the culture. It’s no longer about control but empowerment; not directing but facilitating; not telling, but asking; not about individual responsibility, but the collective good. It is creating a culture of “We”, not “Me”, where leaders empower the workforce to be their best selves so they can do their best work. There is an expectation for corporate social and global responsibility. The Millennial generation expects collaborative cultures, otherwise, they will leave.

21st Century Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative leaders are ethical above reproach. They are inspiring about the organization’s vision, and engage the workforce for understanding and ownership. They are self-aware, reflective, and on their journey to mastery of collaborative leadership skills—facilitation, active listening, transparency, two-way communications, coaching, and acknowledging others. They let go of their need to control others and know that the workforce will be motivated intrinsically by being in a psychologically safe work culture, where they can speak truth to power without fear of retribution, where their leaders are credible and care about the health and safety of the workforce, and where the workforce is given ownership of their jobs, work processes, and organizational change. These leaders understand that Millennials and GenZers in the Digital Covid Age are motivated by intrinsic rewards—autonomy, being challenged, having the ability to make decisions, freedom from micro-management, and to take risks, learn, and grow. Collaborative leaders understand that the way to survive and thrive in this new normal is to unleash the productive energy of the workforce through a focus on full engagement and ownership. They are the Chief Cultural Officers for their organizations.

Collaborative Teaming 

The engine for success in the pandemic age is collaborative teams. Whether they are project-based, cross-functional, standing, or tiger teams, they all need a way to govern themselves. No longer can we afford the “forming-storming-storming-maybe norming-non-performing” approach to team development. Collaborative teams front-load their governance process, agree to how they will work together with 100% consensus, build high levels of trust, have ways to address their differences and hold each other accountable, and as a result, are high performing from the start. They are the primary unit of change within any company, and when chartered by senior leadership to make breakthroughs or deliver excellence, they will leverage their intellectual capital and synergy to do so.

Redefining the Workplace

Zoom is flattening the hierarchy. All the boxes on the screen are the same size, whether you are the CEO or the front-line. Everyone is equal. The focus is on getting the work done rather than the title. Zoom is emblematic of a shift that has been underway for a couple of decades—the flattening of the organization, which is now is team-based. Silos are eliminated so people can work across functions to meet the needs of customers. When people are in offices or factories, workspaces are redesigned to ensure health and safety. Performance management shifts from a focus on the individual to the team, and team members, rather than supervisors, coach each other to improve performance. The mantra becomes: Collaborate inside to compete outside.

We are at an inflection point in the evolution of leadership and workplace cultures. Covid-19 has been the action-forcing event that is transforming how we work with each other. The only question that remains is whether we choose to recognize it and make the shift, from power-based hierarchy to principle-based collaboration. We either cling to the deckchairs of the Titanic, or we consciously recognize the imperative of this moment and make the shift to a vibrant, empowering, engaging, collaborative future. Carpe diem.