Six months on from the start of UK lockdown, and with business still very much not ‘as usual’, there is a huge amount we continue to learn as we move our working and personal lives forward.

Since March, we’ve worked closely with our clients to understand the new realities that organisations face as we look ahead to 2021 and beyond. One thing is certain: there is no certainty.

There are, however, many positives to be gleaned from their experiences and applied to the way we lead, manage, engage with and communicate across our organisations.

We’ve seen – and continue to see – forward-thinking organisations apply the lessons they’ve learned from the crisis and use them to steer their future, with a focus firmly on long-term success. These can be encapsulated in three core themes:

Challenge brings opportunity – if you’re agile enough to take advantage

When we’re forced to act quickly, unnecessary barriers are removed. That’s because necessity forces new behaviours and essential decision-making freed from the constraints of red tape. Often, new behaviours create new ideas and breed innovation that can lead our thinking – and our businesses – in a new direction.

But leaders have to be agile and flexible enough to grab these opportunities and drive them forward, avoiding fixed, long-term strategies, and staying relevant. Change is a catalyst for the emergence of new leaders. Organisations must embrace and nurture this talent for the long term to be in the best position for success in the long term.

Times of difficulty also make us question what’s really important – and show us what matters most. This is as applicable to our businesses as to ourselves. Now is the time to focus on delivering what your customers need – not what you think they want.

The definition of leadership has changed for good

Over the past six months we’ve seen that leaders who have connected directly with their employees have boosted both productivity and morale. With continuing uncertainty and further challenges ahead of us, it’s critical that we maintain ‘human’ leadership beyond the crisis.

But while the pendulum of leadership may have swung from ‘hard business’ to ‘empathetic goodwill’ during the crisis, continuing long-term success will rely on finding a balance between the two – and this means developing a balanced leadership style will be a core differentiator as we move beyond 2020.

Critical to this will be proactivity. Making decisions quickly and in the face of increased pressure will deliver greater opportunity as we emerge from the crisis – even when those decisions are tough.

Finding this balance will also rely on leaders being able to re-think the traditional roles of the teams around them. During the crisis, we’ve embraced capabilities, not qualifications and our teams have often become stronger for it.

Future workforce planning will require leaders to look beyond the norm, equipping their teams with those who are flexible and adaptable to meet changing needs, rather than those with the on-paper qualifications to fulfil a single role.

Employee engagement is – and will continue to be – more important than ever

If you didn’t recognise it before, the crisis has shown that your people are everything. Without them, you can’t continue to serve customers – simple. And the crisis has shown that your workforce can also be your most flexible asset.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical to address the basics of engagement – and even more critical to note that these basics have shifted. As well as being engaged with your business, purpose and strategy, employees need to feel assured on health, safety and wellbeing. This will be fundamental as we move forward.

At the same time, the crisis has helped to highlight who is – and who isn’t – engageable. Focus on the energy that your engaged talent will bring to your business for the long term.

Perhaps the most important criteria here, though, is trust. As workforces look set to be increasingly distributed, flexible and fragmented, we must trust our teams to do the right thing. Micromanagement is simply not possible, but also not the best strategy for long-term success: the more we trust our managers and employees, the more we empower them, and the more they deliver.

What does the future hold?

We still have a long way to go before the impact of COVID-19 becomes a memory. And even then, our businesses will need to be agile and flexible enough to weather the next challenge that lies ahead.

We’d love to hear how your business is embracing new opportunities or changing tactics for the long term, and to understand how your leadership and engagement approaches are evolving in parallel.

Share your thoughts at [email protected] and do get in touch if we can help you with your leadership and engagement challenges as you plan for an uncertain 2021.