Whether great managers learn leadership skills or manifest them as an inborn trait is an open question. But many organizations would agree that the pandemic has underscored the value of evolving certain competencies. Dealing with ambiguity, developing flexibility, managing change, driving innovation and mitigating risks are just a few that are demanding greater attention.
Two years of untested challenges have not changed the core tenets of leadership. But many talent management skills and competencies need to be adapted to the new ways of working. Learning what these arrangements and environments require — including remote work — will help managers become more adept at keeping their teams engaged and productive.
Key challenges of post-pandemic work
In an altered labor market, it's no surprise that leaders consider people management one of their biggest challenges, especially figuring out how to recruit and retain talent. Finding a strategic solution currently is complicated by mass resignation that often limits the pool of job candidates. This scarcity of candidates prompts employers to outcompete each other on career opportunities, work arrangements and benefit upgrades.
Decisions by employees in the early or middle stages of their careers to leave the workforce are compounded by a faster rate of retirement. One analysis found that 50% of U.S. adults 55 and older had retired by the third quarter of 2021 compared to 48% during the same time period in 2019.1 Another recent study estimates that more than 20% of Canadian employees will be eligible to retire by 2026 — a number that's roughly double the amount in the previous five years.2
As expected with trends and circumstances like these, the exodus of talent from the workplace is a top concern for 43% of leaders.3 Staffing shortages may increase internal mobility opportunities within an organization, which supports retention, but they often create job vacancies and intense pressure to adjust how quickly business and services are delivered.
When less experienced managers step into new roles and the stakes are high, they often struggle to empower their teams to make their own decisions. This struggle is especially true when managing remote workers. In response, more leaders are looking for solutions that allow them to coach and develop employees from a distance, with the intent of encouraging autonomy and avoiding micromanagement.
Rampant burnout in the healthcare industry makes the news, but all organizations are vulnerable to this rising risk. For leaders, strengthening teams and enhancing their resilience is a key part of the solution that starts with recognizing and responding to all signs of employee exhaustion. Detachment from the organization's mission, vision and values is an important indicator.
Rank the exodus of talent from the workplace as a top concern for leaders3
Pressing employees who have reached their limits is counterintuitive and counterproductive. Before they reach this point — not when they reach it — it's critical to focus management efforts on preventing and relieving burnout. Supporting employee health and wellbeing promotes retention now and helps to strengthen both the employee experience and the employer brand indefinitely.
Recognizing effort and creating a culture of belonging
Leaders and managers who develop and enhance their abilities to recognize and reward the efforts of their teams keep teams engaged. Remote employees warrant special attention due to lower levels of social integration. Communicating clearly is an ever-present expectation of employees, who want to understand where their organization is headed. And when consequential decisions are made, they need to know the "what" and the "why." Naturally, employers should also provide insight into how changes will affect the workforce. Transparency breeds trust.
Comfortable surroundings provide a better environment that's more conducive to work, but employers have little control over these conditions when employees are located outside of the office. While external influences are significant, mental and emotional wellbeing — and productivity — are mostly responses to internal employee perceptions, thoughts and feelings about their value to the organization.
Increasingly, employers recognize the organizational value of demonstrating appreciation for the efforts and successes of their employees as individuals, teams and an entire workforce. Expressing empathy also matters. Leaders who show they can understand and share the feelings of others are able to be more transparent, vulnerable and genuine in responding to employees and their situations. But looking beyond the pandemic, less than 1 in 5 believe this leadership and managerial competency (5%), or building trust (11%), will be the most significant for optimizing the work experience and work outcomes.4
Some initiatives that enhance wellbeing, such as diversity, equity and inclusion, must be supported by policies to help ensure optimal results. All of these practices contribute enormously to the employee experience because they promote a culture of belonging.
The overlooked potential of storytelling
Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Actually, research suggests that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they're part of a story.5 Leaders who communicate clearly through stories, especially in times of great change or difficulty, can more effectively influence, unify and motivate employees.