Leadership and Culture: Supporting teams through homeschooling and beyond

For many of us in the UK, the announcement of ‘Lockdown Three’ in early January was met with quiet resignation. Here we go again, we thought. Plus ca change.  There was not much new – aside from it being grimmer and darker than the first lockdown, there was nothing here we hadn’t done before. Yet in conversations with clients, our colleagues are reporting the same trends over and over again. The new lockdown – and particularly the challenges of home schooling – seem far more burdensome than they did in lockdown 1.0. Individuals, teams, and leaders are all struggling with balancing work and home life. Many FTSE-listed firms – and their accountancy partners – have already flagged up to regulators that these challenges are likely to prevent the timely release of end-of-year financial accounts.  So why is it so much harder this time around? For Tim Drake, Director of Leadership Consulting, it all boils down to managing your culture to maintain trust.

Building an effective office culture is proven to be a key differentiator of great leadership and commercial success. Cultures based on trust build mutual commitment, improve employee engagement, and prevent highly skilled and sought-after employees taking their skills elsewhere. For many leaders, the shift to remote working during the lockdowns of the last 12 months has made it harder to maintain that culture of trust – human beings are hardwired to rely on interpersonal cues to build relationships, eye contact, body language and so on, something we just haven’t had enough of in 2020. Add in the challenges of a workforce all juggling different priorities and it isn’t hard to see why some teams are struggling to keep the faith. But it is more vital than ever that they do. As the vaccine programme proceeds and the recovery beckons, there will be intense competition for top talent in every industry. Those individuals will base many of their decisions on how they felt during this last lockdown. If the trust has been broken, they will leave.

So what can you do? Firstly, leaders must trust that their teams are managing their conflicting priorities to the best of their ability. Trust cannot be built by negotiation – the best way to build trust is to offer it, freely. Empathy builds commitment, and commitment offers trust in return. You should also:

  • Be Flexible. You will need to be as flexible as they are. Take the time to understand what your people need, rather than what you think they need;
  • Treat them as individuals. On a cultural level, individual engagement is more powerful than a company wide edict. Be curious and aim to understand their individual position;
  • Set ground rules. You need to be firm but fair. This is about agreeing expectations and figuring out how to get the work done;
  • Be honest and open. You need to be honest about your requirements and encourage others to be honest about theirs. This is vital for the engagement of all team members – both those with and those without caring responsibilities;
  • Watch your ps and qs. In such an intense and fraught time, many of those struggling will also be experiencing anxiety and guilt. Leaders must be hyper aware of their language, and alert to the fact that language will land very differently depending on the receiver’s state of mind. Now is not the time for casual jokes about ‘slackers’ or to tell your team to ‘stop moaning’ as one high-profile Chair did recently.

The lockdowns have shone a spotlight on the challenges that many parents – or others with caring responsibilities at home – have faced when juggling their conflicting priorities. As organisations look forward to recovery and ‘returning to normal’, it would be a very positive step if those measures put in place now to mitigate those pressures carried forward into our ‘new normal’. Women have been shown to have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, being more likely to be furloughed and made redundant than their male counterparts. Creating a more flexible and inclusive workplace could create opportunities for those individuals to return to work and be confident in what they can offer, rather than be concerned about how they will be able to duck out of that last minute meeting.

Still struggling? Below are a few practical steps leaders can take now to make life easier for parents and carers, and build a culture of trust:

  1. Model good behaviour: Encourage the behaviour you would like to promote in your team – whether that be blocking off time in diaries for school runs, lunches, or other commitments. Be clear this time is non-negotiable.
  2. Embrace Flexibility: Many businesses are re-considering flexible working because of the pandemic. A policy of ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ hours can be beneficial to all and has been shown to improve productivity.
  3. Tighten up meeting discipline: Changing meeting times at the last minute and overrunning meetings are a nightmare for parents who may be working on a tight schedule. Certainly, for internal meetings there should be no excuses. Other businesses have gone further, and banned all but the most essential internal meetings, or set ‘no meeting’ hours.
  4. Talk about it: For many, the sense that needing time off to handle caring responsibility is shameful or something to be done ‘secretly’ is the most damaging. Encourage parents and carers in your organisation to join forces, or even an external organisation such as City Parents – to have a space to talk about the challenges they are facing or exchange tips can be a big help.

As a leader, it is important to remember that teams and individuals are operating under great pressure right now, but they are still the same individuals who have supported and grown with the business before and will no doubt do so again. Your people are your most valuable resource, and by protecting and helping them through the challenges of this year, you are protecting that resource for the years to come. Top talent will be in high demand as recovery kicks in, and no one wants to lose theirs because they failed to understand the pressures individuals experienced in this difficult time.

If you would like to discuss this topic more detail please do not hesitate to contact Tim Drake, Director of  Leadership Consulting via tim.drake@normanbroadbent.com / 7912 465 162