A new reality for ways of working

Whilst COVID-19 has upended our working lives it also provides the burning platform to rethink how we work.

In this article, KPMG examines how reform in government can be informed by new leadership for a new normal post COVID-19. KPMG’s People & Change practice calls this our new reality where unpredictability and disruption to the way we work is no longer a temporary state.

The boundaries have become blurred when it comes to work and home. People are asking: ‘am I working from home or am I living at work’. We are starting to see the motivational, psychological and social impacts of working from home shifting how we think about our work and our workplaces.

Kathy Hilyard
Partner, KPMG Australia

The need for sustainable boundaries

It's critical for leaders to have conscious conversations with people about putting sustainable boundaries in place.

Conversations to establish boundaries have to be as important as those about tasking and results. It’s a whole new challenge in managing work and workloads. Leaders are challenged to help people navigate the boundaries between work and home while maintaining their connection with purpose and performance.

Leaders are also navigating a more complex mental health and wellbeing landscape for the people they lead. One of the ways people may manage anxiety about the new ways of working is to increase the amount of time spent on work. It’s the incremental reward of answering just one more email or adding the final page to a report. Leaders need to be more attuned to the mental wellbeing and emotional health of their staff.

There is also an imperative for leaders to role model new ways of working that are healthy, sustainable and productive. This can be as simple as defining after hours and communicating it to colleagues and staff so as to preserve non-work time. Discussions with clients who are promising themselves to stop the 2:00am emails only to find this is becoming a habit that is difficult to break. Whilst feeling guilt about the impact this has on their team members, creating anxiety, sending unhealthy messages about expectations and impacting team wellbeing.

Leaders need to strike a balance between achieving outcomes and driving high performance while being mindful of their own personal capacity and taking care of their own health and well-being. Hilyard champions the notion of performance recovery – just as athletes prioritise their recovery, so too do leaders. Rather than ‘busyness’ being the badge of honour we need to shift to thinking of taking time for recovery and wellness as a priority. Leaders are better performers and strategic thinkers for it.

New ways of working

In this new environment, leaders are becoming the architects of new ways of working. Leaders have a more prominent responsibility to deliberately and consciously shape the culture and work practices of the new normal. Hilyard says, “This is our opportunity to move from mechanistic hierarchies to more networked adaptive and agile organisations. Leaders need to do the heavy lifting to make this transition”.

It requires an outcomes based leadership which conceptualises performance, presenteeism having long been considered synonymous with productivity. “If I can't see people, how do I know they're being productive?” was a question KPMG frequently heard in the early days of pivoting to working from home. In a virtual environment, leaders must rethink how work is framed, measured and monitored. Time invested in defining individual and team purpose will reap performance benefits. People need to feel aligned to the purpose of their work to maintain motivation and engagement.

Outcomes are central. It is more important than ever for public sector leaders to build shared commitment to outcomes, set expectations in terms of milestones, timelines, accountability and deliverables. Then get out of the weeds, take a coaching approach and trust their people to manage themselves to deliver.

But it is not just a new way of working in a virtual environment. The new normal post COVID-19 is likely to see a hybrid working model with a combination of working at the office and from home. Successfully managing the complexity of this hybrid model requires a balance between communication, collaboration and connection. Managers and leaders need a new skill set. Hilyard describes these dynamic adaptive capabilities encompassing active listening, facilitation, negotiation, complex problem solving and a digital mindset.

Encouraging pragmatic optimism

Hilyard also sees the role of the leader as bringing optimism to their teams, people and organisations. She terms it ‘"pragmatic optimism" because at the same time, we can’t be naive in thinking that we can actually say, for example 'don’t worry it's all going to be okay'. We simply don’t know what the future will hold.

There are new ways to find the good in what we're doing and the purpose that binds our people and organisations together. In fact this is a key potential strength of the public sector profession.

As leaders we need to be open to having conversations about the uncertainly and collectively think about how we look after ourselves in the new normal.”

This article first appeared in The Mandarin.

Key contacts

Related insights