When I walked into the Corporate Head Office of DP World in Dubai for my first day in my new role, I never could have imagined what an unusual (yet incredibly positive) onboarding experience lay ahead. The date was March 8, 2020.

Having spent nearly 20 years working with leadership development, L&D, talent, and culture, I’ve seen my fair share of trends come and go in these areas. The pandemic brought about not only an unprecedented level of ‘VUCA’ but also has driven unexpected transformation across industries, geographies, and functions like never before. And HR is no exception.

So what have we learned? Where are we now, and where are we headed? I wanted to specifically focus on 2 areas of insight – leadership and organisational culture.

The ‘forced’ transition to large-scale remote working brought with it profound insights for companies who had not embraced this previously. Luckily, I have worked for many years with various forms of remote working, as well as leading remote teams across multiple countries, so the shock was relatively easy to manage personally, despite not meeting some of my new team members in person for about 9 months.

"The ‘forced’ transition to large-scale remote working brought with it profound insights for companies who had not embraced this previously"

This pre-pandemic experience, combined with my one-of-a-kind onboarding during the pandemic, led to 3 key insights on leadership& culture:

1. Endangered Species of Leadership: Control and command or ‘micromanagement’ styles of leadership were already in decline, however, I believe Covid killed them…they’re extinct and really have no place for the future. Personally, I cannot imagine how stressful it must have been for leaders prone to micromanaging their teams during those first months of forced remote working last year.

Anecdotally, I haven’t spoken to a single leader in any industry or geography that hasn’t stated that their team’s productivity and engagement was at an all-time high during most of the year. Trust and empowerment is the way forward; with the caveat, there is a clear understanding of what we’re heading and how we’re tracking.

2. Keep Connecting Authentically: While the honeymoon might be over for embracing full-on remote working for leaders and teams across the board, my hope is the key insights won’t be forgotten.

Over the past months, the affinity and authenticity leaders have embraced by meeting their team members remotely lead to many new realisations.

I personally interacted with colleagues’ partners, pets, children etc. This is something we didn’t generally do before, at least not very often….and we didn’t do this in t-shirts, shorts and tracksuits either, which is really refreshing. I’m certain those leaders (and their teams) who retain this in some way will continue to flourish in the future. After all, if your team and colleagues have seen and experienced the real (holistic) you, why go back?

3. It’s all about Culture: There are dozens of complex theoretical models that look to capture what exactly organisational culture is – it’s a slippery topic.

My own preference is thinking about your company’s culture through the analogy of personality – it’s the collective personality of your company – what most of your people think, feel & do most of the time. And by the way, let’s try to pivot the concept of ‘culture fit,’ which isn’t very inclusive to ‘culture add’ – when considering bringing in new talent from the outside, ask what will this person add to the culture of the team and enterprise.

The secret of great organisational cultures is the concept of ‘ownership’ (you can Google this and find plenty of articles and case studies) – that is, the majority of your people can say with conviction ‘we own the culture and it belongs to us.’ It’s not something that belongs to the CEO, the Board, or HR – it belongs to everyone.

The pandemic forced companies, not necessarily by choice but by force, to open the floodgates of trust, empowerment, and ownership. Anyone who has worked extensively with culture change knows it usually takes years to make progress and can be very frustrating – I truly believe we are (still) in the midst of the single greatest opportunity to accelerate positive culture change.

(perhaps in a pop-out graphic) ‘Culture is what people do when no one is looking’ – Herb Kelleher

The Moment of Truth

The key question at this stage is, ‘What do you do now?’. We’ve opened up unparalleled levels of trust, empowerment, and ownership to our people, and leaders have left outdated micromanagement styles behind by necessity. The organisations who are ‘opportunistic’ here will reap the medium and longer-term benefits of this situation, whether it’s reducing overhead costs for real estate by scaling remote working or casting their talent acquisition nets wider by allowing more permanent WFA (work from anywhere) schemes where possible.

My 2top tips for maximising this moment of truth:

1. Vigorously reward &recogniseyour leadership behaviours of the future, even if it means recalibrating your internal leadership expectations framework. It’s all about trust and empowerment and focusing on outcomes going forward. 

2. Remember that culture belongs to everyone in an organisation, and those companies with great cultures anchor it around ownership. So create as many opportunities as possible for your people to have their voice, and ensure action is taken by executive leadership.

Chances are there is a group of executives somewhere in your company meeting in a board room (perhaps virtually), crafting well-intended plans of getting things ‘back to normal’ as quickly as possible.

Stop, take a breath, and be sure you aren’t rushing to recreate a reality that no longer exists or is no longer fit-for-purpose for the future.