Proceed with caution: Why adaptive leadership is key to the new world of work

HR experts agree that forcing more disruptive change will backfire
Change management

The horror stories are out there: the frustrated CEO, anxious to get back to “normal”, mandating employees back to the office and, the next day, finding a pile of resignation letters waiting in the in-box. Not a great place to be in an extremely competitive labour market.

The unprecedented changes in the world of work over the past two years have many leaders scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. Two prominent Ottawa HR experts tell OBJ that adapting to the new world of work is an elephant that has to be eaten one bite at a time.

“This is a massive disruptive revolutionary change,” says Linda Duxbury, chancellor’s professor in management and strategy at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. “Not everybody will survive. But the ones that survive will be a lot stronger.

“Organizations that have not changed enough over time and haven’t adapted … those organizations needed a big wakeup call, and they’re either going to get it now or they’re not going to be around,” she concludes.

This dire prediction comes, in part, because there is no playbook for this magnitude of change, Duxbury says. 

“Planning is going to be really challenging here because this is the first time many of these businesses have had to do this. So, change from what to what? You can’t go out there and get a book that’ll help you do this because that book has yet to be written.”

What complicates things further is that employees and employers are already exhausted.

"We’re trying to change a workforce filled with people who are tired, grumpy, cranky, and stressed-out, and they want answers."

“We’re trying to change a workforce filled with people who are tired, grumpy, cranky, and stressed-out, and they want answers,” Duxbury explains. “At the other end of the continuum, you have leaders and managers who are also exhausted and they don’t know what the answer is.” 

What to do? Duxbury argues this is not something that can be sent down the line to the HR department. 

“This is actually a leadership issue, a big leadership issue … leaders often are very uncomfortable with leading change because they want guaranteed success and they don’t often give the change the time that is needed to actually work.”

Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of iHR Advisory Services, agrees, saying the return to work and the defining of a “new normal” need to be led from the top. But, she cautions, leaders must tread carefully.

“If you don’t have a believable rationale for disrupting (employees’) world again, you are going to negatively impact productivity, workplace wellness and mental health for your employees, and your ability to attract and retain your existing and future employees,” Brownrigg says.

Duxbury proposes a step-by-step approach that is flexible, particularly when dealing with an increasingly diverse workforce.

“The only time you need adaptive leadership is when nobody knows the solution,” says Duxbury. She characterizes an adaptive leader as a humble person who admits to not knowing the answers, encourages a collaborative approach, puts the focus on learning and shares the responsibility for the change and its success.

'Not a one-and-done thing'

“Don’t try to have all the answers yourself,” advises Brownrigg. “This is something that needs to happen organically. It is not a one-and-done thing. This is going to need to be agile, it’s got to be able to change as the needs of employees and stakeholders change.”

For some workplaces, employees have no choice but to show up in person. Kendra March is the chief operating officer at a busy Ottawa periodontist office. When she started the job two years ago, the office had only been open about a month after being shuttered due to COVID. The first task was to ensure the clinic was properly staffed.

“All the team members hadn’t come back to work, some were deciding maybe not to come back to work, one was possibly thinking about going into an early retirement,” March explains. “A lot of people started rethinking, ‘Do I really want to be in dental anymore?’, maybe more so for clinical team members because they’re being exposed to the virus more than the administrative team.”

March credits her professional connections with helping her fill a half-dozen positions. She also ensured strict compliance with ever-changing industry regulations, which helped her manage the expectations of employees and patients.

“You have people coming into (the clinic) where they are being exposed (to the virus) more so than going to the grocery store or a drugstore, even worse than a hospital,” March says, “because all we do is create aerosols all day long.” 

For offices trying to find the hybrid work sweet spot, HR experts suggest that a series of pilots, accompanied by frequent communication, could be one solution.

“You need to have regularly scheduled and frequent check-ins and you want to pilot things. Taking a piloted approach is very important because … we don’t know what this is going to feel like,” Brownrigg says.

Duxbury points to the COVID-19 virus itself as a great example of what she calls “the law of small bets.”

“What we know in nature is that the thing that mutates the most is most likely to survive. Look at this virus. We get a vaccine – boom! – it mutates and survives.”

So instead of relying on traditional strategic planning processes, companies must become learning organizations, Duxbury argues.

“You have to do a lot of little pilots with a lot of different groups to learn what works, what doesn’t and how. You have to try 10 things because two will work. And you spend little bits of money on a lot of things initially and the things that don't work, they didn’t take much time, they didn’t take much energy and they fail quickly.

“So I’m going to suggest not one grandiose change but multiple little changes, discussion of little changes, talking to people, trying things out.”

Status quo not an option

One thing that’s for certain, the status quo is not an option.

“A lot of people are not receptive to just more change,” says Duxbury, “but they also don’t want the way it was.”

Brownrigg echoes those comments. 

“It’s really important to place value on your employees’ perspectives around not disrupting their world again, but also not swinging the pendulum too far the other direction and staying stuck because that’s not healthy either.”

Instead of thinking only about the logistics of bringing workers back to the office, Brownrigg suggests leaders focus on how best to connect with internal and external stakeholders to advance the business’s goals. 

“Everybody is focused on the return to work, and I am asking them to really consider their mindset, turn that around and focus more on the relationships, no matter where the people are physically located.”  

Leaders lost in the fray may turn to outside consultants or their own in-house change management professionals for help finding solutions.

“There’s a lot of different tools out there – 20, 30, 40. (Change managers) need to know the full gamut and how to put them in a sequence,” Duxbury says.

In any case, the work involved in acclimatizing to the post-pandemic office cannot be done off the edge of someone’s desk.

“You need to go slow to go fast,” cautions Brownrigg. “You take a heavy-handed approach and you are going to disrupt your operations so severely that you can’t put a price on that.”