Back to work, but it’s not back to normal

Leading in the new hybrid workplace

We are in the middle of global pandemic where leaders are challenged and tested in a way never seen in our lifetime. How leaders respond, how they inspire hope and engage in collaborative dialogue or not, will become their legacy. Leadership matters more than ever. That’s a fact.

Through the summer, following lockdowns and recommendations all around the world to work from home, business and political leaders have been trying to figure out how to make the ‘new normal’ of being back at work will look like.

What we know for sure is that autumn 2020 brings a new way of working, a ‘new normal’ where some people are not expecting to be back in an office until 2021 or even later, while some people are slowly starting to go back now.

CHALLENGES

This brings a number of challenges for leaders to consider:

  1. Some people worry about going back, because of the contagion risk
  2. Some people wish they could go back, as they are finding it challenging (e.g. poor work environment) or lonely to work at home, or both
  3. Some people have concerns about losing their jobs as a result of the economic downturn
  4. The pandemic, in some instances, has caused mental health issues for people.
  5. Having onsite team members and offsite team members, can create two disparate groups, where those offsite can feel particularly left outside the perceived ‘main circle’.
  6. Keeping team trust high and not causing a divide and sub-groups or cliques
  7. Keeping team energy and engagement high, while not assuming those in the room are engaged and those who are not are not
  8. Moving from online to in person – does it feel different now?

SOLUTIONS

Here are some things to think about, solutions to deploy to make the return to the ‘new normal’ a success

Solution 1

Think about people first. Everything else can take second place.

Solution 2

Look to yourself. How you behave, how you show up will impact people around you. Take the time to center yourself, putting yourself in a good state of mind. Leadership is contagious so lead yourself first.

Solution 3

Focus on physical safety, including ensuring that people can work while still keeping the social distancing that is needed to reduce the risk of infection. Be very clear what those arrangements are, that everyone understands them and why they are important and need to be followed.

Solution 4

Make inclusivity your top focus during this time in particular. Include everyone equally, regardless of where they are based or any other differentiator. This is the time to show through actions and behaviours that you are serious about having an inclusive workplace, an inclusive culture where people connect and engage with each other and be creative together.

Solution 5

In a recent global poll, we asked leaders what their biggest leadership challenges during the pandemic is and the second biggest challenge came out as: Missing being with people and interpersonal aspects of that. Yes, people are social beings, so put extra effort into those interpersonal moments, especially for those who are still working remotely.

Solution 6

Involve your team in creating the practicalities of hybrid working; discuss and agree how to work together and how to support each other. Be proactive about it. Focus on output, not input. When you have people working remotely, you must trust them to deliver without micro-managing.

Solution 7

Create an environment of psychological safety. It’s always been important, but even more so now. The challenges are not over and everyone will need to be able to communicate and collaborate with each other, respectfully challenge each other in dialogue to identify issues and create solutions. And for people to want to do that, they need to feel safe to speak up, to share their thoughts, to try, fail and learn (fast) and move on. How you respond when people have the courage to speak their mind makes all the difference.

Solution 8

This can be a time for contention and potential conflict – Allow, encourage people to talk about their concerns, recognising that these disruptive times can be very stressful and that not everyone will react the same way. Just talking about a problem or concern, expressing how someone feels helps to ease said concern, it’s a good first step. And you can then support them in building strength and resilience to find the solutions they need. You need to make time and space for this in a virtual and office mixed world. So, ensure you have regular informal check in points.

Solution 9

Build and work on Team Trust. The team dinners, chats and water cooler conversations are harder in this mixed virtual/office world, so recreate that by doing things like having stand up meetings with people in the office together (safely socially distanced) and include those working virtually by linking them in using a form of technology. Get the office and virtual world mixed. Have some meetings that are ‘just’ social check-ins. As most of us have been working in the virtual world we are much more aware of the impact we have when on line so when we go back into a work space we now have a new perspective on it so people are likely more respectful and perceptive of those in the room and those on line than before.

Solution 10

Make sure you all have the digital tools that will allow you to collaborate and communicate across the hybrid (remote and office) workplace.

Solution 11

When working from home, the work and home life gets blurred. Help people overcome that by not sending emails around the clock. Be a role model for a healthy work/life integration.

Solution 12

To pick up on the office/work ‘vibe’ you will need to carry out and put into the calendar more informal 1 to 1 time to fill in the gaps and the void that the virtual /office mixed environment creates. Use the informal check-ins to pick up on how people feel, what they think and what they need.

Like with everything else, this ‘new normal’ will not just be plain sailing. And that’s OK. Be intentional in your leadership of it, allow enough time in your busy schedule to manage the ‘new normal’. It’s inevitable that you and your team will try things out (how to work) and realise that it didn’t turn out exactly the way you wanted it to. And keep in mind that the ‘new normal’ will keep changing. We don’t know what it will look like in a year’s time and beyond. The power lies in exploring that together and learning together. Your role is to lead your team through that.

No one can have all the answers, no one is an expert in this global pandemic. The power and the answers are in all of us, sharing and working on this together, and that needs to be led by a powerful leader.

That is you.  

Learning and Progress go hand in hand

Learning never stops.

As the world keeps evolving, we need to evolve too – we need to gain new knowledge, skills and experience continuously.

The pace of change is simply such, that we cannot possibly know it all. We need to be a ‘learn it all’ rather than a ‘know it all’. Curious, open-minded, keen to gain insights and discover surprises on our learning journey.

And if we have a mindset of always wanting to learn, it means we are more open to being creative and it forces us to look at things differently. This helps us to continue to be creative and to innovate. And when that happens at an organisational level, we have a culture of learning.

Thinking we know everything is outdated, how can we in a world that changes so fast? Data suggests that 50% of what is taught during the first year of a 4-year technical degree is outdated by year 3. This is a good reminder that even the most experienced of people have something they need to learn. Time doesn’t stand still for anyone.

So, continuously focus on what you need to learn. This gives you permission to not have to have all the answers and instead be interested in exploring new concepts and ideas. And encourage others to do the same.

In a world of constant change how could we possible have all the answers already? Even thinking we could have all the answers is an outdated concept. And that’s good.

Enjoy your learning journey!

The Culture Shaper

The story below is a chapter from one of our future books, currently going under the working name of “The Culture Shaper”.


Alain always demanded attention, and today would be no different.

His suit carried a designer label, his shoes were shining and his trademark handkerchief was neatly on display in his jacket pocket.

Standing in a meeting room on the top floor of the Brighton hotel, his eyes were irresistibly drawn to the burnt-out shell of the West Pier. It had been considered one of the finest Victorian piers in the world until the suspicious fire some 10 years earlier had put a stop to that. All that was now left of the once grand pier, was a rusty metal frame which seemed to hover over the dark green sea, reflected grey from the sky. His gaze shifted to two people who sought shelter from the wind next to a round old-fashioned beach kiosk, long since closed for the season.

A red double decker bus made its way along the seafront and the noise of squeaky breaks travelled up the side of the building and into the room where he was standing.

Alain liked Brighton even though it was of course very different to Paris where he had lived for most of his life. He loved Paris. Brighton though, fascinated him in a different way. Maybe it was the sea, the ever-changing sea or maybe it was the mixture of cosmopolitan flair with a laidback lifestyle that intrigued him. Either way, he was pleased that he had chosen Brighton as the location for his meeting, a very important meeting. Today, he would for the first time have his new leadership team all in the same room.

He was shifting his weight, moving from foot to foot, impatiently awaiting the arrival of his team. Fear and excitement battled for space in his body; his shoulders were slightly raised, indicating the tension he felt but wouldn’t want anyone to see. They would all arrive soon so he rotated his shoulders to release the pressure, and regain control.  He wanted to be prepared.

The door opened hesitantly as if the person the other side wasn’t sure if they had come to the right place. They had though; it was Stephen and Helmut. Helmut walked purposefully up to Alain and formally extended his hand in greeting. Stephen watched with interest as it felt strange to see his old boss in this new situation.  Before he’d had time to add his hello, the door opened again. This time it was the remaining four team members. Stephen had met them all before but not in this new capacity as one of them, an equal, a peer. It made him self-conscious and he straightened his back to make himself as tall as possible. He wondered how the others were viewing him and if they thought he should be there. He had heard rumblings of skepticism to his appointment as Head of Sales. He didn’t want that to influence him but it was there in his mind all the same. They all greeted each other apart from Philippa who sat down without acknowledging him. Stephen thought of going over to shake her hand but decided not to.

Having completed the customary introductions, Alain took centre stage, sitting at the top of the table, and passionately started on the subject he had brought them there for.

“I know you all attended the Town Hall last week, where I already talked about the importance of culture. Our culture, just like any other company’s, is an indication of how we do business. And therefore it can either help us or hinder us, and I’m afraid that our culture has run away from us as we’ve paid very little attention to it. I want us all to focus on the culture of Black Sparrow Insurance. We can’t afford to leave it to chance. And frankly, the way it’s working now is not healthy. It has to change.”

He paused for effect and watched for reactions. His tall, slim frame made it easy for him to lean forward and quickly make eye contact with everyone.

“Yes, we did see your passion about the culture you want to create.“ Helmut made it sound as if it had nothing to do with him.

“It’s not about what I want, it’s about what we need for our survival” Alain responded firmly and held Helmut in his gaze. “Our industry is changing so fast that we need to have a strong culture that glues us together and guides our decisions and actions to be able to maneuver in the changing marketplace, without losing momentum”.

“What do you mean by “not healthy”? said Philippa, raising her head defiantly.

“Everyone’s working for themselves at the moment, you must see that!” Alain responded passionately. “And there are a number of reasons for that – growth in the industry and the regulatory pressures creates pockets and silos where people are simply focused at delivering their immediate targets rather than looking to the business as a whole. And we as leaders are guilty of not helping people see that we’re all in this together and that we can’t have different targets and goals. It’s wasting time, energy, effort and money. It’s absolutely crazy and it has to stop”.

The room was silent for a moment. The only sound was the rain splattering on the wall of windows facing the sea. The silence that followed felt too uncomfortable for Stephen. It felt like it was going on for minutes, but it was actually only seconds. He couldn’t let it go on any longer, so he spoke up:

“I can see where you’re coming from with this, Alain. I agree with you”

Philippa sighed and twisted her ponytail around her finger and shot a sideways glance at Helmut, who looked away.  

What’s with the new boy, playing teacher’s favourite! What a weakling. I have no respect for that. She thought to herself. I’d better put him in his place. She tried to hide her smile: Let the games begin!

Philippa smiled at Alain and said: “I’m sure all companies can improve in some way, but all this talk about culture is very fluffy and vague. So what is culture anyway? What do you know about it?” She wagged her pen at Stephen. The question was clearly aimed at him.

“Well, my understanding is that culture is about how we do things day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. It’s the little things that become the big things. For example, a friend of mine had a situation where he was in a one-to-one with his boss and his boss was texting someone else, which made him feel thoroughly ignored and not valued. Do we all pay full attention and give time to those important meetings or are we guilty of something similar? Because whatever we do, that’s a reflection of our culture.”

Alain nodded approvingly. “Yes, that is culture, isn’t it. And I have a very good example of why culture is so rarely the great driver it can be. I’ve been through this before and I know how it works, and more importantly why sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Alain shot up out of his chair and was already by the whiteboard, before they had even had time to move their heads his way.

He picked up a blue pen, visually checking that it wasn’t a permanent marker and then proceeded to resolutely put pen to board.

His writing was bold and the letters so big that the short message covered the whole board.

TOO MANY LAWS, TOO FEW EXAMPLES

“What do you think that means?” Alain asked them in a provoking way.

Alain was really pushing them now but they weren’t forthcoming with their responses, which made him annoyed. He had thought that the meaning of his written statement that was staring at them all from the board was so obvious, but this was clearly not the case. It was a good reminder for him that this wasn’t going to be as easy or straightforward as had thought it would be. The statement had been very poignant to him but he knew that he would have to be a bit more patient, starting with him explaining himself better and giving them the whole story.

“OK, let me explain what I mean. We could put more rules and regulations in place, but that rarely engages people. What really drives a culture is what the role models do – we need to be role models, we need to be the examples of the kind of culture we want everyone to embrace. So it’s not just about what we do, but how we do it. Culture is about behaviours. So you, just like me, need to become very aware of your own behaviours and the impact you are having on others.” He paused for effect.

“I’m going to be watching your leadership, and I want you to watch each other’s leadership. So as part of this journey, we’ll be going into a 360 degree feedback process for each of you individually as well as for your teams. Without it we are flying blind, and we must never be blind again”. It was a dramatic statement, just as Alain had intended it to be. He was consciously making an impact, as he wanted to shake them up a bit.

Helmut nodded slowly as he made the link between Alain’s written and spoken words.

In direct response to Alain’s speech, Philippa said: “Bring it on! This is exactly what we need”. She held her head high, exuding confidence and determination with her steady stare at Alain. Inwardly, her stomach was doing cartwheels as she was in no way looking forward to the prospect. Who knew what people were going to say about her?

“Good. I’m glad you’re taking this seriously. Now, let’s move on. What questions have you had from your departments after the Town Hall last week?” Alain continued to quiz them.

Various stories were now shared around the table, each of them taking turns to retell mainly positive responses to the culture discussion. They were gesturing, talking over each other and the room was getting decidedly animated in the process. Alain felt slightly encouraged by the heightened engagement; now they were looking directly at each other and he could feel the energy, the room felt warmer.  

As they were now all talking, Stephen all of a sudden found his voice getting louder and louder, simply to be heard. He then became aware that they were all staring at him, the stage was his.  Now I’ve got their attention, I need to make it count.

“If we now all agree that behaviours are that important, we need then consider that customer facing people are the biggest carriers of the culture.  So my area, Sales, plays a part in this. But an even bigger role is played by the Customer Service group; they are crucial to how the culture is perceived over time. Right, Helmut?”  Stephen hastily referred to Helmut as he had momentarily forgotten that Service was no longer his responsibility.

Helmut said “Yes” and his hand waved away the question with a sweeping movement.

Philippa leaned forward, ready to strike.

“Let’s not get carried away. Service is there to answer questions, but are fundamentally not more than scripted entry-level staff led by a junior leader” They’re muppets led by a mouse, but I can’t say that! “We shouldn’t exaggerate their importance. They are not more important than anyone else.”

Helmut chose not to comment, as he didn’t think he needed to defend his appointment of Anna. Instead, he confidently pushed back his chair and removed himself from the discussion and slowly walked to the back of the room, grabbing another bottle of water for the table.

Even though Stephen knew Helmut, he was still surprised by Helmut’s choice to not stand up for Anna.

Hm, how weird… I’ll take my lead from Helmut on this though, and not say anything thought Stephen. I don’t want to step on his toes.

Philippa mused at the lack of response and thought 1-0 to me!


This story gives a glimpse into how business cultures work, and how much cultures are shaped by the daily behaviours of people.

Alain is clearly keen to shape a greater culture, but he has got his work cut out for him as habits die hard, and cultural transformation does not happen overnightBut it can be done and it’s so worth it.

Want to know more about cultural transformation? Read one of our articles about it here.

And please get in touch below if you want to further explore how you can shape a powerful, healthy, productive culture at work.

Make a habit of using we-talk

Want a team where people work together, “all for one and one for all”? Then here’s a practical recommendation.

Make a habit of using we-talk.

When you talk about the team, with the team or outside it, use words that demonstrate your commitment to the team, and encourage others to do the same. Use the word we, and mean it.

Here are some examples:

  • We have some great opportunities to…
  • Together we can…
  • How can we solve this together?
  • What are the next steps we should take?
  • This is what I will do for us…
  • What did we learn….?
  • What could we do differently next time?

We-talk builds connections, it highlights that you are a team and that you’re all there for each other. It shows that you need each other (everyone is important) and it creates a sense of belonging. It removes barriers and it creates team spirit.

Saying “we” – and meaning it – may seem like a small thing, but it can have a BIG impact on the team.

In high-performing, winning teams (in sports and in business) the team goes before the individual and as a result the team can achieve greater results and success, which ultimately also means the individual has greater success. It’s a win-win mentality.


This is a revised excerpt from our award-winning book “Leading Teams: 10 Challenges 10 Solutions”, FT Publishing 2015.

Available in three languages – English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

This is the no 1 leadership challenge right now

The COVID-19 outbreak quickly changed the reality for people all around the world. The speed by which the virus spread, led to governments around the world deploying different strategies to stop or at least slow down the virus spreading.

For leaders all around the world, this has introduced new challenges, whether that would be a complete shutdown of businesses to people being required to work from home.

When we asked 104 leaders from around the world what they found the most challenging in their role during this pandemic, they said:

Balancing the short term crisis with the long term strategy

Almost two thirds (64.4%) responded that this is their no 1 leadership challenge right now.

Let’s break down this challenge and look at the two competing focus areas, before diving into some solutions:

The short term crisis

There have been (and continue to be) many short term issues that have had to be resolved; setting up teams for remote working, furloughing employees, dealing with the stress and uncertainty for team members, reassuring customers, taking care of business property and many more.

The short term issues tend to be something that can bring people together, rallying the forces to overcome the obstacles – it can boost morale and deepen the team spirit. It also tends to be practical and tangible and therefore relatively straightforward to get on with.

It allows people to focus on one thing, the next steps, giving them a sense of control and progress.

The long term strategy

Any focus on the long term on the other hand, is often put on the back-burner, which is of course perfectly understandable (you wouldn’t stop and take a phone call if the house was on fire – you’d put out the fire).

At the same time the long-term gives you direction and when focusing on it, pulls you towards it.  It gives a sense of purpose and it brings order to chaos. And it can give greater meaning to the actions and reactions of short-term crisis.

When we focus on the long term strategy, we are having the foresight to do what’s needed now to deliver in the future.

Someone is sitting under a tree today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.

Warren Buffett

Solutions for how to balance the two

Here’s some food for thought, some practical ideas for how to balance the short term crisis with the long term strategy:

  1. Make a risk assessment – what will happen if you don’t balance the two as needed? Be honest with yourself, and create a plan forward based on your assessment.
  2. Realign roles and responsibilities. Assess what you and your team need to spend your time on and re-plan your time accordingly. Consider for example whether some will focus on the crisis management while some will focus on the long term strategy. Or should everyone do a bit of both?
  3. Block time in your own calendar each week for a strategic review. If you don’t do this it’s easy that ‘putting out fires’ take up all your time – and almost becomes your ‘reason for being’, which adds further focus on ‘firefighting’.
  4. Talk to your team about the long-term strategy. Intentionally bring it into the conversations you are already having, for a sense of purpose, direction and sense-meaning. Clearly link it to what the team is doing now.
  5. Develop and use your systems (strategy) thinking so that you can talk to your team about how the crisis and the long term interact and how decisions now impact the strategy.
  6. Talk with your leadership peers and your leader about how to get the balance right. Decide on approach and how to hold each other accountable, recognizing that you are role models for how the organisation will deal with this.
  7. Explore if the long-term strategy may be changing as a result of the crisis. And consider how that may impact your approach.
  8. Recognise when people get the balance right by highlighting it to others, hence encouraging others to do the same.
  9. Remember that you are a role model in this – your team will mimic what you do. So, ask yourself – how are you balancing the short-term crisis and the long-term strategy at the moment? What else do you need to do?

It would be really interesting to hear what you think – what are you doing to balance the two? What has worked for you?

Spreading the bad mood?

Samuel was in a bad mood, his wife this morning had really annoyed him by being so negative about her new job, she seemed miserable and downbeat, she was complaining that everything was wrong. Samuel had tried to help her see that is wasn’t but it hadn’t done any good. He was frustrated with her being so despondent when she had no reason to.

On his way into the office he was reflecting on this and he was feeling pretty despondent himself.  He walked into his office, head down with a grumpy look on his face, his shoulders were slumped. It was obvious he was not in a good place.

One of his direct reports came towards his office and saw his demeanour. I am not going in there, she thought. Samuel barked an order for her to come in and discuss a report with him.

She came out of his office a while later feeling despondent, she swept out of his office ready to spread the word that Samuel was in a foul mood today.

What this short story from “The Leader’s Guide to Impact” reminds us of is that we always have an impact on people and the world around us, whether we pay attention to it or not. What’s going on on the inside, tends to ‘leak’ and affect those around us. Yes, our moods are contagious.

We can all have bad days, but we can also decide to make it as good a day as we can, by consciously choosing our outlook and the mood we want to spread to those around us. Before walking into work, we can take a moment and decide: how do I want to think and feel, what do I want to create in others as they encounter me?

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the impact we have and the impact we want to have. What mood do you choose to make contagious today?

In every day, there are 1,440 minutes.

That means we have 1,440 daily opportunities to make a positive impact.

Les Brown