At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders at all levels grappled with never-before-experienced challenges, and decisions generally came down from the top about how organizations would respond. Employees looked to leadership to clarify ambiguity and provide direction. Now, as Americans return to the workplace, organizations may be facing an entirely different sort of complexity compared to that of 2020.

Consider the concept of “return to office.” Some people are proclaiming they’d rather quit than come back to the office, and many organizations are offering employees a degree of choice in where they work and when. Some companies are making work-from-home permanent, others are implementing hybrid models, and a few are mandating people return to office full-time. No matter what the final decision is, there are bound to be employees who will disagree with it – and leave as a result.

The Benefits Precedent

The concept of giving employees choices isn’t new, and actually has the power to increase satisfaction in the workplace. Specifically, allowing people to choose their benefits has been in discussion since well before the pandemic. A la carte benefits options put some control and decision-making power in the hands of employees, allowing them to select the resources that are most important and beneficial to their unique circumstances. However, an employee’s choice of where to work from – and when – is much more public than their choice between a health club stipend, childcare stipend, or public transportation stipend. The choice of where to work has the potential to create complexities in terms of coordination, communication, fairness, or favoritism.

Psychological research in the area of justice sheds some light on how choice affects employee satisfaction. How resources are allocated (distributive justice), the processes by which decisions are made (procedural justice), how information is shared (informational justice), and how people are treated (interpersonal justice) all impact employees’ perceptions of the workplace and how they perform in it. When employees perceive the processes, outcomes, and interactions they experience at work as fair, they are more likely to be satisfied. Giving employees a voice—a way to have a say in the matter—is the most robust way we know of to increase perceptions of fairness and justice. Choice, then, takes this concept a step further and puts the employee in the driver’s seat of the decision. This may seem obvious, yet one of the most common complaints we hear when advising on organizational change is, “it’s not fair.” Even clinicians are finding that giving patients a choice in their healthcare decisions improves the patient experience without negatively impacting outcomes.

The Changing Role of Leaders

The leader’s role appears to be shifting from that of decision-maker and direction-setter to decision-enabler and choice-giver. Many of the long-standing excuses for maintaining the status quo of the workplace have been debunked, and employees are not content to return to the old way. For example, for decades employers lamented that their staff could not work from home because they would not be productive, and they as leaders would not be able to provide oversight. However, the pandemic forced a massive work-from-home experiment that directly contradicted the age-old myth that if employees are not in the office, their work will suffer.

The diversity inherent in workforce demographics – background, age, gender, ethnicity, childcare status, income, elder care requirements, to name a few—means organizational leaders couldn’t possibly make decisions to satisfy everyone’s needs. But allowing employees to decide creates a high degree of variability and complexity. What will be required of leaders to operate in this environment? We highlight 3 key skillsets for post-pandemic leadership below.

  1. Coaching and facilitation skills. Guiding and assisting employees to make informed decisions will be key. This means enabling them to make their own decisions, with support. Leaders who view their role on the team as the coach are better positioned to get the most out of their team. They are always thinking about making employees better and helping them to succeed, rather than dictating what they do. There is a balance to strike between offering choice and offering too much choiceprovide too few choices and we feel cheated, whereas too many choices can overwhelm. Effective leader-coaches will help the employee narrow the options, focus on what is reasonable and likely to achieve desired outcomes, and decide on a path forward.
  2. Comfort with letting go and allowing others to decide. Some leaders may mistake the above point of “guiding and assisting” to mean “telling and influencing.” That is not the case. If leaders try to maintain too much control, employees may not feel they have any choice at all. The work-life balance literature would support this assertion—when leaders do not create a climate that people feel comfortable using flexible options, they won’t choose to.
  3. Flexibility. Utilize widespread mandates sparingly. To develop an inclusive workforce of the future, leaders must be flexible to deal with the differing needs, motivations, and choices of employees. Ask yourself, “Where do we need things done one way, and where can we allow flexibility in how things are done?” Not every issue warrants a choice. For example, in a manufacturing facility or operating room, you MUST wear your safety personal protective equipment. Offering a choice where there really isn’t one will backfire and create confusion.

These three skills are not new to the leadership toolbox. This skillset reflects the core capabilities of transformational leaders—they have a solid ‘people focus’ that drives strong results through both good times and bad. We suspect that now is the time for leaders to really double down on these behaviors in order to tackle an increasingly uncertain future.

How do you see the ‘leadership challenge’ changing in a post-pandemic world? What different skills and competencies are your leaders relying on today compared to a year ago? Reach out to discuss or drop a comment below!