Business as unusual: 6 ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected leaders

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June 8th, 2021
Article by: John Monks
Business as unusual: 6 ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected leaders

In March 2020 as the coronavirus was starting to send shockwaves around the world, themes began to emerge in my leadership coaching sessions with senior clients. The patterns emerging were ones of changing demands and pressures, of priorities appearing from nowhere and others being let go entirely. It was clear that leaders were trying to tread new paths through uncharted territory. These leaders were desperate for support, guidance, and data.

We created a research study with Zurich University’s Center for Leadership and the Future of Work to track the changes facing 30 leaders in the US and UK. The participants were leaders in organizations ranging from startups to global corporations. They were a mix of women and men with differing home situations.

Throughout the research, the leaders were asked to reflect through journaling on the intense period of work they experienced as the weeks went on, highlighting the pressing need to slow down and reconnect, not only with themselves but with their loved ones, peers, and natural environment in this time of uncertainty.

Six themes emerged:

1. Compassionate leadership

As the period of the study and indeed the rest of 2020 passed, it placed great emotional strains on everyone. Leaders in particular had to find ways to provide reassurance and guidance to their teams. Many leaders had trouble making sure the team wasn’t worrying unnecessarily about the future. For many, the solution was to create even greater levels of transparency, accountability, and inclusion throughout their organizations. We defined this and a focus on emotional wellbeing as compassionate leadership.

2. Building resilience

Half of our participants were overworking themselves, trying to be constantly available for their team and clients. The method of the research was journaling and this helped them realize that getting involved in the details was dragging them down. This sense of overwhelming stopped people from doing what they saw as important work. Leaders realized how letting go of control allowed for team empowerment and actually improved productivity. They were also better able to prioritize the things that would add the most value and they were best equipped to focus on things like longer-term strategy and innovating their business model to adapt to the changing world.

coronavirus pandemic has affected leaders
Leaders realized how letting go of control allowed for team empowerment and actually improved productivity. #leadership #coronavirus #pandemic #resilience Click To Tweet

3. Cultural innovation

The massive shift to remote work during the pandemic made it clear that even the best technology can’t save us if it lacks a human element. Leaders in our research struggled with their complete reliance on technology, missing the “serendipity of random conversation and socializing” and wondering, “How do you allow the informal and unplanned conversations that happen around the coffee machine or over lunch to happen virtually?”

What resulted was a wave of innovation in the ways that these leaders adapted their cultures to the new ways of working. Literally, hundreds of ideas were generated between the journals and our launch event, ranging from Fika calls on online dance parties, sending snacks, and going for walks. Many rediscovered the joys of the old-fashioned phone call.

4. Giving and receiving support

The leaders in our research recognized the importance of creating space for emotional support at work. One noted, “People need more than rational updates so we need to find different ways to allow people to express emotions and deeper feelings.” Yet leaders also felt how difficult it is to encourage this. One wrote, “None of the current structure and communication forms seem to be encouraging a different type of dialogue. They are either too operational focused – ‘this is what we are doing’ – or too social-focused – ‘let’s have fun in a light-hearted way.’ How can people talk about the emotional impact and personal relevance of Black Lives Matter?” 

Over the course of the pandemic, some leaders tried opening up about their own emotional turmoil to set the tone for others at work bringing these emotions to the surface.

coronavirus pandemic has affected leaders
How do you allow the informal and unplanned conversations that happen around the coffee machine or over lunch to happen virtually? #innovation #remoteworking #workculture Click To Tweet

5. Maintaining boundaries

Another central theme to most participants was the need for a clearer delineation between “work” and “home.” When these boundaries aren’t contained, work is ultimately unproductive and “home is no longer a sanctuary.” The physical spaces we work in really just amplify the larger issue of “Zoom exhaustion:” many of the leaders in our research fell into the habit of all-day, back-to-back Zoom communication without breaks to eat, drink, and stretch/exercise. Not being able to attend to these personal needs resulted in some being “more distracted than usual” and feeling a lack of inspiration. 

Ultimately, bigger breaks in the day, simple exercise, and a changing work pattern can go a long way in making even unsuitable workspaces more productive. Our research showed that maintaining boundaries is really a question of prioritization!

6. Coping mechanisms

The theme of mental and physical well-being was weaved through all the other themes, influencing communication, productivity, and the ability to self-organize and manage others. After all, maintaining the “social side of things’’ is draining, especially for the introverts. Many participants actually worried about how to look after themselves, feeling pressure to meditate or do yoga. Some struggled with other relaxation techniques like wine and Netflix. While all of those things did work for some, others found support in exercise, cooking, showering, reading, listening to podcasts, and for many, journaling! 

People expressed the need for more sleep, but only one of them actively recognized they were “getting burned out from working very long hours.” However, it was clear to us from the journals that a majority of that group were approaching burnout. This points towards a larger issue for leaders: a general inability to recognize and prioritize personal needs – and a barrier to being honest about mental health in the workplace.

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You can read the full research summary here (don’t worry – it’s succinct and beautiful!).

If you’d like to chat more about these findings or how we could collaborate to take them further, please drop me a line at john@curve.cc

Learn to lead effectively through these uncertain times in THRIVE: Lead With the World in Mind.