Governments around the world are starting to lift their lockdowns at varying speeds. While the news is welcome, the fact that there will not be return to the old ways of doing things any time soon if at all means that there will be still be a great deal of uncertainty and confusion. And businesses in some sectors — notably travel and hospitality — will have to go through fundamental changes in order to survive.

Even workers in activities that have not been adversely affected by the virus are changing the ways in which they work — in part in order to meet social-distancing requirements, but also because they have, as it were, seen the future and it is agile. Indeed, the pandemic has been like a crash course in going digital for many organizations and often they have found that, after a period of adjustment, there have been benefits to the new way of working.

Not all enterprises have embraced the changes. Simon Hayward, founder and chief executive of Cirrus, a U.K.-based leadership and management development consultancy, said in an interview that there are differences even within sectors. Some are seeing the crisis as an opportunity to “shake up the old hierarchy and management mindset” while others are seeing it in terms of “we just need to get through this.” While those in the former group are settling down quite quickly, those in the latter are “almost fire-fighting” and in a situation that is neither healthy nor sustainable, he suggests.

Whichever camp their organizations are in, managers will have to adapt. After all, much management practice is based on managers making sure that those reporting to them do what they are supposed to do. Ryne Sherman, chief science officer at Hogan Assessments, which provides personality assessment and leadership consulting to clients around the world from a base in Oklahoma, says there are several challenges in such areas as communication, maintaining and monitoring productivity and supporting employees that leaders will need to overcome in their new environment.

Sherman points out that it is difficult to come up with simple solution because not all employees are alike in their reaction to remote working. It is, after all, one thing to embrace home working if you have a pleasant home office space in a comfortable house in the suburbs or the countryside and quite another if your work space is vying with the breakfast things on the only table in a small city-centre apartment. Sherman expects that many people “will want to get back to work for the routine and to get away from home.”

He points to “four big behaviors” that will help leaders navigate a novel and challenging work environment. These are showing compassion — caring about customers and employees and showing understanding about their concerns; staying calm when others are losing their heads; being realistic about the situation — “it’s important to be honest about the size of the crisis,” says Sherman; and being decisive and taking action — “you can’t act too quickly,” he adds.

Hogan Assessments has also used its research-based approach to identify key personality traits associated with effective virtual leadership. “For many companies dealing with the current COVID-19 crisis, remote work is inevitable, and the best way to ensure a smooth transition to a virtual workplace is to have an effective virtual leader at the helm,” says Sherman. “Decades of research on effective leadership tell us that the best candidates to lead a remote workforce are well-adjusted, ambitious, open to new technology, strong communicators and deeply compassionate when it comes to supporting vulnerable employees.”

In particular, leaders should not take remote working as an opportunity to provide less leadership. Instead, successful virtual leaders will be agile role models for their teams, proactive in addressing uncertainty and providing clear direction. Quite a job description for the times.

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