In the past six months I have engaged in robust individual discussions with three colleagues/friends, each of them in their late fifties or early sixties, about their work environment and how it has been impacted by the Covid Crisis. One of them is a university professor, globally renowned in his field, and disciplined in his research and teaching. The other is a bank executive, wealthy, highly educated, and successful in the running of his business. The third is a highly respected medical professional with significant non-profit administration experience.
In separate conversations with each of them, they bemoaned the transient nature of the workforce, highlighted the challenges involved in providing their services virtually, and while acknowledging that the ways of working pre-Covid were never going to completely return they also opined that the concept of working remotely was not going to be entirely effective.
In the same six months, I have engaged with a finance professional in his 30s, a former-scientist-turned-part-time-uber-driver in his 60s, and a lawyer in her 20s. Each of them is working in a hybrid environment and expressed a determined intention to maximize the virtual aspects of their work life and the flexible nature of their work schedule and protect their newly-acquired independence and multi-dimensional aspect of their earnings and learnings.
All of them are pursing continuing education of some sort through an online education or skills development program and expressed satisfaction at the opportunity to pursue their passion and maintain their ability to earn on their own terms. I asked them whether they are making more money than they were before, and in all cases the answer was “no, but it does not matter because I have a better quality of life.”
All six of these conversations – each of them individual conversations with these people – got me thinking: if the future of work is going to be characterized by hybrid work environments (combination of online/virtual/work-from-home and in-person work) and gig economy (workers having the flexibility to engage with multiple employers and employers having the flexibility to engage workers on a flexible/non-permanent basis), how can African leaders ensure that they are still providing the appropriate level of leadership service within the amended/new work environment?
History is replete with disruptive technological advances upending the ways of working and the balance of power between individuals and communities and governments. It is also replete with some people resisting and some people embracing these changes, resulting in winners and losers in the “game”. The advent of threshing machines led to the Swing Riots in England and the Luddites who raged against the machines in the 1800s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, factory workers in Europe and North America bemoaned the loss of millions of jobs to Chinese factories, aided by advances in technology that dropped the cost of logistics low enough to make it economically viable for products to be manufactured just in time in China and retailed in the USA.
More recently there have been worker protests against self-checkout machines in supermarkets and self-driving trucks in the USA, protests from yellow-cab drivers about the threat to their jobs created by Uber and Lyft, and groans from university professors about the loss of benefits and privileges accelerated by the globalization of university education supply and demand due to online learning.
Governments have not been immune from the disruption to ways of working. Elections in Africa used to be easily manipulated by incumbent governments who had the luxury of three to five days after Election Day to tally and adjust results before they announced them to the populace.
The advent of smartphones and the internet created the ability for independent groups and opposition parties to instantly tally votes by taking pictures of polling station results, tallying them and releasing the information to a population hungry for early results; thus upending the balance of power between the incumbent government and the opposition or the citizenry.
Change is inevitable, and as leaders, we must embrace it and adjust our leadership tools to leverage it and achieve the vision that we have for our organizations. Having coached many leaders across the continent and served as the Founding Dean of a pan-African MBA program that pioneered hybrid learning and remote coaching in 2016 (long before the Covid pushed everyone online), here are some tips for you, dear African Leader, to help you ensure that your leadership remains relevant and effective in the near future:
- Stop fighting it…this change has already happened
Disavow yourself of the fantasy (as pleasant as it may be to indulge in it) that things will go back to “the way we were” at work. Your role as the leader is to be in front of the organization, moving it into the future. Wishfully thinking that the past will come back is not going to serve your organization and will damage your credibility, and your best employees will either disengage mentally from you or leave your organization if they believe that you are pushing them into the past. Embrace the new ways of working and spend your mental energy figuring out how to harness its advantages rather than try to bring back the past.
- Focus on Outcome and Outputs, Not Inputs and Activities
In many employee annual review documents, one may frequently find statements about an employee’s timeliness to work, attendance, and activities engaged in during the review period. These measurements are of less value than the outputs generated by employees or the outcomes that occur as a result of their outputs. As a leader, shift the focus onto the outputs and outcomes; communicate this to your direct reports and allow them the flexibility to determine how they achieve them.
- Listen More and Talk Less as you Increase your communication frequency
Remember the iceberg principle? As a leader, you are the least informed person in the organization. What you don’t know about the organization is greater in quantity and importance to the organization’s future than what you do know. This ratio of things you don’t know that are going on versus things you do know is worse in the hybrid working environment than in the in-person working environment. So, you will be well served to use the time that you have with any of your colleagues to do more listening than talking.
- Be “inefficient” in your group virtual meetings
Relationships between your employees matter, so in group virtual meetings, be willing to engage in banter and water-cooler conversation. Resist the urge to be efficient all the time; there is relationship-building value in allowing your team to engage in banter (e.g., discussions about the weekend sports results, latest gossip on social media) so that they can connect with each other on an emotional level and be reminded that work is a part of life and you are all doing life together. This will increase their allegiance to the group and thus to the organization.
- Invest in annual or semi-annual in-person gatherings
While there is great value in doing business online, there is also value in doing business in person. Remember that the future of work is not exclusively online, but a hybrid. Your teams still need to see each other from time to time and they will appreciate the opportunity to meet in person from time to time. Note that the fact that they do not want to be tied to the office all the time does not mean that they do not want to see their workmates some of the time.
Dear African leader, please remember that the most talented workers have the most options of where or whom to work for. Your role as the leader is to provide the best quality of leadership service that will attract the most talented workers to want to work with you and for your organization. The teams with the best talent usually win…this is true in sports and in life. Make it your business to attract the best and harness them with great leadership that is designed for the future world of work.
>>>the writer is a scholar and practitioner of organizational development and leadership and a leadership Coach and Facilitator. Over the past three decades, he has successfully coached and trained leaders in Africa, North America, and Europe. His passion for leadership enhancement was born out of his experiences as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and as a military officer serving in combat in the Sierra Leone Civil War where he was shot twice.
As the only Sierra Leonean with a Ph.D. in Leadership, Modupe was the founding Dean of the African Leadership University School of Business, an institution providing a Pan-African MBA degree to Africa’s mid-career professionals. He is the Founder and CEO of BCA Leadership (www.bcaleadership.com), an organization that has impacted over 3000 African leaders with coaching and knowledge-sharing services. He leads a team of thirty-two Coaches across Africa and he is the curator of The Made in Africa Leadership Conference. Contact Modupe through email at [email protected]