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The “New Normal” of Leading in a World Changed by COVID-19 | 3 Truths Every Leader Should Consider

June 15, 2020 Deana LaFauci

How many times have you heard the phrase “the new normal” over the past few months? It has become a cliché, but it is truly undeniable that the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has greatly impacted our daily lives.

For leaders, the challenge of thoughtfully, purposefully, and effectively leading during a time of crisis is all-encompassing. With so much changed about the way leaders manage teams, tackle dilemmas, and prioritize, how can we seek clarity to help us survive—and potentially thrive—during this critical time?

Leaders must understand the new trends and brand-new conditions that have arisen from an unprecedented pandemic. And, although factors and our environment continue to change, some universal truths are becoming clear.

As you strive to lead purposefully in times of crisis, consider these three truths about leadership and employee engagement:

1. Employee burnout is a bigger issue than ever before—especially for women.

According to new research from LeanIn, women are more than twice as likely as men to be experiencing physical symptoms of severe anxiety. This stress has a real impact on quality of life: According to the same survey, more than half (52%) of women are having sleep issues, compared to about a third (32%) of men, and women are reporting feeling over-burdened with “more than they can possibly handle” as they juggle housework, childcare, eldercare, and professional responsibilities.

Combined, this can lead to increased rates of burnout and lower levels of engagement and productivity overall. Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases, and the negative effect of burnout is very real.

In fact, burnout costs between $125 billion and $190 billion in healthcare every year, and researchers estimate that workplace stress accounts for 8% of national spending on healthcare.

Even in a time unmarked by a global health crisis and increased expectations and stress, burnout represented a major issue for organizations looking to stay competitive. Now, amid the current pandemic, the cost of burnout is even greater for organizations who have been hard-hit economically.

2. Remote workforces are here to stay—and successful work-from-home habits are critical for continued employee productivity.

Remote workforces and working from home? Another important part of “the new normal.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased an existing trend: In 2012, Gallup reported that 39% of the US workforce was working off-site at least some of the time. In 2016, that number increased to 43%. And data from the first half of April finds that 63% of US workers have worked from home because of concern about the pandemic or due to restrictions from statewide lockdowns.

And, there’s no sign that remote workforces or working from home will end as COVID-19 relents. Tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, among the first to enact work-from-home policies at the start of the pandemic, are now announcing they may shift permanently to more remote work.

Technology like videoconferencing, which many employees had had access to for years but didn’t regularly use, are now vital. The environmental needs of employees changed overnight, and in most instances, employees are equipped with the technology to pull off remote work—but they may lack the skills to make the most of working from home.

Here’s an important point to consider: Employees aren’t just dealing with using new technology or adjusting to being at home—they’re working full time during a global health crisis and trying to adapt their entire working style to meet new restrictions. For leaders, managing remotely brings its own challenges, including a new expectation to equip and empower their teams to perform at their highest levels, during a time of increased stress—all from home.

But, as we shift to more permanent remote workforces, leaders will have new questions to answer: How can we keep employees engaged who have never worked together in person? How can we continue to offer virtual training and deliveries of all kinds, in a way that keeps our attention in a rapidly expanding virtual world? And, how can we anticipate the challenges tomorrow’s virtual world will bring and preemptively act to mitigate future risk?

3. The business case for diversity and inclusion is stronger than ever.

The direct correlation between diversity and business performance is well documented, and according to new research from McKinsey, more-diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less-diverse peers on profitability. In fact, the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time: Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile—up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014. While the data in the McKinsey report was prepared before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the findings become even more important when we consider the new demands on organizations to rise to an unprecedented crisis.

In a time dramatically impacted by COVID-19, organizations that have already built up diverse leadership ranks are better positioned to navigate uncertain waters. And, the most successful organizations take their work around diversity one step further, focusing on creating the cultures of inclusion necessary to empower employees of all backgrounds to perform at the highest level.

The best leaders understand and make the business case for diversity and inclusion, and in a world changed by COVID-19, they will double down on their commitment to leading and living inclusively and raising up each member of their team.

Linkage research shows that companies that develop leaders who do things for a purpose and with a purpose enjoy 2x stronger revenue growth, 4x profit growth and 9x employee engagement. Linkage’s Purposeful Leadership Solution delivers a practical framework to identify, evaluate and accelerate leaders at all levels.

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