New normal: Emergent jealousy and other challenges for leaders in a post-COVID world

I was recently at a conference on the future of work and Suzette Kent, the former federal chief information officer, was one of the keynote speakers. Her thesis was straight-forward: As we have adjusted to managing through the pandemic, we have come to expect different relationships between employees and employers and between vendors and customers that are going to continue beyond the end of this pandemic. We are not going back to the way it was.

A year ago, my column was about how to effectively pivot an organization to remote work. As we begin to see the potential of pandemic restrictions easing, our thoughts have moved well beyond adapting to remote work to how do we meet the challenges of being dropped into a dynamic new future. In addition to all the normal technology thoughts a CIO has, I wanted to share what I think are three top long-term challenges leaders will need to focus on to thrive in a post-COVID world:

The well-being of leaders

One can argue that the ability of many organizations to adapt to large scale telework and other changes required by the pandemic was enabled by seasoned, mature leadership teams that already knew one another. The question is, under the new normal, will we have the environment that creates the relationships and commitment that promotes the long-term health of an organization? Can we develop and nurture strong leadership teams in an atomized world with potentially less physical presence and shared experience?

Everybody has it hard during the pandemic. Leader roles are particularly challenging. Like everybody in an organization, they are handling diverse personal situations and trying to balance it with the needs of the workplace. But leaders (executives, managers and supervisors) are also fundamentally accountable for other employees and being responsible for setting the organization tone, enforcing the culture and rules, a myriad of workplace administrative duties, getting the organizational results, and being in the position of trying to make it all work in a highly dynamic situation. The resulting inequities and jealousies that will be raised by staff will be for leadership to manage. From work hours to work locations to virtual staff interacting with people who want to be in the office, leaders have a lot to sort out. How can leaders survive through all this stress?

  • Acknowledge it: Sometimes just acknowledging how challenging it is a good first step. Recognize you are human and maybe what you thought was a sprint is now a marathon followed by another marathon. Understand it’s going to be challenging.
  • Take care of yourself: Leaders need to stay emotionally and physically healthy. They need to set the example of taking care of themselves and staying attuned to their humanity as well as work. Whether it’s taking time for family and friends, a walk or meditation, leaders will need to find their unique strategies to keep themselves balanced through stressful times.
  • Leaders need to focus on leadership: It’s tough, we are all busy. But leaders must recognize their role in an organization and make time for one another, support one another and focus on growing as a leadership team.

Creating positive culture

Culture is the shared stories, experiences and norms of behavior that is the glue that allows organizations to effectively operate and flourish. As a simple example, most people would not show up at an in-person meeting with their faces covered. But in the rapid change to remote work, something that was never an issue before is now being discussed. For some people, it might be considered disrespectful. For others, it does not matter. What is the impact of not having a norm about the use of available video to see somebody’s face? Is the issue important to creating positive culture?

Physically oriented workplaces create pressures that give rise to many norms that are now absent. This leads to vacuums that left unaddressed, have the capacity to create toxic, organization killing cultures. Work hours, building informal relationships based on local events, the commute and simply “seeing” one another all pretty much happened automatically in a more physically oriented world. Leaders will need to pay careful attention to cultivating and adapting their culture to thrive in the new normal. What can leader do?

  • Focus on it: Even if you think you have a strong and positive culture at your organization, there should be a team focusing on culture and the impact of your company’s developing new normal on your culture.
  • Decompose culture to behaviors: Culture at the end of the day is experienced through observable behaviors. Any group working on culture needs to advance beyond slogans to actions they expect people to take when interacting with one another. Collegiality, for example, used to be marked by, “We greet our colleagues when we pass them in the hallway.” What does collegiality look like in a highly remote work environment?
  • Get the workforce involved: While leaders lead and set the tone, they need to be active listeners and involve the workforce. One of the big challenges for leaders is managing culture through the diversity of opinion about how to move forward. You are going to have to listen and have staff involved.

Talent management

All organizations — for profit, volunteer, governments — compete for the time and attention of talent. As already suggested, the equation of what it takes to compete for talent has been impacted by the pandemic. As we ride into the new normal, the competitive landscape is altered, and it will take creativity to recruit and retain talent in a way that builds for the long-term. Will we staff now around the country if our work can easily be handled remotely? Will some positions be allowed to roam or will positions be tied to work locations? Is the federal government a more competitive employer in our new normal or will private sector flexibilities strip us of critical talent?

In the talent space, one of my top concerns was the upcoming retirement bubble of experienced federal staff. The increased acceptance of telework may allow us to take advantage of our top minds for more years than anticipated as it is easier for staff to remain valued members of an organization. At the same time, the staff that has not made a commitment to keeping up their skills may be more challenging to address. Remote and flexible work will put increasing pressure on supervisors to deal with the consequences of employees who are not making the grade and who will use the new normal to attempt to extend their tenure. As I think about talent I am focused on the following:

  • Strategic human resource planning: There has probably never been a better time to look at your strategic human resource plan. What is working with respect to talent, what is not? What are the new strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) to your human capital plans as you envision your new normal?
  • Clear standards for performance: Clear standards for performance have and continue to be important. Interestingly, technology around telework creates some unique opportunities to see things now that were hard to see. It also creates a potential dystopian future of the surveillance state. Leaders will need to think about performance standards and managing them in a new normal.
  • Watch the slippery slope: There are going to be a lot of decisions coming fast and furious as all the new work options come at you. While organizations need to move to be fast and responsive, they need to be careful of the slippery slope of the apparent “easy” decision that really deserves some time and attention and other perspectives.

As I think about the future of work conference I recently attended, another keynote highlighted the importance of learning from one another but also recognizing each entity is unique and going to have to sort out its own journey. They also highlighted that the future we are heading to is going to be dynamic and moving at a velocity faster than ever. While I am not sure what it all brings, I am excited to be part of the team leading us into this new normal.

Howard Spira is the chief information officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. He also served at the Treasury Department, where he led the technology team for the Office of Financial Stability — the team that ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Prior to his federal service, Howard was a senior IT executive in the financial services industry with an extensive background in international and domestic commercial finance.

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