The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on work have tested the adaptability and resilience of Western Australia’s organisations and their employees over the past 16 months or so. As we move into a ‘new normal’ where new ways of working, including hybrid flexible work arrangements, become the norm, our research indicates that new ways of leading are necessary if employee wellbeing and performance are to be maintained and advanced.
The recent FACTBase Bulletin - The Role of Leadership in Maintaining Employee Wellbeing and Performance under COVID-19 Restrictions written by the ECU Centre for Work + Wellbeing for the Committee for Perth, found that managers and employees faced additional psychological demands during the pandemic’s restrictions associated with job tasks; family commitments; the physical work environment; and a range of social, psychosocial, organisational and technological factors.
Many of these additional requirements were exacerbated by a lack of preparedness across work systems. While many organisations had flexible working policies and business continuity plans, these did not fully account for the extent and speed of the transition required in switching to a remote working model. This meant that senior managers had to develop new policies on the fly, while line managers had to adapt to new ways of managing their teams without adequate preparation or training.
In particular, managers were burdened by a heightened need for the relational aspect of leadership; an escalated coordination effort; and higher workloads associated with managing distributed work teams.
Flexible staff was also impacted. While some knowledge workers already worked remotely at least part of their week and therefore, had suitable workspaces and established work-from-home routines, others were much less prepared and needed higher levels of support due to the experience of social isolation, higher workloads and work-family conflict concerns.
Scholarly literature reporting the experience of working under the pandemic restrictions internationally indicates that effective leadership to promote employee wellbeing and performance can be characterised under the following themes:
- leadership communication
- leadership style and practices
- leadership and resource provision
- leadership commitment to employee wellbeing.
FACTBase Bulletin 76: Graphic illustrating leadership components for managing effective flexible working.
Research by the ECU Centre for Work + Wellbeing in Australia also found that at the top of the organisation, commitment to psychological safety is fundamental to organisational climates that prioritise the wellbeing of employees, including flexible workers. Senior management needs to prioritise psychological health and safety, and this support should be communicated throughout the organisation. Leadership also should encourage all workers to be involved in ensuring a psychologically safe and healthy workplace, including the reporting of psychosocial hazards affecting their wellbeing and mental health. This need has become more pronounced with a recent call by the Australian Attorney-General to update laws and policies regarding the responsibility and importance of mitigating psychological injury in the workplace¹.
Inclusive leadership also needs to be promoted and developed. Inclusive leaders demonstrate openness, flexibility and availability, and help employees satisfy their need for belongingness and uniqueness. This style of leadership is needed as different people will experience flexible working differently, meaning a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Inclusive leaders will identify the specific needs of workers in their teams, including vulnerabilities associated with carer responsibilities, disability, or other factors, and manage them accordingly.
Finally, our research found that management styles such as micromanagement and control were unpopular and ineffective for managing flexible working. Instead, flexible workers favoured autonomy, trust and empathy. We found that managers spent a lot of time maintaining connectivity between team members and providing social support during the pandemic. They also found themselves dealing with pronounced mental health and abusive domestic situations that would not have come to their attention under ‘normal’ working conditions.
These findings suggest that managers need to develop superior relation-oriented leadership capabilities and skillsets to effectively cope with the challenges of managing flexible work teams. In particular, managers need to develop practices that enhance trust and inclusion between themselves and their teams. Organisations have a responsibility in providing training and support to managers in order to facilitate a smooth transition to a more inclusive, relation-oriented leadership environment. These will be essential to the skillset of managers if new ways of leading are going to be effective in promoting a healthy and productive future of work.
By Prof. Tim Bentley, Professor of Work and Wellbeing, Edith Cowan University
The FACTBase Bulletin - The Role of Leadership in Maintaining Employee Wellbeing and Performance under COVID-19 Restrictions is available for download from the Committee for Perth website.