Hybrid meeting in the office and remote
#Business Transformation

Rethinking leadership for the new world of work

Global Trends
8 Mins.

Today’s flexible models for work require new styles of leadership that are founded on trust and collaboration. This permanent change to the nature of work offers major opportunities to foster innovation, create greater efficiencies, and harness a wider talent pool – as well as offering work patterns that suit different individuals. But the dramatic change in where and how work gets done presents major challenges for leadership. As part of a two-part interview on new work models, we ask two senior managers from G+D’s people management team – Beate Vollmond and Thomas Steininger – to share their insights and some early valuable lessons on leading in this new world of work.

Evolving to trust-based leadership

How has the style, behavior, and mindset of leaders had to change in response to pressures for new working practices?

Thomas: Given the scale of the recent disruptions – not just the pandemic, but also digital transformation, skills shortages, and more – leaders had no choice but to adapt, and adapt multiple times, to the different needs and demands put on them. For example, if you look at the first phase of COVID-19, we as a company had no real issues with having people work from home, from a technical perspective. But it has really meant a change in the approach of our leaders.

On the one hand, trust became a much more important facet of work. Leaders just had to learn to trust that people were working to the best of their abilities. In some cases, that meant we saw a return to a kind of transactional leadership, where tasks are divided into different portions and specific deadlines agreed on for the completion of packages of work. The fact that people were not seeing each other every day made it more necessary to stick to structures. It also meant really supporting and helping colleagues in their home work environments even more. Some people adapted quickly to working from home, but some others needed more structure and more support – which required new skillsets from many leaders.

Now, as we are progressively bringing people back to the office again, businesses are moving more to a hybrid work model – which is not as easy as it sounds. That means a return to some of the more familiar modes of leadership. But now leaders have to understand how to be even more flexible than before. And that brings new challenges for managing teams where different individuals have different and diverse work expectations and patterns – from those who want to come into the office every day, to those who always want to work largely remotely. Indeed, in many cases, many managers find they rarely have their entire team in one place, if ever.

So, you really have to be more flexible in how you lead, you need to make use of different mechanisms, tools, and approaches. Even more than before COVID, one size doesn’t fit all and there is an even greater need to be able to adapt to situations quickly.

Thomas Steininger and Beate Vollmond G+D
Thomas Steininger, Director – Head of Global Talent Management & Leadership Development, G+D (left), and Beate Vollmond, Director – Head of HR Engage & Reward, G+D (right)

Leadership challenges of new models

What are the main challenges that leaders are encountering with these new ways of working?

Beate: Onboarding new employees is a major challenge in a world with less frequent office visits and where people come together in the same place less frequently. As new employees come on board in this new world of work, the challenge is to ensure they feel a sense of belonging and understand the spirit of a company, its culture and shared purpose. So that might mean there needs to be an initial phase of office-based working for new employees, so they can familiarize themselves with the new environment and colleagues. That works both ways; it’s equally important for the respective leaders to be present and approachable during this period. But, of course, it depends on the location and job function.

Thomas: Especially for new hires, coming to the office can be extremely important and beneficial. Because even though we want to be very flexible, we feel that starting a new job from a home office rarely works well – neither for the individual nor the company. Having your new employees interact directly with their new company is probably the best way to develop their commitment and loyalty to the employer, as well as to build relationships with their colleagues and leaders. It’s also a lot easier to collaborate directly from the office. As Beate said, this is beneficial for all team members and team leaders. But, of course, we are also now more open than ever if someone only wants to come to the office, say, two or three times a week.

There’ll probably never be one perfect model for hybrid working. What fits your department, what fits your country, what fits your location will always differ. It comes down to ensuring your model is flexible. As a manager, a key skill has always been the ability to get the most out of people’s different ways of working in an office setting. Now you might have to work with each person’s choices of where, and the hours, they want to work, even within the same team.

Does it require a new sensitivity by leaders to individual’s circumstances?

Thomas: There is another challenge managers need to now take on board: understanding how employees are feeling when day-to-day contact is limited. It’s not as easy to look after your employee’s wellbeing and show empathy when they are mostly in their home workspaces. When you engage a colleague in the office, you get a reasonable idea of how they’re feeling. You can see their expression, see how well they are communicating, and get a good understanding of their mood.

If someone is only coming into the office a couple of times a week, then the chances are they will only see their manager in person occasionally. That makes it more difficult for their manager to read their mood. Just seeing someone on camera from their home office, that makes it more difficult to figure out whether they are feeling good or if something is wrong. That is something where you really have to be more careful.

There is another aspect of distance that managers need to be conscious of. When it comes to managing projects or tasks, some people will tell you when something is going wrong; others will tend to take their time to raise their hand. And reading that is even more difficult in the home office setting because they then tend to raise their hand even later.

In a face-to-face environment, that is something you learn to recognize as a manager, or at least you have more chances to recognize. And that extends to personal problems that a specific employee might be experiencing as well as to work issues.

New approaches to work

Hybrid working (in the office or from home)
Businesses are moving more to a hybrid work model.

What new approaches to the new world of work have the two of you seen companies experiment with, find effective, and adopt in recent years?

Beate: The challenges over the past several years have inspired a rethink and some experimentation around operating models at many companies. But, as many have found, there is no “one-size-fits-all.” As a company with four main business lines – payment, connectivity, identities, digital infrastructures – we’ve seen that different groups have moved to new ways of working to match their evolving business needs. For example, some parts of the company have implemented and adapted their existing models to agile practices. And for those groups, the approaches have proved highly successful.

Crucially, it’s about breaking down silos: creating ways we can create cross-sector and cross-functional collaboration throughout the company, where we bring together the best people for a project from different locations, different business units, different functions.

To meet these challenges, we started an initiative called “Growing.Together.” The program was grouped into four streams: New Work, Mobile Working, IT Tools and Platforms, and Flex Office, our implementation of hot desking. In the New Work stream we focused on fostering employee engagement, motivation, collaboration, and trust-based leadership.

Thomas: As a multinational company, we have always brought teams together around the globe to deliver on customers’ objectives, but with the new ways of working we are extending that network of capability and knowledge. We are now always thinking in terms of overarching clusters, working together in subgroups that span countries and business functions to make things happen.

In many ways, G+D is a pretty good prototype for an “ambidextrous organization.” On the one hand, there are parts of the organization that are almost completely working in highly agile ways already. So those colleagues are very used to working in fast-changing, transforming environments and the pressures that go with that.

On the other hand, we have some operations that are more traditional. But they are also transforming in regard to digitalization and automation. In those areas, we have had a stable, successful business for the past 170 years, but now we are fostering transformation.

Is the essence of the workplace evolving to become a space that supports more group activities, such as collaboration and brainstorming sessions?

Beate: We’ve observed that meeting each other in person makes us better at innovation, more creative. So, we encourage employees to come into the office for such sessions.

We believe it is important to foster an inclusive, collaborative culture in which people exchange ideas, build trust, and co-create. And remote collaboration is not really the best way to encourage that.

It is also so rewarding to re-experience the sense that talking with someone across the desk for five minutes to resolve an issue is often better than setting up a 30-minute meeting in multiple colleagues’ calendars.

In short, the office is a better environment in which to use the collective brain. And sometimes you have to remind people how useful it is to start using that again.

Sense of purpose

As well as the changing the dynamics of work, have the disruptions in recent years encouraged businesses to re-assess their purpose?

Beate: If the events of the past few years have taught us anything, it is that businesses need to follow a clear sense of purpose. Our aim is to make the goals behind each employee’s area of work as clear as possible, so they know what part they are playing in the bigger picture.

It goes to the parable of the stonecutters made famous by management theorist Peter Drucker. A stranger comes across three stonemasons and asks each what they are doing. The first replies, “Making enough money to support my family.” The second one says, “The finest job of stonecutting in the entire country.” And the third says, “I am building a cathedral.” We talk about building a cathedral, the concept that everyone knows the part they are playing (no matter how small or large) in creating a fantastic outcome.

Thomas: At G+D, we recently finished creating a new model of how we want to collaborate and lead across the global organization. It showcases what we stand for as an organization and is designed to make that more visible; it is an overarching model that will give orientation to all of our people worldwide, as well as conveying a consistent, positive story to potential new employees all around the world.

About the G+D contributors

  • Beate Vollmond, Director - Head of HR Engage & Reward, G+D
  • Thomas Steininger, Director - Head of Global Talent Management & Leadership Development, G+D


Published: 16/02/2023

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