Following on from Part One, Lessons from Marketing, the second instalment of my 20 Lessons from 2020 takes a look at the business world.

7. Flexible Working

For many, this is the Covid silver-lining. It’s certainly one of the ongoing changes to the workplace that’s been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Flexible, remote working is generally positive and here to stay, but it is a delicate balancing act. For those with the space (and appropriate, office-based jobs) working at home means you can set your hours around your other commitments, saving time on commuting and money on Pret lunches and season tickets. It also facilitates much easier national, or even global, co-operation.

But it also means missing out on the social element of work, the informal conversations with colleagues outside your immediate team and even a simple change of scene. For those with small children, it’s a different story. And for younger people, who may be flat-sharing, with poor broadband and no proper workspace, it can be incredibly hard – we’ve yet to see the long-term impact of curtailing informal learning and socialising on their careers. Which leads me to…

8. Empathetic Management

Back in October, I wrote about how flexible working required more empathetic management. Managing people remotely, understanding the current emotional and personal pressures on them and balancing individual work schedules with the needs of the wider team requires greater emotional intelligence (EQ) and an ability to develop and implement more ‘trust based’ working models. But HR departments have historically seen flexible working as an employee benefit and largely neglected to think about how they might help the business cope with the demands it presents.

This has to change. Truly flexible working can’t succeed when it puts some staff out of alignment with the majority still working a 9-5, Monday-Friday model. Businesses are slowly adapting, but it’s not fair to expect them to manage this individually – they need support at a societal level and change needs to be driven from the top. This is definitely an area where ‘first mover advantage’ does not apply – few companies are brave enough to put themselves out of step with their suppliers, partners and competitors.

9. Integrity in Leadership

Whoever said ‘you get the leaders you deserve’ could not have been more wrong. In times of our deepest crises, Trump and Johnson have shown appalling, neglectful leadership, trashing the norms of truth and integrity in high office and getting away with blatant cronyism and corruption. This is a dangerous precedent which is filtering down. Around the world, dozens of politicians and officials have set rules for their citizens which they’ve promptly ignored, along with the first rule of successful leadership – ‘do as I do, not do as I say’. It provides the perfect cover for terrible business leaders, with many (conveniently) blaming the pandemic for their already failing businesses, using it as an opportunity to treat staff and customers badly and re-write contracts to suit themselves (more on this tomorrow). At least Trump will be permanently Out of Office in a couple of weeks and the grown-ups will be back in charge. We can only hope for similar change here.

 10. Networking

On a lighter note, here’s a question for you. How do you effectively network during a global pandemic?  I’m not talking about your immediate circle of friends and colleagues – I’m talking about the ‘third circle’ contacts we try and stay in touch with throughout our careers. I’ll be honest here. I’m much happier meeting up for a coffee, so keeping in touch with my wider network proved tricky in 2020. Zoom networking is great but has its limitations and is no replacement for face to face. The occasional ‘how are you?’ email can feel inadequate and even intrusive when so many people are having a genuinely hard time and you can offer little real support. With the pandemic set to continue well into 2021, we need our networks more than ever, so if you’ve come up with a workable solution, answers in the comments, please…

So what did we learn?  Covid accelerated many of the changes that were happening anyway and the oldest business adages – adapt or die, lead by example – have never been more relevant. The challenge for all of us is how quickly we can adapt, too. How do we flex our management style? How do we ensure our business model remains contemporary and compelling? How do we make genuine connections, and meet new people, when we can’t be together? And most importantly, how do we ensure business provides the right opportunities for all employees, wherever they are on their career path?