Power relationships post lockdown

We’ve never known anything like it and we were totally blindsided: Covid19 has defined 2020 in truly historic ways. We are now starting to emerge, blinking into the sunlight of a roadmap to normality: furloughing will end after October. With this defined date in play we can surmise that soonish (perhaps late summer) many more workers will be easing back to their socially distanced offices and workplaces, whilst others will be offered the choice of continuing to work from home.

Much has been made of the speeding up of the transition to home working, virtual working and the like, in the main commentators have felt that this will be a positive change. This will be a ‘coming of age’ for technology, especially when 5g starts to take off. It is the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure that this transition does not come at the expense of our individual rights and freedoms: the erosion of privacy appears innocuous until it means that we are no longer able to make our own choices. Much has been written on what this might mean for society.

Less time has been devoted to considering the impact of a changed work reality on power relationships at work, especially over the coming transition period. Although some people will continue working from home, many more will be returning to an external place of work. In some businesses, front-line workers have been working from ‘work’ whereas managers have been working from home. This has meant that there has been a ‘virtual’ disconnect between colleagues, either across the entire organisation, or between levels within an organisation. The impact of this disconnect on relationships should not be under-estimated.

Working remotely can bring greater autonomy for less senior personnel. Virtual meetings seem to have exposed the meaninglessness of many meetings in general and people have found work-arounds for these and other aspects of work they previously disliked. Productivity has, perhaps surprisingly, improved in many cases; home-working is a novelty situation and it can also create a smaller team environment: both factors that psychologists have shown benefits productivity.

Despite these results, many people will shortly be heading back into workplaces and meeting their old colleagues and managers again, with the expectation that things get (relatively) back to normal. For individual managers and workers there can be challenges in moving back to even partial face-to-face working.

People with new found flair for working online may feel constrained if and when they have to reintroduce some of their old work routines. Virtual communication may have shown colleagues in new more positive or more negative lights. Lockdown may have severely reduced the ‘existence’ of colleagues in the lives and minds of others in the organisation and led to a breakdown in organisational culture and a rise in people ‘free-styling’ their own way of work, sometimes very successfully and questioning the need for management at all.

For some managers the return will bring anxiety. Used to holding power based on status and a perceived level of importance, they may walk into a scenario where people have done fine without them. Rather than resort to trying to impose the ‘old ways’ which have been proved irrelevant given the social experiment that Covid has enabled, an alternative is for managers to use the opportunity to adapt to new realities. One example may be ceding power to people who have proved themselves talented in different tasks. This can free up leaders to identify how to create a new organisational culture with new ways of participating across the board: a major challenge for the future.

Post-lockdown, leaders will need to lead a newly empowered, perhaps anxious workforce during a turbulent phase of history: when jobs and sectors radically change and the spectre of new virus outbreaks persists. This is a time for humility and acceptance. You may not have been as important as you thought you were but there is now an opportunity to lead like never before.