Perspective: Can the shift to remote working help us to become more agile and inclusive leaders?

Written by
Dr Simon Hayward, CEO, Cirrus

19 Oct 2020

19 Oct 2020 • by Dr Simon Hayward, CEO, Cirrus

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to transform our ways of working. For many organisations, this has helped to reduce bureaucracy and hierarchy and create more inclusive workplaces, writes Dr Simon Hayward.

The rapid and widespread shift to remote working has had a dramatic impact on our organisations and the role leaders play. Many organisations were already building (or aiming to build) more diverse and inclusive workforces. All too often, bureaucracy, hierarchy and ingrained ways of working got in the way. Suddenly, we have seen that we can sweep away long-held beliefs and assumptions. The hierarchical resistance from many leaders to changing ways of working has been overwhelmed by the reality of COVID. 

Agility – the ability to adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances with speed and focus – has become a highly-prized asset. Agility is more likely to flourish across flatter organisational structures. Hierarchy can be a barrier. 

Remote working has been a great leveller for many organisations – we’re all in it together. The switch to virtual working happened almost overnight for many, and it is a powerful example of the way organisations have been able to achieve amazing feats of agility in a remarkably short time. 

How can a focus on diversity help us become more agile?

Diversity helps to drive agility. Many of the leaders I work with value diversity across their organisations because diverse teams share different perspectives. They look at things from different angles. Together they can form a diverse understanding of the challenges they face, which helps encourage deeper collaboration and richer solutions.  

Why does agility matter in times of uncertainty?

Agile organisations are better placed to handle an uncertain future. If your business is an agile one, you are better at innovating to create new solutions with focus and speed. You can react and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Becoming a more agile leader

Disruptive times require disruptive thinking. We need to let go of much that was precious in the old world if we want to embrace the new. Leaders have a fundamental role to play in creating an environment where all employees can break free from old assumptions and rethink how best to meet future challenges.

It is often very helpful for leaders to involve a wide and diverse group of employees in conversation to make sense of what’s going on. Discuss what has changed and what the implications of that change are. Draw on diverse skills and experiences to create a coherent and inclusive vision that can drive success. 

Building a more agile workforce

Collaboration, team working, and inclusivity are critical to developing a more agile workforce. You need to engage everyone on the journey. 

To build a more agile workforce, you need to draw on a diverse talent pool, develop more multiskilled employees, and encourage cross-functional collaboration. Often this requires a significant investment in L&D supported by widespread cultural change, which can be quite daunting.

In practice it is best to start by ‘lighting fires’ across your organisation wherever you find real problems that need creative breakthrough. This inclusive approach generates a bottom-up momentum, a movement from within the organisation, which attracts others so that they want to join in. Create diverse, inclusive, multifunctional teams to address specific challenges and nudge them regularly to be bold, to challenge old ways of doing things, and to achieve real innovations through an iterative process. 

Building a more agile business

Inclusivity is key to driving agility. Through building trust, engaging employees at every level, creating a culture that brings a united sense of purpose to the organisation, and empowering the teams around you to take responsibility and make decisions with speed, you will be well on the way to building an agile business. One that is more customer-focused, innovative, resilient, and competitive.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus, an honorary professor at Alliance Manchester Business School and author of The Agile Leader.

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