Leaders are navigating the challenges of 2020

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Like everything else, the pandemic fundamentally changed the nature of work, culture and leadership. Working remote made it more difficult to stay connected to one another. Our homes became our workplaces, our offices, our gyms, our recreational areas. Many of the boundaries that existed before vanished.

As a result of these changes, leaders have had to think differently about communicating with teams, maintaining company culture and monitoring productivity.

Here are some insights on the changes I’ve seen and how Open Systems Technologies has adapted to today’s environment.

Q: How has our definition of work changed since the COVID-19 pandemic struck?

A: Work isn’t just about the tasks that you do. Work is so much more than that. Work is about identity; it’s about belonging; it’s about community. From my perspective, it always has been. The future of work must continue to be comprehensive from a definition perspective — that part hasn’t changed — but how we sustain a culture committed to solving to the whole must evolve. When I think about the future of work, I think; ‘How are we creating connection and community and a place for people to do their best work with recognition and celebration and being a part of something that’s bigger than them?’ Will the future of work allow for a more effective place of individual contribution that likely isn’t in a large open-concept office? Yes. Will office environments exist to create a sense of belonging and community? Yes. The future of work will take the best of what we’ve learned and create new standards for virtual and proximate employee engagement.

Q: How do you find a balance between the need for human connection and in-person gatherings to spark innovation vs. the challenges of working remote?

A: I believe that we can facilitate broad brainstorming, and innovative, creative engagement digitally. There are hands down ways to do that and to do that really, really well. But highly effective teams become highly effective when there’s a baseline of trust and healthy conflict. And building trust and engaging in good, healthy conflict, when it’s a new relationship, is much more challenging to do virtually. The technology and the way it’s being used today doesn’t allow for the natural social elements that come out when people are together. To establish new connections, to establish new engagement, to build that trust — it can be done, it just takes a lot longer. It takes new skills and an intentional level of emotional intelligence.

Q: How has the definition of being a good leader changed during this time?

A: The definition of being a good leader has not changed. The classic definition of someone of influence who sees potential in people or processes and works to develop that potential toward a common purpose hasn’t changed. However, how we demonstrate that has fundamentally shifted, because great leaders are learners and influencers. As CEO, I learn so much by walking around talking to people; that opportunity has been shelved for now. That’s been replaced with intentional outreach, but the serendipity has been disrupted. It also means I have become more reliant in some ways on one-way communication. Whether it’s a video message, or email and digital tools, it’s different than the way leadership shows up in more genuine, interpersonal interactions standing in the kitchen. The other part, when I think about leadership and the ability to influence people in a direction is that people are distracted. Garnering the mindshare, you have to be creative and you can’t always rely on the things you relied on in the past. Whether I want to be seen as a thought leader or people leader, if I can’t figure out how to interact with the people who I’m trying to influence, then it will be very difficult to be effective.

Q: What has been your greatest takeaway during this time?

A: That “different” can be really good; virtual connections allow for a more inclusive and diverse experience. For example, I just hosted a roundtable event for women executives in IT. We had people there from California, Oregon — as far away as Ireland. I could lament that we’re not sitting across the table from each other like we’ve been able to do in the past, or I could bask in the reality that we got such a diverse perspective because we are doing it differently. It opened our minds to that possibility. Leaders who bring that agile mindset create great opportunity. As a leader of leaders, I think that’s one of the most challenging and rewarding elements, helping leaders navigate this changing landscape with an eye on the opportunity it creates, and creating new platforms to learn from one other.

What have you done to adapt?

The ability to adapt and to see the possibilities and see these forced constraints as opportunity is in our DNA. The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit is alive at OST. The permission to make mistakes and to try, that is part of who we are. In order to be leaders in a shifting market, the ability to come to the table with that humility and vulnerability, it’s how you move forward in a path. As you reflect on 2020, how has your organization responded to changes in work, culture and leadership? What are your greatest takeaways from the year that was?

Meredith Bronk is president and CEO of OST in Grand Rapids.

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