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Organisational structure, culture and leadership

Workplace predictions for 2021: Organisational structure, culture and leadership

The arrival of Covid-19 transformed far more than our workplaces in 2020 and is thought to have brought forward remote working by 10 years - all in a matter of a few weeks. As the year went on, we waited for the ‘new normal’ to arrive - and we’re arguably still waiting. In the process, much changed about the way we now work. What started in 2020 was barely the tip of the iceberg.

So, in our second blog on our workplace predictions for 2021 we look at how our organisations will be structured and some of the cultural implications - and assess what that will mean for leaders and HR.

From WFH to work from anywhere

It was always going to happen. Give employees the tools they need to work from home, create a way to keep them engaged and connected - and many won’t want to return. The longer it takes to feel safe will only cement that feeling. So, how can organisations create an environment, or at least a way of working, that’s attractive?

The best of both world’s solution is the ‘hybrid workplace’ model - part office/part home based. We’ve also seen more and more companies announcing that remote work will be permanent, even when travel restrictions and social distancing have been relaxed (not that there’s any likelihood in the foreseeable future). Facebook quoted consultancy Gartner in their own predictions for 2021 that“47% of companies will let employees work from home full-time after the pandemic, with 82% green-lighting the practice part-time.”

This has huge implications for how organisations are structured and attract and retain talent. If employees can now work from anywhere, they can work for anyone. So, while offering remote working acts as a retention tool - it also empowers employees to work wherever (and for whoever) they feel most comfortable and effective. As a result, there will be more regionalisation of talent as workers no longer have to be based in big cities and choose to move to less crowded places to feel safe and save money. This will give regional based employers more access to top talent around the country.

HR will have much to consider as they bid to engage and retain their best talent and create an attractive employee proposition where the physical identity of the workplace is far less prevalent. How will they manage people, conduct performance reviews and redesign their structures and practices to suit this new way of working?

Also, organisations will have to invest more time and effort to keep people focused on the bigger picture and what the organisation is there for in a remote based culture. Communicating successes, focusing people on the strategic vision and answering questions around company policy will all need more focus, skill and attention.

Re-building a collaborative culture

In many cases mass remote working has caused many to re-evaluate their relationship with their employer and colleagues. Furloughing may have saved jobs but has created a ‘them and us’ culture in some organisations. Many feel no connection or loyalty at all now that they work from home. There are widespread levels of mistrust and relations to re-build and heal.

What was a physical experience with real face to face conversations has for many been replaced with a Zoom call and a feeling of detachment, even loneliness. People have complained that they are now working in a vacuum and hate isolation. 

Collaboration and spontaneity - so important for innovation and creativity, just isn’t the same over a Zoom call. We have seen ‘Zoom fatigue’ enter the national dialogue and we’ll see more people push back against video calls. Too many people have grown to intensely dislike all the Zoom/Teams/Skype meetings and the inability to interact with colleagues and customers in person - not to mention the strain that sustained concentration has on the mind and body. As a consequence, organisations will have to work hard to create opportunities to enable collaboration in the coming year.

If you want to overcome your own ‘Zoom fatigue’ and build thriving and innovative remote based teams, you might be interested in our free webinar for leaders and HR Professionals.

We’re all zoomed! Keep your team sane in the remote reality.

The shift from presenteeism to output

On a more positive note, the pandemic looks like it may have achieved the death of presenteeism - at least in the office itself.

With empty offices and extended remote working, no one will be there to notice people still working late. There will be nothing to gain by being seen as the ‘last person to leave’. Instead, workers can do what needs to be done, rather than wasting their evenings trying to look busy with the rest of the office.

This change will see advancement decisions decided by true capability, productivity and output rather than workplace cliques. Managing this requires a big step up in capability of managers and leaders. Goal setting needs to be more sophisticated and clearer; people need to learn to trust each other and not expect constant updates.

However, there is a risk that people will take presenteeism online (we are already seeing this happening), where sending e mails and using instant messages outside of normal hours shows others‘I’m still working’. Leaders need to make sure they are not fooled by these tactics and that they don’t unintentionally role model this to their teams.

Overall leaders need to be very clear on their expectations which is a bigger challenge than it may first appear. A lot of people don’t even know consciously what their expectations are (until someone doesn’t meet them).

The rise of asynchronous communication

It follows that the less time we are present in our workplaces, the more we move away from the traditionally synchronised way of working - when things are dealt with in the moment. Remote based working is allowing more of us to manage our time as we see fit. If we want to consider our responses, we’ll do that - instead of responding in the present. If that report needs the afternoon blocked out to fully digest, we’ll do that too.

Remote working has shown many the advantages of not being ‘always on’. It gives us the chance to work in uninterrupted chunks of time and to communicate with co-workers in different time zones when it suits both parties. Asynchronous communication has been described as the future of work because it allows us to communicate with higher agility and efficiency. But, for some it comes with the heightened risk of burnout and time management challenges as work is completed at what may not be the healthiest time of the day.

It also requires a degree of trust from line managers and leaders already adjusting to working life where micro-management is getting harder by the day. To succeed, asynchronous working needs some form of structure built in to allow it to happen. A central project management system like Trello or Slack allows teams to share what they are working on without disrupting anyone’s time.

A more human style of leadership

The pace of change post pandemic calls on leaders to refine their own skills to keep employees actively engaged and communication lines open. They will need to personalise their approach and be more 'hands-on' to motivate and inspire their teams and colleagues. This will call for more emphasis on listening and leading with empathy. In the coming year, the cultures that engage will be led by a more human style of leadership.

Leaders are going to have to become more comfortable working with virtual tech in order to communicate while we all work more remotely. They’ll need to put extra effort into amplifying their engagement virtually to make sure they connect. They must participate in virtual events, be active in group messaging, and keep their enthusiasm high and be aware of their body language during video calls. Remaining visible is not optional.

However, there is a balance between listening and having empathy and leaders remaining clear and giving guidance and direction. In an intention to give employees space and trying to be kind, some leaders are actually coming across as laissez faire and lacking the direction and clarity people need to stay focused and perform.

Leaders need to be clear and directive in terms of communicating the ‘what’ people are doing and kind and empathetic in the ‘how’. There will be a need for many organisations to up-skill their leaders and managers in this respect.

HR as a strategic partner

If there is one function pivotal to the challenges coming in 2021, it’s HR. HR will shift from a traditional ‘trouble shooter’ operational function to a strategic partner as its work will be linked to business outcomes and competitive advantage.

It will be at the centre of delivery of wellbeing and mental health support, as well as effectively ‘re-boarding’ and engaging whole organisations, mending relationships after time away. As attracting and keeping talented employees becomes more important and line managers need greater coaching and support, HR has an opportunity to influence and become the glue that holds organisations and their leaders together. That’s why many organisations are now separating their employee relations (and other troubleshooting HR functions) and the more strategic functions.

HR teams are very often great coaches and mentors (often majoring in social sciences and communication). They will bincreasingly show enormous value in mentoring, coaching and supporting leaders and managers as they make the step up in these areas so vital in the coming years.


Although our organisations are going to remain largely remote based for at least the early part of 2021, they will need to feel more ‘together' than they did last year. It will call for more creative ways to collaborate, so that creativity can take place, more acceptance of the different ways of working and greater levels of trust shown that employees will work productively - while taking care not to burnout. This will also call for leaders who can inspire, connect and remain visible in a disconnected workplace - stepping up the sophistication of their style and communication like never before.

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