Leaders, are you listening?

Irene Grant,

October 26, 2020

  • Through my work as a Coach and Mentor I am privileged to speak regularly with people at all levels within many diverse organisations; from new entrants, through to young talent, senior management and the C-suite.

Broad, yet connected, themes appear through these separate conversations, amplified by the current strange times in which we are living and working, and I am keen we take time to analyse these before it is too late

The recurring theme which worries me most right now is the divergence between senior leaders’ experience of lockdown-driven working from home and the very different experience of their younger colleagues, who are often frustrated that their experiences are not being considered. Let me paint a (admittedly generalised) picture for a moment to illustrate my point.

For many young colleagues and, particularly, newer entrants to organisations, working from home during lockdown was hard. Typically they live in a small flat with no dedicated space for working – their laptops are balanced on their knees on their bed or at best on the side of the kitchen table (perhaps in rotation with their flatmates); their social life heavily involved their workmates – they miss their chats at lunch in the canteen or over drinks after work; they were learning their craft on-the-job from more experienced colleagues – an overheard telephone call, a quick question to those sitting near them or a side conversation after a meeting – these informal but vital opportunities to learn have
all gone. These young people fear not progressing and feel a growing disengagement from their employer. “Would I have the skills, experience and knowledge I have now, if it weren’t from learning from more seasoned colleagues through observation and physical proximity?”

Many leaders typically experienced lockdown-driven working from home in a more positive way. The removal of commuting meant more time for family and exercise, and opportunities to re-connect with the outdoors; without back-to-back meetings and working lunches there was more time for considered reflection. Yes, I’m being simplistic by ignoring the stress of leading through the pandemic, balancing home-schooling with work pressures, or concern about elderly relatives; but by-and-large leaders found they had a better work-life balance during this time. They were therefore (understandably) in no rush to get back to the office and saw no need to ‘force’ others back either.

This work-life balance is clearly good for the leaders and therefore our organisations – who would not want our leaders to have more thinking time? However, that does not mean that continued working from home is right for all colleagues; in fact, for some, it is downright wrong. I cannot help thinking “would I have the skills, experience and knowledge I have now, if it weren’t from learning from more seasoned colleagues through observation and physical proximity?”. And that is the point which the younger colleagues fear their leaders are not aware of (or, worse still, are ignoring).

Younger colleagues were looking forward to getting back to the office to get their careers and lives back on track, but with the latest Covid-19 guidance to work from home if possible, that return to the office is not looking likely any time soon. So, if you cannot get back into the office, what is the best way to identify alternative solutions for developing and engaging younger colleagues? Ask them directly! I would urge all leaders to engage with and listen to younger colleagues and take time to make them feel heard, understand their needs and jointly craft solutions. Otherwise, you may risk losing a generation of talent from your organisation.

-Irene Grant

26th October 2020

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