by Herminder K Channa OBE JP, Executive Principal – Ark Boulton Academy
Once in a generation, we can reimagine how we work. In the 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution moved many in Europe and the United States from fields to factories. In the 1940’s, World War II brought women into the workforce at unprecedented rates.
In the 1990’s, the explosion of PCs and email drove a rapid increase in productivity and the speed of decision making, ushering in the digital age as we know it today. And in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic drove employees out of offices to work from home.
Thanks to the development and wide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, 2021 presents another such opportunity. The return to the workplace is a chance to create a new, more flexible, and effective operating model that works for companies and people navigating a world of increasing uncertainty.
There are a few key questions employers will need to explore as they enter flexible working arrangements; How will employers continue to create a sense of community and connection with their organisations mission, and how will leaders find opportunities to serve their people?
In 2017 I had the opportunity to present at a Leadership conference for Headteachers in Birmingham and was reminded of the little ways in which people can make a significant difference. During one of the breaks, the venue had a jar of cookies on the table outside the door to the meeting room.
It was made of clear glass, with a nice mix of freshly baked chocolate chips and raisin cookies. They looked tasty. But for some reason, people kept walking past them, either not noticing they were there or not wanting to take one.
As I went back into the room, I grabbed the jar. Walking by each table, I began to serve the cookies to people as they settled in for the afternoon. Interestingly, nearly everyone took one. The exact same group who had walked by the jar just moments earlier were now happily munching on cookies. Why had no other leader done that?
Opportunities to serve our people is the privilege afforded to a leader. Everyone who had the cookie, remembered “the lovely presenter who gave out the cookies and wanting to come and work for her.” “I bet her team loves her.”
I shared this story with a colleague of mine who was struggling to connect with her staff. Things hadn’t been going well, and we were trying to brainstorm ways she could show the teachers that she cared about them. She decided she would bring cakes to the next staff meeting to celebrate recent birthdays. On the day, everything started according to plan.
Two big cakes sat on a table with plates and cutlery at the ready. But as the meeting started, the cakes sat untouched. At the break I asked her if she planned to serve the cake. Her response? The teachers knew the cake was there; if they wanted some, they could get it themselves. Ouch. Buying the cake was the easy part, many managers do this. Having the humility to serve the cake and build a deep human connection is the gift of a leader.
Both occurrences made me think about my previous school and my first Headship. Part of the lunch time service was carried out by the leaders of the school. Food was taken around on trollies and served to colleagues and pupils.
After people had eaten their lunch, a bowl was put forward and water poured so colleagues and pupils could wash their hands. The deep human connections which were established and the role modelling of service to the next generation inspired a culture of servant leadership at all levels.
There are lots of reflections to be had from the stories above, but for me the main theme is simple: as leaders, we need to take advantage of the endless opportunities to serve those we are privileged to lead.
So, how do we serve our people and have deep connections in a world where the excitement and efficiencies of building in flexible working from home has not yet been evaluated over a significant period of time, and the true impact of digital working on organisational connections is yet to be understood.
Bereavement, unemployment, home schooling, hunger, isolation; the list is endless has taken its toll globally. Being intentional in offering our time and attention, as leaders is the most powerful way in which we can serve in a digital world. It is needed now more than ever as we navigate ourselves out of lockdown and return to a hybrid way of working.
What Could This Look Like In Practice?
1. Establish a rhythm of connecting with colleagues intentionally. Rename a virtual meeting slot as how are you today set for 15 mins.
2. Agree as a team your onsite working day and ensure every second of that day is linked to strengthening team connections.
3. Calendar in digital acts of kindness emails. To open your email after a busy day, to a thank you, a gift voucher, or job well done, will keep the connection to your organisation strong.
4. Promote a culture of wellbeing. Encourage employees to block out me time for 30 mins a day to look after themselves. The flexibility with working hours extending beyond the 9 – 5, and the real agency given to employees to work the hours that fit their lifestyle means this is now a priority which extends beyond a “fad”. Organisations can use this as a “USP” for attracting new recruits and structurally plan meaningful KPI’s to improve the organisations health.
5. To close a virtual team meeting ask a colleague to share a story of why we do what we do. Individual reflections and sharing of the “why” is powerful. Allow for the creation of a moment in time, in that virtual space for you to collectively connect around your “why.”
As the principles of servant leadership begin to evolve for the digital era, it’s on all leaders to ensure they evolve and continue to invest in “serving the cookies.”