Whether the pandemic upended corporate norms or merely accelerated shifts that would have occurred anyhow, the result is that corporate leaders face a dramatically different landscape than they did a mere 18 months ago. The skills and characteristics essential to effective leadership have changed.

Learning leaders are likely to feel this more acutely than leaders of other departments for two reasons: Learning leaders must embody these changes in leading their own teams. In addition, they are generally responsible for coaching and training leaders across the organization who need to develop or polish these key skills.

This article explores four ways that norms and expectations for leadership skills, characteristics, and behaviors have changed.

1. Shift to flexible workplace models

The ability to pivot and show resilience in an unpredictable environment and empower employees to balance work needs with home-, family-, and self-care needs are hallmarks of the COVID era. Leaders are finding that this ability to exhibit flexibility remains essential as organizations and their employees adjust to new norms for working in office or in hybrid and remote teams.

As teams settle into new configurations, many workers are embracing the flexibility of working from home—an option many workers requested pre-COVID. Some leaders who had resisted remote work arrangements due to fears of lower productivity or strained team connections are finding solutions in technology: Learning leaders forge the way toward adoption of new tools that make asynchronous and globally distanced work relationships more collaborative and productive.

Workplace flexibility affects more than where employees sit while doing their work, though, touching on every aspect of the employee experience. Learning leaders and organizational managers are learning that, while planning is still important, so too is the ability to let go of carefully drawn plans and pivot to adjust to quickly changing circumstances.

Writing in Forbes, leadership strategist Dan Pontefract cites office spaces “tailored for creativity, collaboration, community, ?and focused work, enabling? ?employees to find the right space for every task” and “office buildings that prioritize ?sustainability and health” as “terrific” features of SAP’s newly announced flexible work model. These features support flexible work arrangements that emphasize both individual productivity and team collaboration.

Temper WFH flexibility with leadership

The embrace of flexible remote and hybrid team configurations often extends to individual employees choosing their own work schedules. Leaders should put some limits on this flexibility, Nicholas Bloom writes in HBR, providing two evidence-based reasons for leaders to retain some degree of control over work schedules:

  • In-group/out-group: Whether workers have chosen their schedules or not, at-home workers often report feeling excluded. They know that they are missing valuable social and professional connection time, and this generates anxiety. In many organizations, whether a person works on-site or from home also has real impacts on the projects and promotions they receive.
  • Impact on diversity: Far more women with young children want to work from home than men with young children or adults with no children, which “is worrying given the evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can be highly damaging to your career,” Bloom wrote. He and others envision a future where women are left farther and farther behind as the men who work on-site "rocket up the firm."

The concerns are valid. Bloom cites both research and “comments I’ve heard over the years from managers” indicating that home-based employees are passed over for promotions that go to office-based employees.

While embracing the flexibility a hybrid schedule offers, Bloom advises managers to set specific days that all workers are on-site to balance productivity needs with employees’ preferences and goals of creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce. Learning leaders might consider emphasizing diversity needs when coaching managers of remote and hybrid teams.

2. Loosen the grip; employees expect more autonomy

Flexible work arrangements and months of working from home and juggling family obligations with work have led many employees to become more autonomous and take on more decision-making than they had prior to COVID-19. This represents a slight shift in power, as leaders lose some control over process and schedule.

However, it would be a mistake to see this as a negative. “The companies who have given their people some autonomy and decision-making power are those who have had the best results,” according to Caroline Kennedy, writing for Ceoworld Magazine. Kennedy argues that leaders who let go of some power increase their team’s agility, which is beneficial to the organization in the long term.

Empowering people is a leadership approach that delivers results: If you hire the right people and provide the tools and support they need, you show leadership by guiding them forward, according to Forbes. “It takes longer than just telling someone what to do or what you believe; however, that investment is repaid with deeper commitments, stronger empowerment and more growth for everyone.”

3. Embrace personalization

The trend toward increased personalization predated COVID-19, but the quick pivot to working from home may have accelerated the push. Employees want more autonomy and flexibility around when and where they work—but also around what they learn, how they do their work, and when and how they interact with others, whether colleagues, customers, or friends.

One way organizations are accommodating this trend is increased flexibility that allows greater autonomy, as described above. Another is through recognizing that employees have capabilities and interests beyond their current job roles—and fostering development of these abilities in ways that benefit both the employee and the organization. This is apparent in the growing focus on upskilling workers and hiring from within—increasing job mobility to both support employee development and fill skills gaps.

Leaders who develop critical thinking and decision-making skills among their team members and encourage a diversity of viewpoints are likely to find themselves leading an innovative team that excels at solving problems and furthering corporate goals. Learning leaders may find these skills in high demand at every level in their organizations.

And personalization of relationships, as well as of skillsets, has emerged as a key skill during the COVID crisis in the form of a new focus on empathetic leadership.

4. Lead with empathy

The sudden shift to working from home, with schools and daycare centers closed, provided many managers and employees a more intimate picture of their colleagues’ and direct reports’ lives as we watched family members, including pets, blunder into view on Zoom calls.

Managers were forced to grapple with the realities of employees who were not only working full-time but also caring for children or elderly relatives whose usual care-giving routines had been disrupted.

The stresses of juggling family responsibilities, health worries, difficulties obtaining basic necessities, illness or losses of family members to COVID, and more also highlighted the need for managers to relate to workers as individuals and to pay attention to their well-being and mental health in new and unaccustomed ways.

Leaders who showed authenticity and caring in a human way, who showed the essential leadership characteristics of empathy and humanity to their team, brought a new and necessary dimension to their own leadership and to empowering their team members. These leaders recognized that each worker had unique circumstances, priorities, and competing pressures.

“Whether they are in the office or working from home, leaders need to use their EQ to understand each person’s situation, their pressures, their priorities, and their values,” Kennedy wrote. “Honest, authentic conversations about work and life will enhance connection. Empathy will solidify it.”

Learn with leadership peers

Are you seeking the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace? Are you an experienced or aspiring leader looking for a community to connect with to explore today’s biggest learning leadership challenges and identify and develop leadership characteristics? You are not alone!

The Learning Leaders Alliance is a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders wanting to build their skillsets. The Learning Guild’s Alliance Membership package includes access to exclusive digital events and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe. See the details here.