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Four questions every leader should be asking as we enter 2021


More than any other in recent history, 2020 has been a year of leadership lessons. In just a matter of months, we’ve learnt how to adapt our organisations to a rapidly changing market. We’ve learnt how to work and collaborate in new ways – and how to ensure our people are doing the same – all from a distance.

We haven’t always known the answers to the questions posed to us along the way, and that’s ok. We haven’t always known what the solution should be to a new problem, and that’s ok too. For us, as business leaders, this is an uncomfortable admission to have to make. After all, isn’t it our job to have all the answers, all the time?

Equally, that admission, the admission that we don’t know everything, is freeing. It’s liberating. If we approach it in the right way, it can open us up to new ideas, to new ways of doing things, and new horizons. Personally, it’s created the space to allow me to ask myself – and our leaders – questions that have forced us to challenge our perception of “normal”, and to look at our organisation with a fresh pair of eyes.

If you’ve experienced the same, I’m sure you’d agree that there are still many unresolved questions and lots of improvements to make as we embark on the start of the new year. So, here are a few of what I believe are some of the fundamental things that we should all be asking ourselves right now:

1. What’s your vision of success and how are you going to get there?

Lately, I’ve been reminded of that old business adage that if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never going to get there. More than ever, a clear vision of what success looks like for you is what’s going to keep you on track and drive your business forward. It’s also going to help you decide where you can cut costs and in which areas you need to invest.

So, do you have a clear vision for what this looks like? I don’t mean short-term targets or numbers, or this quarter’s quota. Financial results aside, what are the overarching goals for your business or team? What does success look like for your organisation and how will you know when you’ve achieved it?

In many ways these are not new questions but ones that we’ve been addressing for years due to the ever-increasing move towards a more virtual, global and continuous marketplace across just about every industry, whether that be online shopping, cloud storage or self-service websites.

2020 has accelerated this move tenfold and now you’ve got to ask how has my organisation or industry changed. What must you now do to move forward? Have you just experienced a drop-off due to the COVID-induced recession that you’re confident will bounce back once “normal” returns? Or has the landscape of your business been permanently changed for good? And if it has been changed fundamentally, what do you need to do to adapt to this new reality for the long run?

Now, more than ever, it’s time to question everything; from your organisation’s purpose, to your customers’ expectations and their experience of your business. Does your old vision still fit in this new world, or does it need re-evaluating?

2. If your organisation or industry has been fundamentally changed, do you have the right people and the right skills to thrive?

Recognising a change in the market is one thing, identifying what needs to be done is another. But being able to execute on this change always comes down to people and skills. This is echoed in World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Jobs report, which states that the ability for organisations to harness the growth and potential of new technologies and change is slowed by their access to the necessary skills. As such, I believe a new war for talent is about to begin as companies start to plan for a post-COVID reality.

Which skills in your organisation are lacking, and do you need to reskill and/or upskill your existing team? If you need to train your existing team, where can you get that training and support? According to the WEF, 35 per cent of leaders are expecting to accelerate the digitalisation of learning and will need to upskill capabilities within their organisations. Is this an area you need to explore too?

Do you need to hire people with the right skills? If you do, where can you find them and how are you going to attract them? It’s important to keep in mind that many people’s attitudes to work have been fundamentally changed due to the pandemic. Increasingly, working for a purpose-led organisation, flexible working options, learning and development opportunities and mental health support are becoming more important. What are you going to do differently in the future to attract the right people with the right skills?

Do you need to be even more flexible with your standard working hours? Could you let staff work over the weekend and less in the week, for example? Do you need to change your benefits packages, should you introduce remote work payments to help fund internet bills, office furniture or other new equipment? Is now the time to offer perks and benefits outside the norm, such as yoga classes or financial education? Is now the time to move away from paying people for the time they work, and instead for their output?

The next question you need to ask yourself here is whether or not your existing employer brand and associated employee value proposition needs to change in order for you to adequately compete in this new war for talent. 

3. What’s your stance on remote working and has your company culture changed?

These points have been talked about in every boardroom, at every (virtual) water cooler and on every social media platform over the past few months. In my mind, there isn’t a blanket approach that will work for all organisations; it’s nuanced. But what is certain is that where we work has changed forever.

In less than a year, our relationship with the office has changed completely. According to The Economist, the number of Americans working from home has gone from one in fifty to one in three. At the same time, CBRE reports that 73 per cent of global retail executives expect flexible office space to play some part in their 2021 strategies.

This is a trend that looks likely to stay, with JLL predicting that within ten years, 30 per cent of all office space will be classed as flexible.

But the office is certainly not dead; WeWork found that 90 per cent of people want to return to the office at least one day a week. It’s likely therefore, that we are looking at open-plan offices taking on a more fluid shape, one that allows for a more de-densified office space. 

So, what about your business? Will you ever go back to the office? How could a hybrid working environment work for you? Are satellite offices an option? Or perhaps opening localised hubs closer to where employees live? All of these decisions will have a huge impact on the productivity and engagement of your current and future workforces, so they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

With that in mind, how has your company culture changed if your people aren’t all together as regularly as they once were? There’s no escaping the fact that the sudden move to remote working has seen the social capital of many organisations being slowly eroded during the pandemic, with staff feeling a loss of connection and a greater sense of isolation. How will you protect against this in the future? After all, if the watercoolers are disappearing or going virtual, then so is the opportunity they offered us to connect as human beings.

As with all change, opportunities will always present themselves. Now may well be the ideal time to consider a fundamental shift in your company culture, as you look to build curiosity, creativity, trust and a growth mindset into your people and their workplaces.

The answers to these questions are something we are all working through. In many ways they will be unique to each company, or even divisions within them. But what’s certain is where and how we work has been fundamentally changed for good.

4. Do I have the right technology in place to support my new reality?

We have all gone through some type of technological transformation by fire over the past nine months. In fact, according to Microsoft, we’re racing headlong into a new era, ‘The Digitalisation of Everything’, as we experience an entire year of digital transformation every month.

As companies went virtual overnight we adapted to survive and thrive by enabling remote workforces.  Now, as we look to 2021 and beyond, we should be asking ourselves how technology can support the inevitable changes on the horizon, and ultimately ensure our organisations thrive.

For example, does my website or commerce platform stand up in what may now be a national or global market, not a local one. Is my data secure now that it’s being shared across home networks, cities and even continents?

There’s more on what to expect in the Gartner Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021, which goes into greater detail on the Internet of Behaviour, AI engineering, Privacy-enhanced computation and five other key trends to be aware of in 2021.

Security is paramount. Recently, the FBI reported an 800 per cent increase in reported cybercrime. How will you protect your data, your customers’ data and instil confidence that your service is one people can trust to be safe?

Technology will play a vital role as we move forward and those organisations that have the ability to be creative and use it in new ways that will increase revenue, decrease cost and enrich their employees work experiences will be the real winners. We should all be asking ourselves: is there a better way? Things we may not have changed in a “good market” but we always knew could be better should be brought front and centre.

I don’t presume to have the answers to all of these questions, but I know as leaders we will need to come up with them if we want our businesses to continue to thrive into 2021 and beyond.

It’s cliché to say this, but this year has been like no other. As leaders we should always be looking ahead, and there is real opportunity if we think big and bold enough to create new products and services, improve old ones and build a better, bigger, more inclusive and rewarding workplace than the one we knew when this year began. 

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David is responsible for leading all Hays staffing operations in the US and is a 20 year veteran of the staffing industry. Prior to his role as head of Hays US, David worked in various roles in sales, sales management and executive management.

David lives in Atlanta with his wife and three children.

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