A New Report From AAW

16th July by Imogen Ward

Published on


People sat around a desk

This time last year, we were just ‘opening up’ after the first lockdown in the UK. As we slowly filed back into pubs and restaurants, met up with a few loved ones and tentatively booked holidays, I’d hoped that by September we’d be seeing our clients face to face again and that the thing that was such an intrinsic rhythm of our role as consultants – meetings in clients’ offices – would be back. Well, we all know what happened next.

And here we are again. Emerging from another period of lockdown, more optimistic than this time last year about a recovery, but also perhaps a little more sceptical (if that can be possible) about our working life really concertinaing back to that old rhythm.

And for a lot of people this is no bad thing. There have been an extraordinary number of positives from this period. Surely the mantra of presenteeism is done and dusted?  The draconian need for bottoms to be on seats at desks by 9am, computer on, emailing away just seems, well, odd. The commute, the traffic, the delayed trains, the crush that was thought to be so essential to do a job effectively… is surely dust?

But as much as many of us are loathe to go back to the five days in the office fandango, a lot of us feel that if the last 15 months is a blueprint for the future of work, then bring on early retirement. Like tomorrow.

Indeed some of things that were novel, efficient and even fun at the beginning – take Zoom creative brainstorms for example – have now become moribund as participants zone out refusing to peer at yet another shared screen or wonky video. It is really no wonder that so many mysteriously ‘go missing’ when they are ejected out of the main meeting (where they can mute and hide their camera) and into the rather exposing break out room experience. 

Teams that came together magnificently as the crisis hit have not been able to sustain that blitz spirit – slight tensions and conflicts that would have been nipped in the bud in the now demonised office, are intensely nurtured via secret WhatsApp groups resulting in all-out war. I exaggerate of course, most Zoom workshops are fine. Most teams are getting on okay. Things are efficient, yes. But is anyone really having fun?

And what about those who have to lead organisations through all of this?  Well, there’s been a lot of talk about the best types of leaders to have in a crisis, but all of the scenarios of the past have included close physical contact and probably pubs.

And it’s for those poor Leaders that we speak for today.  Back in November 2020, we thought it would be interesting to capture the experiences of the first two lockdowns from a leadership perspective. As we started our study and interviews, our world folded in again as the worse Christmas ever was followed by the worse January ever, followed by an over achieving February. And so we extended our study and did more interviews than we had intended to do. The report that we launch today The Next Day – Leadership During the Global Pandemic & Into Recovery traces the period between November 2020 and May 2021.

We interviewed 28 leaders – CEOs, HR Directors, CFOs, COOs and Fundraising Directors. We spoke to Leaders in the UK and Ireland, mainland Europe and North America. We spoke to very big organisations – one of them is over $6 billion globally. To small local organisations with turnovers of less than $1 million.  Experiences were different and the same. Things that were once important became irrelevant. Little things became big things. And big things just grew.

Today we share with you this report. Spoiler alert! There is probably nothing in here that you didn’t already know, but there may be something in here that speaks to you and maybe, just maybe, helps you navigate the next steps. I hope so.

The one thing that I take from all of this, which again is not rocket science but is a refreshing outcome, is that we now have to treat our workforce as individuals not as a mass herd that we can firebrand with our organisational values, culture and logo and expect a great outcome. And we have to respect their wishes whilst of course still being focused on ensuring that our companies have impact. 

As one of our interviewees, RSPCA’s CEO Chris Sherwood put it:

“Some people have got used to the idea of not going back to the office full time ever…. Some are champing at the bit of come back, some are still worried about the virus…we have to adopt a hybrid approach to returning to the office, centered around three elements: flexible working, core hours and much more flexible use of space, with less paperwork and hot desking.”

Chris, like all leaders, doesn’t have all the answers but he’s listening and trying to find a way forward that suits his workforce and is being open and flexible to what the next twelve months look like.

I rather glibly tossed away the concept of great leadership qualities earlier in this piece, but if pushed I think there’s been two things that have inspired me from our chats over the past 15 months.

Firstly, those leaders that have “fessed up” early on and told their teams that they don’t know all the answers. That they may make mistakes, but they will do all they can to listen and to be fair, transparent and clear.

And secondly, leaders that despite everything have kept an eye on the bigger picture of why the charity they have been appointed to be a director of exists. Who have driven through change, who have kept teams engaged, who have demonstrated an unbending commitment to a better future.

And they have done all of this without a pub! Blimey.