After a year of unprecedented disruption, we begin 2021 in a state of both hope and uncertainty. Distributing vaccines and achieving widespread immunity will take many months. Economic recovery, almost surely, will take even longer and arrive unevenly.

As a result, the promise of a new steady state remains distant. However, after a year in which our lives have been so dramatically altered, planning for the post-pandemic workplace is by necessity happening now.

In this third in a series of articles on the ongoing challenges of managing stakeholders in a COVID-19 disrupted world, we examine your people, their increased and evolving expectations of work, and the need to respond decisively to these challenges.

employee highlight stakeholder framework

Download the Stakeholder Management Framework with this full article here.

Just as before the pandemic, of course, the future workplace will look different across diverse industries. Manufacturers will differ from retailers, who will differ from software developers. What they all have in common, though, is a need to attract and retain the best talent. The war for talent endures and is, arguably, even more intense, despite elevated unemployment figures.

The premium for talented women and men who have the mind and skill sets necessary to drive business performance in a disrupted environment is greater than it’s ever been. Businesses need workers with the ability to collaborate quickly in fluid and non-hierarchical environments, to demonstrate a growth mindset and to deal constructively with ambiguity and uncertainty.

At the same time, employees’ expectations of their employers have never been higher or more complex. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that workers have invested more trust in, and are therefore looking for more leadership from, their employers than they are government, media, or NGOs.1

Younger generations, in particular, want to work for a company that reflects their values. Work must have meaning. And given the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 has had on the most vulnerable sectors of societies around the world, demands for alignment on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues have taken on greater urgency in the past year. Instability in the U.S. presidential transition has also increased workers’ demands for more vocal CEO leadership on political issues.

For much of the past decade, employees have also gained significant leverage as a result of tight markets for the most in-demand labor and skills. While the economic impact of the crisis may have taken some of the froth out of this market, the best talent will always remain in high demand. And the enforced experiment with widespread remote work has also reset many employees’ expectations about how and where they work. Connective technologies and tools—like Zoom and Slack—have empowered many to challenge a return to the status quo ante.

As a leader, the question becomes how to respond to these increasingly vocal demands from an empowered employee base. How do you align with and communicate a broader purpose, particularly when there may be multiple and contradictory expectations from within the organization? What is the right structure of work, balancing demands for flexibility, productivity, cultural perpetuation, team building, and development (particularly for younger staff)?

Overlaying these considerations is the disruptive reality in which all businesses today must operate. New technologies accelerate the pace of change at a rate never before seen in history. New business models and entrants upend the established order. The gaps between winners and losers are widening.

Disruption is the new economic driver.

Younger generations, in particular, want
to work for a company that reflects their
values. Work must have meaning.

Building an agile and growth-oriented culture with best-in-class talent is essential in responding to these challenges. In a recent global survey, AlixPartners found that almost 60% of c-suite executives are concerned that a talent gap at their organization impedes their ability to effectively navigate this disruptive landscape. However, how do you renew and improve a culture at pace to meet these demands but retain those elements which still function well and differentiate your organization?

There are, of course, no simple answers to these questions. But what is clear is that so much more is being expected of leaders. Leadership itself is being transformed. And businesses across every industry are finding themselves having to transform at unprecedented speed. Crucial to the success of these transformation efforts is achieving cultural change.

Companies increasingly need a workforce that embraces uncertainty, can adjust swiftly, and rejects a fixed orientation. But culture frequently proves the most stubborn and elusive to change. Culture is the key element of sustainability, and it's in turn driven by the behavior of leaders. Having your leaders on the vision and strategy of the organization is essential in building a resilient culture. 

These times require mature, evolved, and decisive leadership to affect necessary change. Transformative leaders are authentic, meaning they live in alignment with their mission and purpose, and inspire others to do the same.

Lean in. Be bold. Your people expect it of you. Your business demands it.

Transformative leaders are best suited to deal with disruption because they simultaneously serve as strong role models and culture carriers while creating the inclusive environments employees demand. The best leaders communicate clearly, consistently, and frequently, and are role models and cultural change agents who create organizations that attract and retain the very best talent. If you’re not bringing others along on your journey—inspiring and guiding them—then any transformation is doomed to failure.

AlixPartners Disruption Insights identifies strategic priorities and tactics that successful businesses are employing to survive—and thrive—in the midst of ongoing disruption cycles. Sign up to receive occasional email alerts when new Disruption Insights are published.