Rethinking leadership in the post-COVID era
Sarene Nel, Managing Director of Tétris Design and Build South Africa

Being a good boss is hard. In fact, a study by Gallup revealed that only 10 percent of people have the innate traits required to become good leaders. “Fortunately, these skills can be learned,” says Sarene Nel, Managing Director of Tétris Design and Build South Africa.

As we return to the office full time, continue to work remotely, or adopt a hybrid of both approaches, one fact remains – COVID-19 and the restrictions it brought significantly transformed the way we work, where we work, and how we feel about work. In what is being labelled the Great Resignation, a record number of employees have resigned in the US amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 19 million workers having quit their jobs since April 2021. This has left many companies in a predicament, with managers and business owners struggling to understand why and how to stop this.

South Africa is also experiencing this phenomenon, albeit at a different rate, with mainly highly skilled workers migrating away from salaried jobs and joining the gig economy or consulting on their own terms.

“Leaders need to respond to these changes in order to retain talent, attract new talent and revive a stressed and exhausted workforce in the post-pandemic era,” says Nel. However, managing change is a challenge, “Managers play a vital role in keeping employees happy and engaged, but this has become more difficult with employees working remotely or adopting flexible working hours,” she says.

Nel shares some leadership advice for the much-changed world we now inhabit:

  • Be authentic

A good leader is transparent and honest in all relationships in the workplace. “Be your true self. Not all managers are the same, and that is fine. Admit to your shortcomings and mistakes – this will go a long way in showing your team that you are willing to grow and learn with them.

  • Get your hands dirty

The days of sitting in your corner office issuing orders are long gone. The modern leader is an active member of the team and willing to do any job that is required, not just what is in their job spec. “By doing this, you reveal your human side, making you more approachable and understanding of the day-to-day challenges and tribulations faced by the team,” says Nel.

  • Create a welcoming workspace

With the traditional workspace and work hours a thing of the past, Nel believes in creating an enticing space away from home where people can connect and collaborate, with focus areas for those who are unable to do focused work at home. “Incorporate spaces that facilitate working together and those that allow for quiet work. Include comfortable furnishings, quiet booths, relaxation rooms where people can socialise, and conveniences like good coffee to entice employees back. Ultimately, an office must be a space that resonates with people and inspires them professionally.”

  • Provide incentives

While extra remuneration is always appreciated by employees, this is not always possible. Leaders also need to find other ways to show appreciation and strengthen relational ties with people. “At Tétris we offer half-day vouchers after periods of hard work or extreme stress, which employees can cash in whenever they need some me-time to recharge. We find that time has become extremely important to people and is often seen as equal to monetary rewards. We also host special awards events to thank the team.”

  • Make it personal

To retain existing talent, your team members need to be seen and heard. The office should be a safe space, where they can share ideas and thoughts without being worried about negative feedback, and where they can feel part of the organisation’s successes. “We have created a culture where wins, both big and small, are celebrated with sincere enthusiasm.  When we win new contracts, we email congratulations to everyone. We also have an active WhatsApp group where photos of successful projects are shared and celebrated, support is given when deadlines are looming, and advice is given when needed. And, a bell that is rung whenever a challenge is met, or someone succeeds at a task.”

  • Encourage growth

To encourage personal growth within the company, create opportunities for your staff to learn new skills. “As part of our growth plan, Tétris and its parent company, JLL, have numerous internal skills development programmes that we encourage staff members to enrol in. We also support employees who want to take external courses, if they are relevant to our industry.”

Growth also comes from learning from our mistakes, and employees need to feel safe enough to admit to these without fear. “Good leaders can be good taskmasters. Good leaders also encourage their team to own their mistakes by failing onward and upward. Perhaps most importantly of all, leaders understand the moment by knowing when to give advice, and when to roll up their sleeves to be part of the solution,” shares Nel.

  • Be flexible and adaptable

Change is a constant, so managers need to be able to adapt to lead their teams successfully. “Part of growing as a leader is learning to be humble enough to manage people how they need to be managed, not how you want to them to be managed. Rigid management styles no longer serve the current workforce, made up mostly of millennials, who prefer a teamwork approach versus authoritative management.”

  • Be empathetic

The pandemic negatively affected many of us in different ways, and leaders need to be sensitive to this fact as staff return to the workplace. A keen level of sensitivity will help when considering changes to policies and processes post COVID-19 and adapting to our new normal. “Spend time with your team to find out what works for them and what kind of workspace or company culture will enable them to perform at their best.”

Empathy shown not only internally, but also to the wider community, is the mark of a great leader, who is not only focused on the company’s own development, but all of South Africa. “Tétris is supporting and equipping a development (under 14) netball team from Randfontein at the South African Schools Netball Tournament. This is an important day in the netball calendar, and our aim is to create a wonderful experience for them.”

Nel’s tips for dealing with the demands of management? A good support system at home, and a great team behind you that can deal with work challenges when you are away getting much needed rest. “The biggest lesson I have learnt is that you have to manage yourself to manage people,” shares Nel. “And managing people well is vital to organisations in this time of change and uncertainty.”