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Individuality breeds ingenuity, so why not be yourself?

Individuality breeds ingenuity, so why not be yourself?

Remote working has brought its own pressures on workers

When we encounter extreme circumstances, we search for hyperbole. It is difficult to express just how different 2020 is to most of us when compared with any other year of our lives. Remote working, while a utopia for some, has left others struggling to adapt. With a recent report from Cisco finding that organisations saw an average of 4.7x more employees working remotely than pre-pandemic, team leaders around the world have had their work cut out for them — encouraging, reassuring, motivating… but without seeing and physically interacting with people.

This remote experience has brought its own pressures. Business continuity, or lack thereof, ripples across national and regional economies. Now operating from afar, business leaders must find ways to maintain productivity through inspiring a positive collective spirit. Any dip in mood could become a contagion in a group, so managers need to meet the challenge of buoying attitudes daily. Instilling the importance of a growth mindset is vital in this respect — embracing constructive feedback; trying new things and learning from failures. Working on this as individuals will collectively help the whole team.

The professional version of ourselves

According to a July survey from Robert Half, 80 per cent of United Arab Emirates (UAE) employees said they would prefer to work from home, post Covid-19, citing savings in time and money, and productivity gains. This expected prevalence of remote working has implications for globally dispersed teams. It’s important to understand that the isolation of remote working can change employees’ motivations, their approach to work and their enthusiasm. Some might be more comfortable in a traditional office setting; others might prefer their home. Adjusting to these shifts will be vital when trying to keep morale high.

It is here where we might be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s advice to “be yourself; everyone else is already taken”. But for many of us, in the workplace, it is never that simple. Even before the pandemic hit, we would each have a professional version of ourselves that we would bring out in the office and stow on the homeward commute.

An American Psychologist indicates that it’s natural for us to change our personality for the professional environment, mostly to meet the expectations of others. “Acting” professionally seems to be a widespread practice that has cemented itself as the obvious thing to do. It has almost become a culture of its own, and its benefits are questionable. First, it requires effort — which means it is an active stressor, in and of itself — and second, it prevents open dialogue, which may mean missed opportunities.

Serve to lead
Leaders across the Middle East, especially those who are responsible for expat-heavy teams, are keenly aware of how background and culture shape discussions and approaches in the workplace.

Catering to the unique nature of the human approach may sound exhausting, but building that utopia of optimal talent-retention rates, and workers that are happy and productive, requires acceptance of a simple fact — everyone is an individual, except in their desire to be treated as an individual.

Leaders must grasp this point and strive to assimilate it into their management style. Listen and learn. Take an interest in each team member. In the remote-working world, video conferencing offers a more personal window into participants’ home lives. Ask questions and take mental notes. Set aside time for regular face-to-face sessions and seek outside help and training if necessary, to get a better handle on what makes your people tick.

Preserve your flexibility and be ready to set an example for your team. I have a mantra from my days in military service: “Serve to lead.” You should never expect someone to do something you would not do. Be clear about what you stand for and deliver on it. Highlight your expectations but ensure that you leave it open to others as to how these goals are achieved.

In the context of achieving those goals, and maintaining competitive levels of productivity, leaders should not be afraid to show their humanity. Strife is more easily faced and overcome by a team that understands that everyone is concerned, everyone knows what is at stake, and everyone is there for each other.

Many viewpoints, many ideas
In one respect Wilde was right; if managers show their human side, then it encourages others to (within limits) drop their “professional version” façade. This alleviates stress in the individuals and makes the team gel that much more effectively. In the Arab Gulf, we often see teams where no two individuals are from the same country. If the leaders of such teams were able to unlock the unique perspective within each member, think of the innovation that could result. This has long been the secret of success for nations such as the UAE — many viewpoints, many ideas. The result is ingenuity at scale.

It will prove extremely important to grasp these concepts as we continue to work remotely. Some of us may have already seen the shifts in team dynamics brought about by the remote-working model. Leaders who pay attention should be able to harness these changes for the benefit of the team, the enterprise, and the wider economy.

James Petter is vice president international at Pure Storage

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