Leading in a New Environment: Adapting to a Quarantined Workplace with Technology at the Forefront

by Katie Pries, President & CEO of The Northern Trust Company Canada
Aug 28, 2020 1:30 PM ET

2020 has presented a whirlwind of unforeseen hurdles and environmental changes that not even the most technologically advanced businesses could have prepared for, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its impact spans globally, altering the way many teams operate and will leave a new normal in its wake.


Prior to the shift to remote work due to the pandemic, only 10% Canadian employees worked from home regularly.1 In May 2020, 40% of Canadian workers were working remotely.2 That number will likely remain high in the future as businesses keep many of their employees home at first out of caution, and later to continue realising the cost and efficiency gains that remote work provides. In fact, Statistics Canada found that nearly 25% of businesses expect 10% or more of their workforce will continue to telework or work remotely post-pandemic.3

With remote work serving as the norm until further notice, business leaders won’t be able to lead in the ways they’re accustomed to. Hiring and retaining an engaged remote workforce will require a shift in leadership strategy.

Expand Your Digital Toolkit
While the shift to remote work may be favoured by many due to a more flexible schedule, and no commute, among other reasons, it brings about technological challenges for businesses that may not have been addressed before.

Driving adoption of virtual collaboration tools can help maintain a high level of productivity among teams as well as a sense of “togetherness.” Just because your team is not physically in the office does not mean collaboration should falter. Video conferencing tools have allowed relationships amongst colleagues and clients to remain productive. When the sense of distance is removed, relationships and communication improve – in fact, 62% of executives agree that video conferencing significantly improves communication over audioconferencing.

Quickly turning your phone call or email chain into a video conference is a simple way to improve relationships in the remote workplace. However, some employees may need further training on how to optimally use video tools for collaborative business purposes. Helpful resources do exist, and leaders should empower their employees with these resources to improve their tech-powered workplace communications to up their video presence. 

Some resources that may be worth exploring include mandatory virtual training meetings led by IT teams, pre-recorded learning and development videos (such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, or internally produced videos), and PDF technology learning guides that employees can easily refer back to when they need a refresher.

Engage Employees
Using technology to improve communication and employee relationships is important for keeping employees engaged in a virtual environment, but it’s also critical that leadership keep an open line of communication as plans to return to the office evolve. While these decisions are made by high-level management, leaders should gather employees’ thoughts and concerns on returning to work. It’s important to remember that employees face all kind of hardships that could make return to office personally challenging, such as lack of child care, lack of elder care, or immunodeficiency disorders. Even though it is near impossible to predict the course of the pandemic, keeping an open line of communication concerning tentative timelines and options for returning is important and may ease anxiety for those wary of going back.  

A common practice currently employed by many leadership teams is to survey employees on an ongoing basis to gauge their expectations and concerns about returning to the office. Many of us have had to adjust various aspects of our daily lives while transitioning to working from home. Going back to “normal” will require yet another transition. It is difficult to determine if the in-person workplace will ever be the same, or if we’ll ever reach 100% in-office rates again. Technological advances have allowed many of us to perform remote work just as effectively as we did in the office. One thing is for certain – working from home will become more normalised in the coming years thanks to our successful reliance on it during this time. 

In this new virtual workplace, it is required to expand your management toolkit. While it is important to measure the output and quality of work by your employees working from home, it is also prudent to consider how employees are faring in this new world of work.

Evolve the Hiring Mindset
Unsurprisingly, many companies have frozen hiring efforts or even downsized their workforce due to the economic impact of COVID-19. However, certain jobs remain essential and positions must be filled. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the importance of seeking out talent for both their technical skills and adaptability. At Northern Trust, we look for candidates who thrive under unusual circumstances because we find they are motivated, resourceful, and willing to embrace technology.

In order to find such talent and bring them aboard, organizations will have to embrace virtual hiring and onboarding processes. Even before the pandemic, virtual interviews were a common part of the hiring process, but applicants could still count on an inperson meeting at some point in the process. Unfortunately, in-person interviews now raise safety concerns and have been eliminated from many organizations’ hiring processes. But starting a new job remotely can be intimidating and cause feelings of disconnect and disengagement for the new employee. If organizations hope to retain new, remotely hired employees, they will have to invest the proper resources to build reliable team communication.

Training and talent retention also become more challenging as a result of the pandemic. Virtual trainings and company-wide updates are now common thanks to advances in technology, but this requires an established platform to house all trainings, something that not all companies have invested in yet. Maintaining a learning and development platform is a costly and time-consuming process which requires the attention of a dedicated learning and development leader, if not an entire specialised team. 

The impact of such a drastically changed work environment requires in-depth modifications to how workplace leaders lead. When the immediate pandemic response dies down and we move forward into a post-COVID world, some workplaces will make remote work a more common option to reap the benefits of lowered overhead costs, with employees who work from home doing so out of choice rather than out of necessity. But organizations should only open up this option if they’re prepared to invest in the needed technology and enhancements to retain and engage employees in a new kind of work environment. Remote work may be the future, but just as in our pre-pandemic world, employee engagement must be prioritized.

1. Statistics Canada, Running the economy remotely: Potential for working from home during and after COVID-19, May 28 2020
2. Statistics Canada, Canadian Survey on Business Conditions: Impact of COVID-19 on businesses in Canada, July 7 2020
3. ibid
4. Forbes, 5 Reasons Why Your Company Needs to Embrace Video Conferencing Now, October 30 2017