Effective Leadership in the New Era of Work

By: Nora Sehunoe: Executive Head: Human Resource at Santam

A lot has changed in the business world over the past three years, the biggest trigger for the changes was of course the pandemic. It irrevocably altered the workplace and what it requires from its leaders.

The rapid adoption of technology and the introduction of remote/hybrid work models have impacted the way leaders engage with their teams, both from a practical perspective and on an emotional level.

The productivity versus wellbeing dichotomy

A big factor within the hybrid/remote working environment is finding the right balance between keeping productivity levels up while ensuring the wellbeing of your team.

On the one hand, you have employees that do well with working remotely – these self-disciplined workers are able to manage their time and workload effectively. In fact, their productivity often increases because they feel the need to prove they are working and producing results. But this constant “always on” pressure eventually begins to take its toll as other areas of their life are neglected, and they begin to suffer mentally – at which point productivity declines.

On the other hand, there are employees that struggle with the flexibility of working from home. They don’t have the ability to manage themselves effectively and need more input from teammates and leaders. With these employees, we typically see a dip in productivity.

According to the second Annual Mental State of the World Report 2021 from Sapien Labs, published in March 2022, South Africa ranks as one of the worst countries regarding mental health. From an HR perspective, we have seen that mental health continues to top the list of issues that employees are seeking assistance with via company employee wellness programmes.

Balancing the business need for productivity versus the employee need for overall wellbeing has probably been one of the biggest challenges from a leadership perspective.

Need for soft skills

The need to balance employee wellbeing with productivity has led to a greater need for soft skills within companies’ leadership ranks. Business leaders can no longer get away with only being technically strong. A high level of emotional intelligence (EQ) – both in terms of understanding their own emotions and how they impact others, as well as understanding their team members’ emotions and how they impact their behaviour – is now a critical requirement for leaders.

Leaders must be compassionate, transparent and visible whilst working remotely through increased communication. They must have a high level of EQ to manage different personality types and get the best out of them in a virtual environment. They must help team members navigate the intricacies of work/life balance so that the business, and its people, can move forward in the best possible way.

Leaders should not set out to drive productivity, they should start by creating a space where people want to be. When employees feel they are in a safe space and are valued, they show up stronger and give discretionary effort – when you give more than what is expected of you. Once you create that space and culture, productivity will naturally flow.

Women have what it takes

I believe that women are in a fortunate position because we naturally possess many of the soft skills –   empathy, patience and listening – required to navigate organisations and their workforce through this new environment.

Women in leadership positions should not try to emulate their male counterparts, but in fact, men can learn a lot from women. We sometimes get it wrong when we try show up the way men do, in a way that we perceive to be strong, commanding and powerful. But our strength as women, particularly now when the world is calling for a softer touch, is that most of us are natural nurturers.

Having a softer approach does not mean that you can’t demand a high level of productivity and strong work ethic, it simply means that you do it in a gentler way. 

It’s important for women leaders to show up as their true selves so that the young women coming up through the ranks can identify with them and visualise their own pathway to success.


And finally, leaders must be adaptable. There’s a great term for it: bounce-ability – it means having the ability to bounce back from challenges.What the past three years have taught us is that things can change in a heartbeat. Resiliency and agility are important traits for leaders who must make quick decisions and adapt to changing market conditions in real time. They must be visionary and have the foresight to accurately scenario plan for what may be coming around the corner, in order to lead their organisations forward sustainably.

Authenticity has never been more important; leaders must be authentic and vulnerable because it’s in one’s vulnerability that people see your strength.