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How to be more human in the digital era: A guide for leaders

Jenny Browne, our Strategy Director, explores what it takes to lead in today’s world.

It’s no surprise that 2024 is set to be a turbulent one. We’re only a few weeks in, and business leaders are already under mounting pressure.    

This year’s top business challenges are inflation and economic downturn, closely followed by changing customer expectations, and embracing change and transformation. 

There’s no doubt that change and transformation is a result of the first two factors, but this creates another challenge: change fatigue. Since 2016, the volume of business change has increased from an annual average of two changes, to a head-spinning 10. In response, there’s been a decrease in employee willingness to support change. The result? A serious case of change fatigue, which can negatively impact health and wellbeing.  

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According to Gallup, the workplace in 2023 wasn’t a happy place – and it’s still not. Global workplace stress remains at an all-time high: 60% of employees said they feel emotionally detached from work, and 38% said their experience is all-day stress. 

Despite the promise generative AI holds in making our working lives easier, it’s causing some employees to worry about job security. Upskilling in this space is something all businesses need to address – including understanding AI’s limitations and where human creativity plays a role.  

So, with so much instability at play, how can leaders better support the changing needs of their workplaces? Here’s six from Six:  

1. Practice emotional intelligence

If you can lead with empathy and understand and manage your own emotions, you’re far more likely to foster a positive team dynamic, promote collaboration, and be able to navigate complex interpersonal relationships. 

Being more self-aware is a great starting point. Take time to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader. It will help you make better decisions, delegate tasks, and cultivate a more positive culture.  

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2. Build trust 

Trust plays a crucial role in company culture, employee happiness, and ultimately, your bottom line. Since the pandemic, trust has significantly declined, with Gallup finding only 23% of employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organisation. So, how can you build trust?  

Neuroscience has some answers. Neuroscientist Paul J. Zak found that certain behaviours can stimulate the release of oxytocin – a hormone that facilitates collaboration and teamwork, and builds trust.   
Here are some proven and effective ways to get started:  

  • Recognise excellence in your team 
  • Induce ‘challenge stress’ (an achievable but challenging task) 
  • Give people freedom to choose how they want to work  
  • Enable job crafting 
  • Be honest and transparent  
  • Communicate effectively 
  • Show colleagues that you care  
  • Embrace a growth mindset 
  • Show some vulnerability.  

3. Support and empower management 

Managers are a key influence when it comes to company culture and driving change. But the job of a manager has never been more difficult – and they’re feeling the squeeze. Gallup found that, in 2023, managers were more likely than non-managers to be disengaged, burnt out and job hunting. This is bad news. These feelings are likely to have a ripple effect across their team. Managers can also often feel pressure from both sides – caught between aligning with leaders’ directives and supporting employees.  

To make matters worse, they’re not getting the training they need – the CMI found that 82% of new managers have no formal training. So, it’s clear that managers need more support, as well as training, from leadership to empower them to fulfill their critical roles.  

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4. Lead for hybrid working

Hybrid and flexible working is now a norm. In fact, 90% [1] of workers don’t want to go back to old ways of working. But a weak economy is making senior leaders anxious, with 2/3 CEO’s wanting employees to return to the office 5 days a week by 2028. [2] However, in reality, to attract and retain top talent, businesses need to find a hybrid strategy that works. Plus, hybrid working is good for business – Gallup found that hybrid employees have higher engagement, better overall wellbeing and a lower risk of turnover.  

But, like everything, hybrid working has its drawbacks. Most significantly, employees can feel less connected to company culture. To create a hybrid culture that works, we need to upskill our leaders so that they can promote connection and collaboration wherever their colleagues are based.   

5. Understand and embrace changing demographics  

In the UK, populations are aging, fertility rates are declining, and immigration and migration is increasing. As more organisations accept the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce, age, race, gender, and education are no longer such a barrier to progression.  

These shifts mean that traditional ideas of who employees are, are changing. That means that, for some, the number of employees with out-of-work pressures is increasing. For example, those who need to balance work life with caring for dependents.  

Historically, population growth has been a key driver of labour supply. But this trend is reversing. The UK workforce had shrunk by around 177,000 [3] people since the pre-pandemic peak. These demographic shifts clearly add up to a seismic challenge that requires government intervention.  

But, in the meantime, what can leaders do to help fill the labour supply gap? A lot of it connects to the other points in this article – support health and wellbeing, enable flexible working, boost training, promote D&I in the workforce. But, in addition to these areas, leaders need to advocate for progressive workplace policies that support employees throughout their lifetime – from day one to retirement.  

One area in desperate need of attention is fertility policies. One in six [4] people worldwide are experiencing fertility issues. Yet only 27% [3] of employers have a fertility treatment policy. It impacts job searchers, with 83.2% [4] of people saying that fertility support or a fertility policy was very important when considering a new job. And it influences churn too, with 38.8% [4] saying they’re considering leaving their jobs because of fertility treatment.  

As both a key driver of future labour supply and recruitment and retention, businesses that are fertility-friendly and support people with having children and returning to work will reap the long-term benefits.  

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6. Continue lifelong learning

If there’s one certainty, it’s that the world is changing faster than ever before. And so, everyone has a responsibility to keep learning, especially leaders. Building the tech-savviness of all leaders will become even more important in an increasingly digital world. Forbes suggest four key reasons for this are: accelerated digital transformation, data-driven decision making at scale, integration of emerging technologies and advanced automation of AI integration.  

As a leader, you play a key role in preparing the workforce for these shifts. And that’s where learning the ‘human’ skills becomes important, e.g. empathy, vulnerability, self-awareness.  

Leaders who adopt a growth mindset and lead by example, viewing challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, instead of threats, make them and their teams more productive. It builds psychological safety (trust) by making employees feel nurtured and more fulfilled, and in turn improves employee happiness. Unsurprisingly, this also has a positive impact on the bottom line. DDI found that companies that don’t invest in leadership development are linked to the poorest financial performance.

In essence, let’s be more human

As we continue to navigate the ever-changing world of work, leadership must remain adaptive.  

By practicing emotional intelligence, intentionally building trust, supporting and empowering management, understanding and embracing changing demographics in the workplace and being a lifelong learner, these behaviours together lay the foundations for forward-thinking leaders who are equipped to thrive in 2024!  

If you’d like to talk more about how you can make an impact in your business, get in touch. 


[1] Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report 2023  

[2] KPMG CE Outlook Survey 2023 

[3] CIPD, Workplace support for employees experiencing fertility challenges, investigations or treatment report

[4] Fertifa and Fertility Network UK report, 2021


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