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7 min read - August 25, 2022

To have adaptable organisations, leaders need to be adaptive

Where organisations want to benefit from worker adaptability, they need to align their environment to enable and support adaptability.

Hybrid work, flexible hours, the acceleration of automation, worker and talent shortages, and the Great Resignation - The past few years and 2022 in particular have continually demonstrated to us that a complex, ever-changing professional world and a blistering pace of change has truly become our “new normal”.  

As part of that change, we are expecting more from our people – wanting them to demonstrate adaptability and flexibility in the face of change, to keep pace with an increasing cadence for delivery, and to remain professionally competitive in an increasingly tight labour market.

We’re expecting people to be perpetually ready for change and productive during and post-change. Rather than reacting to challenges as they come up, we want them to proactively adopt a mindset that allows them to be prepared when change arrives and be ready to act upon new opportunities as they present themselves. It does make sense, from a business continuity and performance perspective.

Research continually demonstrates that adaptability, or being able to adjust your thoughts and behaviours in order to effectively respond to change, is one of the most critical success factors when it comes to coping with periods of growth and transformation; but it’s more than adaptability that employers are looking for to ensure their people can adjust and flex in response to emerging demands. It’s an adaptive or growth mindset, its productive engagement, it’s confidence in the organisation’s strategy, offerings and team, and it’s a continued sense of motivation and desire to perform, even in the face of uncertainty.


Flexibility and freedom are key in a changing labour market

We’re asking a lot of our people in this period of rapid change, so what are leaders and organisations in New Zealand expecting of themselves and then offering their people in return?

As an example, LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report highlights that employees are looking for, and are expecting, more freedom to work where, when, and how they want – and they’re more willing to look elsewhere if their organisation isn’t providing it. In a context where employers are demanding flexibility from their people, 63% of respondents selected Work Life Balance as a top priority when considering a new role. When employees are satisfied with their companys’ time and location flexibility, they are 2.6x more likely to report being happy working at their company, and 2.1x more likely to recommend the company to others.

Similarly, Hassell’s 2022 Workplace Futures Survey found that people who are required to work full-time in the office are twice as likely to resign as those offered more flexible working arrangements. The value of a flexibility proposition for employees becomes even more relevant when considering NZ’s tight labour market and the competition for talent – our unemployment rate currently sits at 3.3%, with an employment rate of 68.5%, indicating a significant shift in the balance of power within our labour market. With fierce competition between employers to fill vacant positions and grow headcount, employees are aware of their bargaining power, and businesses need to strengthen their approaches to meet new and existing talent where their expectations are.


Company culture vs. a “Face time” culture

The argument against flexible working is often the preservation of company culture, or ensuring the accessibility of internal resource. According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index report, however, “our lived experience of hybrid work over the past two years has left a lasting imprint, fundamentally changing how we define the role of work in our lives”. The inverse of flexibility, such as requiring a classic 9-to-5 work week, or the preservation of a “face-time” culture (where people need to be visible in the office in order to feel like work is advancing) holds less value or usefulness, in our changing and increasingly digital economy.

For companies to attract, retain, and grow the talent that will bring them sustained success, Microsoft’s report in particular reveals a real responsibility for leaders to approach this transition towards flexibility “with intention and a growth mindset, or risk being left behind”. Organisations will need to fine-tune — or even overhaul — their culture to meet the expectations of talent to be seen as human beings first. So flexible working needs to be developed in addition to new ways of building a connected culture and ensuring accessibility of internal resource. It doesn’t need to be an either-or approach.

It's not just about flexible working arrangements, however. If an organisation is going to be expecting their people to demonstrate adaptability, an organisation and its leaders need to align the strategy, infrastructure and leadership styles with the expectations on employees. This needs to be part of the organisational DNA, and role modelled from the top. Real conversations about what an organisation values and how they measure success is critical, and the output incorporated into policies, practices and leadership training. Many times, a team manager can get caught in the middle, between an organisation’s strategic desire to support adaptability, and outdated practices that restrict their ability to actually make decisions that accommodate and support adaptability.

In addition, recognising that change inevitably exists is not the same as dealing with it effectively. Even though organisations rise or fall based largely on their ability to react to, manage, control, and introduce change; many people in leadership or managerial positions often have little or no understanding of, or training in, navigating the process of change or leading in a changing environment and therefore offer little to their team from understanding and growing their Adaptability Quotient (AQ) or developing the resilience of their teams.


The role of leaders in demonstrating adaptability

A Leaders or Managers role isn’t always easy. In fact, Leaders themselves have spent the past two years facing significant amounts of increasing pressure, navigating themselves, their people and their organisations through unprecedent levels of uncertainty. They’ve been the glue holding workplaces and workforces together. In AUT’s Wellbeing@Work study, Managers were found to be at 235.5% higher risk of burnout, were more likely to have high work demands, and use smart devices after-hours. It’s easy to see, therefore, why leaders might see the promotion of a “back-to-the-office” mentality as an obvious solution, perhaps due to a desire to regain some semblance of normality and/or control.

In saying that, you can’t have an adaptable team and the benefits that come with that, without first being a flexible Leader. If Leaders don’t consider their own adaptability, new initiatives can be stifled before they’re given a chance. If leaders want their people to demonstrate greater adaptability, they will need to work on transforming their own relationship with change and uncertainty – to view adaptability as an essential human skill that needs to be acquired and enhanced through practice, repetition, and education. Per LinkedIn’s report, organisations and leaders that are able to re-think constructs (such as traditional working arrangements) that have been in place for the last century and reimagine where, when, and how work gets done will have a decided edge on those that can’t.

This continues to be topical, so over upcoming weeks, we intend to share insights into balancing flexible working with organisational culture, changing productivity conversations for remote/hybrid workforces, and building Leadership AQ.

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