Allianz SE Reinsurance: Leadership in the time of Covid

September 6 2021

Creating new spaces for personal interaction – the challenges of being a leader during a pandemic

By Holger Tewes-Kampelmann

Covid has changed the way we work. It has upended our daily routines, the way we hold meetings, the way we interact – and the way we lead. In many ways, switching to a remote work setting – more or less overnight – has accelerated what we had already been striving for, most obviously in the area of digitalization. And we are profiting greatly from this acceleration. I have found great benefits, for example, in holding meetings online – I find them more efficient in the way we use our time and in many cases, we are able to reach decisions quicker than before.

However, leadership is not only about efficiency and speed. Bringing together people to work with a common purpose requires far more than simplifying work flows and processes, or ensuring that the right IT equipment is available for everyone to do their job. Those are managerial tasks. And while being a good manager is important, being a good leader goes far beyond that.

For me, the secret of good leadership is understanding one another. In my own career, the leaders I have learned the most from are the ones I have enjoyed listening to, and who in turn patiently listened to me. In my own leadership journey, I have tried to emulate their actions and put listening on the top of my agenda when I deal with people.

In my experience, having an open and honest dialogue is how we build trust in one another, which in turn creates the foundation for producing great results together. But it is exactly this type of communication that has become far more difficult in times of remote working. This is where I believe we as leaders all need to step up our game.

Interestingly, a recent study by the Chartered Management Institute, a British professional body, found that nearly half of senior executives thought they were engaging employees more in decision-making since the pandemic, but only 27 percent of employees agreed. That gap in perception is where we as leaders need to improve. In my opinion, it even goes beyond decision making. All types of engagement have suffered during the pandemic. Strong relationships are the foundation of trust, and exactly how to build those relationships is the challenge all leaders face in a predominantly remote work setting.

At Allianz Re, we defined our own Leadership Principles a few years ago: “We collaborate closely”, “We foster a feedback culture”, “We encourage people to take opportunities”, and “We debate, decide and commit”. We phrased these principles to express the mutual respect that nurtures a constructive working culture. Now our challenge is to live up to these principles in a new work setting: How do we recreate the informal conversation and exchange that happens naturally when we are in an office? How do we build relationships when we can’t see each other face to face? How do we make room for feedback, for encouragement and for debate? How do we create a strong bond with our new joiners who have only had the virtual option of becoming part of our community?

Personal connection – a valuable commodity

Our predominately remote work setting means that direct personal contact is at a premium — even more than before we started working from our homes. What was once more or less a byproduct of sharing the same office space, is a now a highly valuable commodity: room for personal interaction. We need to readjust our internal price scale for what personal contact is really worth, and leaders need to do so more than anyone. It’s basic economics, really. Our personal time with our colleagues is now scarcer than before the pandemic, yet the demand remains the same or has even increased. Hence, the price has gone up. We need to embed this awareness into the way we lead in a virtual space.

At Allianz Re, we are fortunate to already have some experience working with a virtual community. For one, we have locations on three continents and hence many of us understand what it means to create a good relationship with colleagues whom we have never even met in person. In addition, many of our colleagues in the United States have been working remotely from home for years, and have practiced the art of connecting with teams across state lines and even time zones for quite some time.

The solution is to understand the value of personal time and create dedicated space for it if a quick walk by someone’s office or a chance meeting at the coffee station is out of the question. Our U.S. colleagues have done exactly this and found ways to ensure that they keep in touch despite the many miles between them. One example involves dedicated days, perhaps once a month, when the remote team meets up in person. Another option could be team video calls that are explicitly without a work agenda and are there as an opportunity to banter and chit chat.

We have also experienced that one of the threats of working from home is allowing our work life to bleed into our private life and slowly take over parts of our day where it wasn’t before. Similarly, it is enticing for leaders to rejoice in the newly found effectiveness of working from home and seeing their role from a pure KPI-driven and managerial perspective. Yes, meetings are more efficient, but what is the best way to invest the time gained? Yes, business travel is reduced drastically, but how do we nurture the relationship with associates and customers in other time zones? Yes, digitalization allows us all to work from any corner of the world, but how do we embrace new joiners into our communities and ensure we share our purpose and values with them, and also listen to their contributions and thereby further develop our company culture? If we do not succeed in understanding the value of creating space for personal connection, then the cost we will all pay is high, both on the productivity side with weaker processes and increased silo thinking, and more importantly on the personal side, from a drop in motivation all the way to serious mental health issues.

I invite all leaders to see leadership in a predominantly remote work set-up as an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to discover new ways to connect with the people we work with. An opportunity to learn what is important to the teams we lead, and find out what the glue is that keeps our organizations together. And finally, an opportunity to build new spaces for personal connection.

There is an old adage about a leader’s most important tool being his or her shoes: management by walking around, by checking in with people. Without the opportunity to walk the hallway and stop by peoples’ offices, we need to become a lot more creative in finding that connection.

As leaders, we need to step forward and be our company’s biggest ambassadors for creating that connection. Finding time for a personal dialogue needs to find a fixed place in our calendars. It has to be a non-negotiable item. We must pay it forward and encourage people to do the same in their networks and create space in our new virtual working environment for direct, personal interaction.

Digitalization is only one aspect of our new way of working together. The more we rely on new technology to ease our work life, the more we need to invest in old-school listening and talking to one another.

Holger Tewes-Kampelmann
Chief Executive Officer
Allianz SE Reinsurance

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