Over the past few weeks, I have been struck by the stark awareness that we are living history. Right here and right now.
Leaders and innovators that we read about in history books have had seemingly insurmountable challenges that they have had to overcome. Now it’s our opportunity to use the tools we have to lead our people through this crisis and to make history ourselves.
We are more uniquely suited than any other time period to handle extended periods of isolation.
We are at the forefront of technology and have numerous tools at our disposal to help us stay working and connect with others. What would those leaders and innovators of history have been able to do with our modern tools?
Can you imagine what Nicola Tesla may have been able to accomplish with Slack?
Or Ghandhi with Zoom?
Still, even with these tools, the enforced and abrupt nature of the transition from an office to a home environment could leave some struggling to get accustomed to the change.
The fact is that no matter what time period we are living in, leadership isn’t natural. Working remotely adds a new dynamic on top of that. The most effective personal leadership is exercised within the direct view of the leader. What then, does the rise of technologies that allow personal leadership from a distance mean for our ability to lead? You can’t just send people home with their laptops and expect that they’re going to be immediately productive, accountable and happy. Research shows that if remote work isn’t handled correctly, people will lose productivity and suffer isolation and anxiety.
Bloom says there are two types of working from home: short-term or occasional work from home (WFH), and permanent or full-time WFH. “It is kind of like comparing light exercise to marathon training,” he says.
Leading a team at a distance is first and foremost about leadership, and the principles of leadership haven’t changed- they are principles. What has changed is that people are working in different places and perhaps at different times. Given those changes, how we apply the timeless principles of leadership in this new world matters a great deal - for the team’s members working at a distance, for you as their leader, and for the organization that you all serve.
And what are these timeless principles? And how do we implement these principles in today’s world?
Be crystal clear about what your expectations are.
Without face-to-face interactions, it can be easy for assumptions to be made. This can lead to people being unsure of what they are supposed to be doing or to do work over again if it isn’t in line with expectations.
To combat this and provide more clarity, our team has a conference call at the beginning and end of the week. This gets us all on the same page at the beginning of the week to understand what we’re all working on, sets expectations, and ask questions to provide additional clarity. At the end of the week, we can check in on each other and see how we did on our goals.
Once your team knows what’s expected of them, trust your team to do what they said they would do.
It’s understandable to worry about what your employees are doing all day. They show as “busy” when you go to reach out to them. Does that mean they are heads down working on their weekly report for a couple of hours? Or are they folding laundry, watching Netflix, or perfecting their sourdough bread recipe instead?
Have empathy with your employees and understand that their schedule may look different than a 9-5. As long as there is clarity going both ways and expectations are set, let them do what they said they would do and be creative with it. We have staff that are caregiving and work late into the night so that they can care for their families during the day. They don’t have traditional schedules but have been extremely effective and productive during this time.
Maintain a relationship with your employees and check in to understand what they might need during this time.
If someone is down the hall and sees you sitting at your desk, they will reach out if they have a question. If the person is working from home and you are the boss, they know you are busy and don’t want to interrupt you, so they are hesitant to reach out. Or if they do ask a question, it is very transactional. How many times have you said on the phone or text “I know you are busy; I will keep this short”? If all the interactions are like this, there will be no coaching, no depth of conversation, no chance for team members to engage.
It’s important to make time for real check-ins and see how your team is really doing. Our team has 1-on-1s where we get to know each other on a personal level and how we’re coping. We also schedule fun virtual happy hours and game nights so that we can still maintain that connection. This isn’t a distraction from the “real work”, it helps us to understand how we’re doing so we can truly engage and support each other.
Understand what your team needs and distribute your time to them based on those needs.
Not every worker needs the same thing during this time. One person may want a lot of check-ins, while another one may need to just be left alone to accomplish their big projects. Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. Once you have provided that clarity and autonomy and developed a relationship with your direct reports, you will be able to develop an understanding of what they need from you while you are leading from a distance.
We aren’t the first to experience leadership hurdles, and we certainly won’t be the last. Creating a space where our teams are free to innovate and create during this time will help set our world and our organizations up for success in the years to come.