Leading from Home

Leadership for a new virtual world

I have always thought leading people to be one of the most challenging things an organisation asks anyone to do. People are a complicated, illogical, unpredictable, ever-changing, bundle of drives and emotions, and leaders are asked to bring 3, 7 or 17 of them together to deliver results. Add into that mix the dynamics between people in the team, and between any team and all the other parts of the organisation.

If you are a leader, your role is to get the best from each member of your team, and they are small parts of a large, complex and messy, open social system. And for the most part leaders do a pretty good job given all the plates they have to juggle.

Except that now it’s just got a whole lot harder.

Now you aren’t in the office, or the store or the factory with them; you are on the end of a phone, or behind a screen or you tapping at your phone sending group WhatsApp messages.

Over the past couple of weeks as lockdowns have rolled into place across the world I have noticed tons of advice about working from home.

Most have it has been useful and valid and I also noticed a void to assist leaders who are trying to lead from home.

Here are my thoughts.

Be honest.
Show vulnerability.
Be trusting.

Think for a moment about how often should you connect with your people now.

Double it. Maybe even more.

In crises which are totally new and unpredictable everyone is concerned, destabilised, and maybe even scared. They have personal matters to deal with; children, elderly or sick friends and relatives, getting food etc. So for them its not ‘business as usual’, and its not for you either.

First of all, your team members are people first and employees second. They always have been but at this moment in time you really need to treat them that way.

Share your own thoughts, feelings and vulnerabilities person to person, be honest with them about what is in your head and heart. Role model a deeper way of sharing and encourage them to do so too. Everyone is in this together and your team are looking to you to set the tone and lead them through this together.

You will have to trust people. And I mean everyone in the team. Even the ones you had doubts about before. It’s likely that you prefer your team to be close by as its easier for all kinds of reasons. However it’s not possible now and these circumstances will test your belief.

  • Allow people to work out what’s going to work for them; to find their own working rhythm, how to connect and when. It might not be 8 till 5 like it used to be. You need to be flexible in this, and a million other small things, to show trust.
  • Build in one-on-one ‘connect calls’ with all your team members to chat about how they are and how you are; not about tasks or deliverables, without any agenda or outcomes in mind. Just connect.
  • Schedule a daily virtual ‘coffee corner’ with your team; to just chat and talk nonsense like you did sometimes in the office

Connect yourselves. Optimise routines. Organise workflow.

This means being flexible, trying things and changing them quickly if they aren’t working and letting a new way of working emerge over time.

The first thing to do is to set out how the team will communicate, keep in touch, make decisions and pass information around. Remember, that tacit way of sharing information, meaning and opinion that happened in the workplace is gone. Your team won’t necessarily get how important it is – you need to replace it before it causes issues.

  • Set up recurring meetings, check-ins, chats in the diary – and encourage the team to do it with each other too. Keep them short. Make them regular. Then you won’t isolate each other.
  • Create a team charter or contract – You may have had one before. If so rewrite it, together. If not build one as soon as you can, together. Getting a set of agreements/commitments that people pledge to will support clarity and transparency, increase teamwork and reduce conflict. It also provides a guide to provide comfort through a changing and turbulent time.
  • Drop all meetings you don’t need and only invite critical people only. Online meetings are challenging with larger numbers involved. Provide outputs to those that historically attended ‘to stay in the loop’.
  • Use the technology you have to optimise and organise work. If you didn’t really use them before, learn how to as they will make a whole lot easier. On-line collaboration tools like Slack, Teams, Wrike or Asana will allow the team to see what work is going on, where their priorities are and give them purpose. Overall these tools when everyone is apart can build trust, assist productivity and encourage connection. They could be a leader’s best friend in the coming weeks!
  • Use tools from the agile world to keep momentum high and on-line time shorter – create project ‘sprints’, have a daily ‘virtual stand-up’ check in, form sub-teams of 2s or 3s to collaborate on work packages to deliver high quality outputs quickly.
  • Finally, and most importantly, if you describe yourself as hands-on or a bit of a ‘micro-manager’ then you have to let that go. Paint the big picture and allow individuals or small groups work out what to do and how to do it. You can support, you can provide input and guidance but hands-on can’t work from distance. It doesn’t stop you making people accountable either, but they do need space to adapt in the early days.

Use your Words

The main tool a leader has to achieve things is what they say and how they say it; the power of their voice. Speaking up, motivating, delegating, coaching, giving direction all have words at their core.

Except things are different now. Making your words count really counts now.

You aren’t close to your team, they aren’t even in the same building or room; they can’t see your whole body, they can’t feel the emotion or energy as deeply, and they are likely to hear less from you. So making those moments you are connected to your team really matter, and thinking about what you say and how you say it is important. Not in a contrived way but in a thoughtful, natural way.

  • Use video calls as your default way of staying in touch. People like to ‘read’ others’ faces and have real time interaction. It makes them feel less psychologically distant than an email or a WhatsApp message.
  • Use words that include and are inclusive. Use more words like ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘together’, ‘everyone’, etc. It may seem trivial but people do pick up on it subconsciously. People are at their roots ‘tribal’ and social – when they are alone they want to feel part of something more than ever.
  • Change how you speak. Ask more questions, invite people to give their opinions and input, listen to what they say and also what’s ‘in between the ‘lines’. Many leaders when they are in new territory turn the other way; they think that what is needed is decisiveness, strength and that people want to be led from the front. Yes, and no! If people are in immediate peril they look for guidance or direction, and if a leader can provide it then they should. Then they also want to feel closeness, that they are safe, that people care about them and that their situation is being acknowledged. Fundamentally your team will want to feel better about themselves and being involved and included does that. You need to be caring and inclusive.
  • Just be in touch more. Everyone needs it. Including you.

Test & Learn

Most of us have worked from home from time to time. Some of us have done it regularly. And the smart money is on it staying around after the crisis subsides. Employees might prefer it; the flexibility, reduced commuting time, lower travel costs, more family time, being home to feed the dog, let the plumber in, etc. And they also get more work done!

So post-lockdown leading people will not be like it is now. Use this time as a ‘testing ground’.

  • Get on board with learning the necessary new skills, and set your team the same challenge; technical skills to get the most out of the tools, how to carry out operational processes from afar and new interpersonal skills and behaviours to lead and interact virtually.
  • Consider using a coach to help you think through the transformation required; what leadership approaches and skills you need to refine, change, stop or learn.
  • Consider how you are going to create a stable environment for your team; one that is based on trust, care and connection. Not just for your team now in this crisis, but for every team you lead from now on.
  • Set up a way of giving feedback to each other in the team: this isn’t to criticise or to get things right, but to support each other in changing and picking up new habits and skills. Then everyone can adapt and the team can be successful.

A Leadership Watershed?

It appears as though we are quickly entering what may come to be known as Work 5.0 – a different way of working brought on by a viral pandemic. It came out of nowhere but will leave a mark everywhere in our society.

For leaders you have a golden opportunity to co-create a blueprint for this new world of work that you can test without challenge. Treat the current situation as if it is a learning problem and set yourself and the team the challenge, “How are we going to learn how to work with excellence given the parameters and resources we have now?”

The times ahead might be challenging, are certainly filled with anxiety and uncertainty, and it will bring the worst out of some and hopefully the best out of most of us. However in any change or crisis that happened in the past opportunities emerged and this is one of them. An opportunity for leaders to behave with more humanity, greater connectedness and trust.

To really care about people in an inclusive and equal manner that shows the best of you and brings the best of your team.

It’s a personal opportunity to disrupt yourself; to discover how you want to lead people post lockdown. Don’t miss it.

Phil Isle

Berater, Trainer, Coach und Assessor.

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