Managing While Virtual: Leadership, Being Human, and Remote Performance Management
The last time I regularly worked from home was from 2015-2017. Working from home (WFH) full-time was rare but the circumstances were business as usual back then. Fast forward to today, most of us have started WFH en masse with virtually no notice. We presently face profound economic, political, medical and social complexities; the long-term nature of the COVID-19 crisis and further erosion of the lines between our professional and personal selves take us far from business as usual. Virtual meetings are the norm, while we practice physical distancing and attempt to maintain social connection. No one is experienced in these circumstances.
As a leader, and as a team member, what do you need to know to continue to thrive while working from home? What if we are still doing this in 6 months? How can I best help my team? How do I know my people are actually working? This article provides an excerpt of a WFH Best Practices presentation briefed across Independent Project Analysis (IPA) last month. These Best Practices are also relevant to the industries we support.
Leadership in a crisis often means people lean more heavily on the strong, the individuals who can take the extra load and are able to step forward into the stress and anxiety that come with a crisis. However, as leaders, you will need to take time to understand who is best at withstanding this unprecedented situation. Those with business-as-usual strengths may now need extra support to carry out their work assignments from home; they also may be highly uncomfortable with today’s levels of complexity and uncertainty. Position and rank will not necessarily matter. Be open to new contenders displaying strength, connection, innovation, and calm. Also, periodically ask the strong if they are doing okay—they will have off days too.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all currently remaking our personal, business, and company norms. The shape of the world is changing (perhaps permanently) and, to develop the frame of the new world both strategically and creatively, it is paramount to create future stability. The ability to provide the right focus (continuously, day in and day out, without stagnation) for your business and your team, in a calm and productive way, is critical to being an effective leader in the days and months ahead.
Ultimately, leadership during a crisis means being an exceptional leader of people. Take action to help your team feel valued, to build an environment of trust and good judgement, to assist your team in problem solving, and to get to know them at a new level. Try new things to generate some banter and talk to your teams about how they want to stay in touch. With the threat of illness, real isolation, overwhelming and often unproductive media coverage, and only imaginary lines remaining between home and work, open discussion of the challenges and displays of warmth will be needed to get to the other side.
Being remote from your team means being more human and getting to know your team at a level you have never before. You will meet their dogs; you will see their child flash across your screen; and, on occasion, housemates and spouses will accidentally burst into the door behind your video call. Ask about the picture hanging behind them on the wall or ask about their dog; ask them not just what they did on the weekend, but rather how they coped with doing almost nothing on the weekend.
The Right Head Space
It is imperative to look after your own well-being; it is hard to be an effective leader in a time of crisis without a healthy state of mind. One way to stop thinking about your own problems is to focus on those of others. There is an opportunity, or even a need, to draw on your community. Check in on the vulnerable people in your life, on your street, and in your network. Be local—form a neighborhood WhatsApp, get your neighbor’s phone number, and reach out to a friend running their own business. (For instance, I shared with an acquaintance a template for landlord rental relief). If your current restrictions, the season, and your accommodations allow it, try to get outside daily. Get out in nature, sit in the sun, or take a lunch break with your housemates, which can even be a virtual meal or coffee if you live alone.
Try to think more long-term. Which problems will still be relevant in 12 months? Thinking this way does not remove today’s problems, but their importance can be reduced and the potential consequence neutralized. Understand that some of the near-term problems cannot be solved by you, they just have to play out. Consider the elements of your business that may be permanently changing and start the work to reposition the firm accordingly.
Lastly, take a break from media. The media hype is not healthy or helpful and can easily result in a downward mental spiral. Aim to minimize the time spent absorbing media and be selective regarding media content. Source fact-based media that you can check once or twice through the day. Also be aware of the messages your kids are receiving via the media.
Performance management is not so easy to implement. Staff can respond defensively when they are required to be transparent and close the loop or if they are asked to confirm and document agreed to actions and establish time frames, and then repeat. Implementing this cycle while WFH requires even more transparency and may appear more transactional without the in-person touches. Performance management might seem like micromanagement and, if implemented without awareness and compassion, it can seem so. The three key elements to effective performance management are: being output focused, understand your remote team, and communicate constantly.
- Focus on the output. To help your team maintain its focus on the required deliverables, be clearer and more explicit about what is required—what, when, and with who (be specific, use verbs). Be flexible and be aware that the traditional 9 to 5 work concept will not be possible while staff potentially juggle bored children at home, take care of elderly relatives, and even deal with a spouse who is at risk of losing (or has lost) their job. If a task is not delivered via remote work, the first question to answer is, “Did I, as the manager, set the task up correctly for success”?
- Take time to understand your team. We all work differently whether in the office or remotely. Encourage everyone to know themselves. Set up appropriate communication and team/peer/manager contact to suit the individual work style of each team member. I summarized the three work modes to give you a better idea:
- Social butterfly—If your team member is someone who quickly gets sick of their own company and loves going to work for the social and professional contact with others, an extended period away from the work place might be difficult. Introduce them to a wider network across the organization and encourage them to reach out so that their need for social connection is met.
- Work, work, work—If someone has to be dragged to the dinner table by their family, then they will need to devise limits for their work day. An extended period of working from home risks over-work, fatigue, and additional household stress. Arrange regular breaks (5 minutes every hour is suggested), and default to an understanding that you are trusted to manage your day to get your work done (not the opposite) to remove stress.
- Love a routine—If your staff prefer to receive their work instructions in real time and like transactional tasks within a set work process, WFH can be almost depressing. WFH planning for this team member will demand a higher level of detail and creativity to make them less uncomfortable. Work closely together to create a plan that has sufficient specificity to allow the team member to work within their typical comfort levels, and agree to the frequency and mode of communication (this could be several times per day) that support the required feedback loop.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Agree with your remote team how best to stay in touch and what their needs are, both individually and as a group. WhatsApp is a great tool to have group calls, see a friendly face, and get some team banter or problem solving going. IPA has found Microsoft Teams as being superior for group video calls, including outside contacts, partly because the platform levels the playing field to allow everyone an equal voice. Call your team more often to help the team members feel valued, productive, and engaged. Communicate more than once and more than one way as this can steady the ship.
Two final points for not just surviving what the World Economic Forum is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but thriving and emerging stronger with great new drive and ideas. Read. I have a stash of books in my home collection that I either have not finished or started—this past week my reading has included a book about a dog that went overboard and I am now reading a Vietnam War memoir. I am gradually (and not entirely willingly) slowing the pace of life a bit. I plan to read a mix of general interest, business and career development, and financial health books and shorten as much as possible the giant stack of books beside my bed. If you cannot #belocal with your nearby takeaway barista, make sure you have sufficient supplies of good coffee! So while we remake our norms and quickly adapt as leaders, take time to read and connect with community and with your team to build a mindset to thrive through the COVID-19 crisis.