It is safe to say, that for the first time in the age of technology, ad hoc face-to-face meetings are no longer an option for many people. While we don’t anticipate in-person meetings to go away forever, working during the Covid-19 crisis does provide us with the opportunity to reflect on how the best leaders succeed in virtual environments.
For many, working from home, and communicating through digital mediums like Slack, Zoom, and WebEx, are nothing new. Many business models have supported virtual work for years as a necessity to accommodate employees and clients in various locations. Still, while technology has improved our ability to get work done and communicate remotely, we have not yet been forced to develop a set of best practices for leading remote teams at the capacity that has been brought on by this crisis.
My intent here is to challenge leaders to pause and identify what they need to do differently not only to sustain, but also to strengthen their skills in a virtual setting‚ particularly during a time when their teams are looking to them more than ever for direction.
First, it’s important to be aware of the factors that make working together virtually such a challenge:
- For some, it’s uncomfortable. Every day, I watch my teenagers laugh and chat with their friends on Facetime, as if they were just another person in the room. But for many of us adults, who didn’t grow up with that same technology, it can still be quite uncomfortable. This lack of comfort makes it harder for some to open up, connect, trust, and communicate with each other virtually. If you are a leader today, in a virtual setting, you may be struggling to display the same level of authenticity and provide your team with the same sense of safety as you did in person.
- Interpersonal dynamics are harder to manage. Both for technical reasons and because people are harder to read over video, the appropriate affect, tone, pacing, and facial expressions that we rely on for effective communication in person are more difficult to give and receive virtually, especially in group settings.
- You can easily lose people’s attention. It’s challenging enough to engage people in a face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings often come with a plethora of new distractions that you have little control over.
- New skills are required, from you. Whether it’s managing tech, maintaining strong facilitation skills, or rethinking agendas, virtual is different than in-person. Knowing that is half the battle.
With these factors as a backdrop, ask yourself five questions to ensure you are being the best leader you can be as you manage your team from home.
Am I being strategic enough?
Strong leaders practice strategic communications in every interaction, be it a full-day meeting, an hour-long meeting, a sales call, a one-on-one check-in, or even an email. But communicating virtually requires even more strategic planning because you can’t rely as much on human connection or charisma to carry you. Before every exchange, take time to think about your purpose, audience, and the context of the exchange. Then write down your objectives, agenda, and the amount of time you want to spend on each item.
It helps to make your objectives broader than usual. For example, what do you want the other person (or people) to feel after you talk? Challenge yourself to up the engagement quotient to make up for the deficit of face-to-face interaction. This means asking more questions during your interactions, checking in with team members to make sure you are aligned, and leaving extra time for those moments to take place during presentations or group meetings.
Have I revamped communication plans for my direct team and the organization at large?
Moving operations virtual means that it’s time to revisit and potentially revamp your communication protocols with direct reports, employees, board members, and any other audiences you regularly work with. For example, you must now think about how you will run your weekly check-ins with team members. Will you hold these meetings by phone, over slack, or schedule a video call? While best practice says video is best, you may need to adjust your approach based on the preferences of individual employees. The same goes for meetings with clients and other stakeholders.
Using a table in a word document or Google Sheet can help you create a comprehensive plan for different types of meetings. Create at least four columns, including one for each of the below items:
- Mode of communication (i.e. video, phone, slack)
- Meeting cadence (i.e. weekly, monthly)
- Meeting agenda (i.e. team building, check-ins)
- Meeting participants (i.e. managers, board members)
Fill out your table based on how you worked prior to moving virtual, then, revamp the entire plan to adjust to your current situation.
As you begin to “revamp,” challenge everything you considered “best practice” before, from the size of your meetings to the time allotted. Ask: Should a video call be used for all announcements or can I simply write a status report to update the team? Do I need to schedule more check-ins with my direct reports to make up for the lack of being in person? Does that meeting that took an hour in the office need to last the full 60 minutes online? Should each communication be followed by a detailed email summary to keep everyone on the same page?
Looking at the entire plan will allow you to optimize it.
How might I reset roles and responsibilities to help people to succeed?
Some people thrive while working remotely, while others may feel a lack of motivation or encounter other unforeseen challenges. Though it may not be apparent who is struggling at first, as a leader, it’s your job to check in regularly with team members about how they are coping. During your one-on-ones, ask: “How are things going for you? What challenges are you facing? What do you think you need to be successful? How can I, or the team, help?”
Through these discussions, re-evaluate each person’s strengths and weaknesses. You may find that you need to shift responsibilities around or invest in training sessions for those who feel less comfortable. For example, one of your team members might excel at running meetings in-person, but lack either the technical or facilitation skills to run them remotely. Or you may find that you have an individual who participates actively during in-person meetings, but not as actively in virtual meetings.
Because change — like shifting a role and taking on new work — can bring up sensitivities in people, it’s important to frame any suggestions you make as opportunities for growth. By diagnosing your direct report’s strongest and weakest points, placing them where they can succeed, and providing them with guidance when they are struggling, you will not only help your team be more productive, you will be helping your employees develop. In these conversations, also be sure to ask for their feedback and thoughts with respect to how the team can improve. Remember that respect, authenticity, and caring are foundational to strong leadership.
Am I keeping my eye on (and communicating about) the big picture?
When you’re working remotely, it’s easy to focus solely on the tactical, to stay glued to your computer, fielding email after email, in an earnest, unorganized fashion. With your to-do list looming in front of you, and no colleagues to pull you out of your head, you may be tempted to stay buried in the weeds. But people rely on leaders for direction, especially during uncertain times. This means, no matter how many small tasks are clogging your calendar, you need to be able to pick your head up and keep one eye on the bigger picture.
Be sure to carve out time to work “on” the business (strategy), as opposed to working “in” the business (operations). Do this by blocking off time on your personal calendar to think about strategy. Or, if your thoughts are clear, schedule a strategy session with your team. Use this time to revisit fundamental questions about the business and organization, like: “Is our value proposition clear to our customers? Are there opportunities for us to improve our business model? Is our team engaged, productive, and inspired to do their best work?”
Keep in mind this idea from Michael Porter’s classic piece, ”What Is Strategy?” He wrote, “New [strategic] positions open up because of change…new needs emerge as societies evolve.” It’s more than likely that the shifts you are experiencing during the Covid-19 crisis will present opportunities for your business, organization, and for you as a leader. In a time when it’s easy to only be focused on defense, it’s up to leaders to go on the offensive and be on the lookout for doors that might be opening.
What more can I do to strengthen our company culture?
I am continually struck by the stories I hear of teams growing even stronger during this time. Many of the most resilient leaders I work with have accomplished this by finding opportunities to align, engage, and inspire their teams around a purpose. Right now, teams need to feel connected, not only to the company’s mission but also to each other.
One way to accomplish this is to regularly set aside time for team members to highlight and share wins delivered either to customers, each other, or to the business itself. If well-crafted, you can tie the “bright spot” sharing to the company’s vision, mission, or values, reiterating the importance or the organization’s purpose and the essential role that everyone plays in achieving it. If meeting time is tight, a slack page, a quick email or another type of non-verbal communication can also be used.
To bring people together, you may also consider prioritizing some team building avenues that were less essential before. Many of our clients have begun conducting virtual social hours, meditation groups, art sharing clubs, team music performances, and fitness challenges. While these options may not be for everyone, they are just a handful of examples we have seen initiate positive team dynamics. Even something as simple as starting a meeting by asking people to bring a video, a meme, or a photo that gives them joy can foster comradery and a needed laugh.
Is there a silver lining to our current business environment? I would say, yes. The leadership skills you are building now will continue to serve you after Covid-19. There is no going back to exactly where we were before. New opportunities will open up — maybe full virtual workforces on a level we’ve never seen. And thanks to an unforeseen time in our history, you’ll be ready for it, with new skills in place to truly lead, whether from home or the office, more effectively than before.