Work is different now. Leadership is different now. I’ve been working remotely for years, but even I’m experiencing differences. I used to travel on average about 45 to 47 weeks out of the year. Now I’m working from the home office, 10 feet from the kitchen, with my kids going to online classes in the next room. Even if you’ve been managing a remote workforce for years — like me — the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly presents new challenges.
In addition to family disruptions and interruptions a remote workforce must juggle, we are now also dealing with connection, security, access, and remote team building. Not only that, many employees are dealing with anxiety about the future or loneliness from sheltering in place. Others have the additional stress of schooling young children at home or caring for older parents. There’s no playbook on how to be an empathetic leader when every one of your employees is living through one of the most stressful experiences of their lives. And I’ve said countless times that what works for some, like getting up, showering, and dressing for work, won’t work for others. While I’m fine working in my gym clothes, I know that others need a different kind of structure.
But there is good news. There are ways to make this new work from home reality a bit easier, and it all starts with leadership. When leaders within the organization recognize that leading from home is different than leading from the office, it changes everything.
Accept that Life—and Business—are Different
One of the most important things we can do right now as leaders and managers is accept that business-as-usual no longer applies. Leading from home, and managing from home means changing the way things work, and it also means we need to relax expectations surrounding output and productivity. Yes, it’s difficult to be the person who needs to report up that your team isn’t performing to the usual standard. But — this is a global emergency. And your job as a manager is to set realistic expectations upward, just as much as you send them down. If you aren’t used to doing this, take it as a hugely important opportunity to grow as a leader. Absolutely no greater leader got ahead by simply managing down.
Also, if you need technology to work with your team and improve productivity, speak up. There’s been a boom in cloud-based video conferencing and collaboration platform usage, and for good reason — it works. If you’re not equipping your team with the right tools to do their jobs, then you’re not setting yourself up for success.
Your employees are getting antsy. They miss connecting with one another at the water cooler or communal coffee pot. They miss sharing anecdotes about their weekends and their children. As a manager, try to find ways to keep these personal elements of work a priority. Take a page from HP’s playbook and set up virtual water cooler meetings to check in with employees and families, or make personal check-ins the top of the to-do list on every call. Whatever it is, make it known to your employees that you see them. You know this is hard. You’re here to connect and support them throughout the situation. That’s what leading from home looks like.
While time management may be a usual concern for employees working from home, this is no usual work-from-home experience. Whereas in the past, employees may have been distracted by a neighbor, a phone call, or social media, now they are juggling their own work alongside their children’s school schedules, or taking care of other family members, and the pressure to get it all right is enough to push any normal human over the edge. Help mitigate stress by making sure employees have everything they need to be successful but try to be as flexible as you can in setting meeting times and check-ins. Research shows employees’ time is more fragmented now than ever. Expecting employees to be able to sit for a two-hour Zoom call isn’t realistic; asking them to meet for 10 minutes at the start and end of the day is realistic but may still not happen. Adjust accordingly.
Use Technology to Your Advantage
There are a ton of collaboration tools out there to make remote working, especially remote team working, easier. That said, I do have one caveat: keep it simple. There’s no need to roll out multiple pieces of software right now. Find out what is needed and start there. Need a way to communicate? Start with Webex Teams or Slack — we are big fans of both. Need a way to share and collaborate on documents? Start with Google Drive. Keep technology solutions simple, make it easy, and your team will be grateful (and productive).
At the end of the day, we are truly all in this together. The end result of our collaboration will be the result all of us are living with when this is all over — no better, no worse. So, don’t stress too much about leading and managing from home. Don’t feel like the success of your company lies only on your shoulders. There are many factors at play here that no one — not even your boss — can control. At the end of the day, shift your perspective to be supportive and shepherding your employees toward their highest possible efficacy and outcome, whatever that may look like. It will likely be different for everyone. And for now, an effective manager will realize that is good enough.