Leading Virtually Through Disruption

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

The level of disruption being experienced by businesses globally is unprecedented and its impacts are testing business continuity plans (and more). Many organisations have activated self-isolation and quarantine measures which necessitate a re-think on how teams operate as fully or partially virtual units.

In this post, I share my own experience of leading virtual teams and some suggestions based on my own research of key issues facing remote workers generally.

For Leaders

It can be tempting for people to assume that their leaders have all the answers and will know exactly what to do. The truth is that no one person has all the good ideas, and the best ideas can, in fact, be generated by the team.

Consider the benefit that can come from asking your team for ideas on the best ways to manage your work during the current situation. Beyond having some potentially awesome ideas, team members can feel included, 'seen' and valued for their contribution. Go beyond what's necessary when it comes to agreeing the best way to solve the challenges ahead.

It can be tempting when you're under pressure to just get on with things, so take the time to listen to the concerns of your team members, acknowledge their concerns and be transparent and sincere with your answers. Long after this is over, they may have forgotten what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel right now.

Here's some simple things leaders can do to help prepare their teams for long periods of virtual working:

  1. Agree the protocols for the big things Work out what's important in the workflows and agree how the team will remain accountable for their tasks while they are working virtually. This includes simple things such as checking in each day to how the workflow is intended to operate. Be prepared to experiment at first until things settle into a rhythm. What sounds good during a discussion or planning session may fail the test of execution out in the field as unexpected obstacles arise.

  2. Dial up trust and empathy Everyone responds to stress differently, and given the multitude of potential stressors from impacts on both work and home life, no single person can anticipate how another person might feel about the situation as it unfolds. It's important to remain empathetic to the feelings of your team while also creating an envelope of trust about the work that needs to be done. Most people who are used to working in an office find working at home for an extended period about as exciting as watching paint dry. Given the current limitations on travel and the potential curbs on freedom to gather and freedom to move, leaders might do well to assume that their team members will continue to do their best during this period.

  3. Dial down micromanagement I saw a post at the weekend from a manager informing a team that they were expected to respond on the company's messaging service within 2 minutes. This is not only an extreme example of micro-management it's also counterproductive for building trust. As noted above, this is an opportunity for everyone to work together and do their best work under difficult circumstances. It's an opportunity for leaders to let go a bit and trust that their team will deliver, and for team members to demonstrate their commitment to deliver their best work. Working virtually doesn't mean that the work stops and leaders don't lead, but it is an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate the difference between leadership and management. Other ways leaders can support their teams without micromanaging is to do more regular 'welfare checks', let virtual team members lead meetings, demonstrate presence in communications, set limits on working hours and coach individuals through the disruption.

For Virtual Workers

If you've never worked from home but always wanted to, you might be in for a shock. This is work-life blending at its best (and worst).

I suggest a 3P approach to get your best work done:

  1. Plan and prioritise each day At the start of each day (or the day before if possible), make a plan of what needs to be completed, by when and with whom. Having a clear plan for each day can help set your day up for success, and keep you on track with the day's tasks. Working away from the office can lead to a myriad distractions that might only exist at home - like the TV, the corner store, PS4, etc. It's also important to plan how and when you disengage from the work. Working in the home environment might make snacking easier, but this can sometimes come at the expense of taking a break. Program breaks and take walks outside to break up your day.

  2. Set up a Place to do work If at all possible, set up your working arrangement so that there is a feeling that you are 'going to work' each day that you are working virtually. Studies show that people who set up a specific place in their home for working, they can also create some separation between work and home. This can be a real challenge if you live in a small apartment (as I do), so be creative about how you set some boundaries around your workspace. For a whole raft of reasons, the worst place for you to work from is your bed or bedroom. Psychologically, your bed is a place to relax, so it's important to keep that space for its intended purpose. Creating boundaries between work/home enables you to disconnect from work even when you're at home, and you'll sleep better since you won't be as tempted to work just before lights out.

  3. Prioritise People and Connection over Convenience Loneliness and isolation amongst remote workers is on the rise so spare a thought for your colleagues who live alone or are self-isolating out of necessity. Where possible, prioritise connecting with people with video or voice over the convenience of an email or written communications. Before email was a thing, offices used to buzz with the sound of phones ringing and people actually speaking to each other one the phone. If this isn't your norm, it's time to try something new. Some teams will establish their own rhythm for checking in on each other, but if this isn't the case in your team, agree how this will work and what your preferred methods of communication are.

Productivity Hacks

These productivity hacks work whether you're in a virtual team or not:

  1. Take Regular Screen Breaks Getting away from the laptop at regular intervals is even more important when working virtually since there may be fewer incentives to leave the house or the desk when conveniences tend to be closer and colleagues tend to be online and not across the room. Take the opportunity to get outside, go for a walk and clear your head. Another form of breaking which has been proven to boost productivity is to avert your gaze away from laptop and to just gaze at something else for at least a minute. These mental breaks help to create more openness in your day and give your mind a break.

  2. Daily Gratitude Starting and ending your day with gratitude helps you to up-regulate your immune system naturally. Scientific studies now show that our ability to disengage from resentment, anger and negativity and to focus on cultivating gratitude, humility and joy helps to activate the genes which produce hormones to support your immune system. A gratitude practice can last 10 minutes at the start and end of your day and involve listing 3 things that you are grateful for, tapping into the feelings of gratitude in your heart centre so that you elicit the actual feelings of gratitude. Thinking gratitude and feeling gratitude are different. It's the feelings that count.

  3. Breathe It's entirely natural that people respond to disruption with a mix of fear and anxiety at the uncertainty ahead. When we become anxious and afraid, our body tenses up and our organs contract. This constricts our breathing and starves us of the oxygen we need for optimal health and wellbeing. Notice when your body becomes tense and make an effort to breathe more fully and consciously. Taking 5 minutes to breathe in a 2:4 or 4:8 count (in:out) will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reverse the stress response in your body. Right now I am offering morning breathwork sessions and you can also learn some powerful breathwork techniques. Visit my SOMA Breath page for more information.

I'd love to hear your own suggestions for thriving during this period of change and disruption. I delivered a webinar on this topic for the industry association. The slides are attached here.

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