Leading from home

It seems like everyone is giving advice on how to work and lead virtually. As a psychologist and a behavioural neurogeneticist, I specialise in showing people how to motivate people to give their best—even in circumstances which are much less than ideal.

Just when we most need structure, relational support and a sense of doing things as a tribe, you and your team are working away from the office, mostly at home. And it’s probably not clear in many cases what you and your team should be doing and prioritising, since many of your clients and customers are also dispersed and either cutting back or planning to do so. It’s tempting to simply shut down and do as little as possible—even when you know this will probably just make you more anxious and even stir-crazy. In times of crisis like this one that temptation is especially great, since almost all effort not relating to the primal reactions of flight, defensive flight or freezing can be stifled by fear

That fear can be of you or your loved ones being victims of the virus, of economic collapse or of job loss. In fear we either flee from the problem (try and find some place away from it all where the virus won’t get you) or we physically go into fight mode (useless against a virus) or we freeze (we succumb to inertia). Even if you don’t resort to fear and inertia, many of your team might.

One friend, a leader in a global law firm based in Sydney, has taken the opportunity to decamp to his country retreat with his family “The internet isn’t perfect, but it works,” he said when I spoke to him. “But being here has its advantages. The major job I have to do is to stay alive, for my family and for my firm. Being 40 kilometers out of Dubbo with no one within a mile of us is safe.”

A partner from a Big 4 consultancy, says “I think it’s easier for me and other leaders to work from home because we are used to the responsibility of bringing in work and dealing with ambiguity. For more junior people, who are used to being fed tasks and given clarity of goals, this uncertain time is harder. These are the ones who may have the most difficulty in staying productive and who may need the most support.”

Says another leader, “These are terrifying times, but I get that my team need me more than ever. Working from home is fine, but we all miss the tangible interactions. We are inventing ways to stay connected as a team, including a WhatsApp silly group message and a daily Skype catch up, and lots of chats through the day. It’s important not to lose the outward focus on clients though, and they really appreciate support. One way we’re keeping people engaged and connected is by sharing informational videos and webinars and having video catch-ups to discuss them.

There are just four must-dos for virtual team leaders at this time:

1. Show that you are still able and dedicated to supporting your team. This involves such things as being a buffer between them and senior management who themselves maybe in panic mode. You must protect them from unreasonable demands by conveying upward what is and is not possible for your team. The research is mixed on the productivity of people working from home. Some research shows that diminishing face to face relationships leads to a loss of productivity. This can be up to 30% when compared to an office setting (though the loss is less when compared with open-plan or worst of all, hot-desking arrangements, which have been found to be less productive than the standard layout). Other research has shown a net productivity gain from most employees—at least in the short term. The best idea is to assume some output 

loss  and plan accordingly. How much this will be depends largely on how well you do as a virtual leader.

2. You must maintain the trust of your team. Partially this is how well they feel protected by you and thus willing to work hard for you. But there are other things you must also do to gain and retain trust. Firstly, you must keep up frequent (at least twice daily) communication with the team as a whole and, only a bit less frequently, with all individual team members. This communication MUST be via Skype, video on Zoom or something similar. Face-to-face is really important even if it’s virtual. Secondly, remember to praise them both for work they’ve done, and how they’ve been working. Look for what they’re doing right. Thirdly, be 

consistent in the way you interact with your team. The more “normal” (as you usually are) the better.

3. Make sure conversations are forward-looking. This keeps things far more positive than dwelling on problems without solutions or looking for blame. Focus on what needs to happen, how can we make the most of opportunities, and how do we best support each other?

4. Exchange needs around relationships as well as tasks: Work out in concrete actionable terms what you need from your team in order for you to lead them effectively while you are being virtual. Find out from them what they need of you. Maintain your boundaries—don’t agree to do something that you may not be able, or willing, to do.

Perhaps share these thoughts with your team and get their ideas. Remember, you need their support as colleagues and friends as much as they need your leadership.

ICON thanks Dr Bob Murray and Dr Alicia Fortinberry for their fascinating article, aiming to influence a supreme home work ethic.

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