I read an article that the role of CEO has now evolved from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Empathy Officer. It stuck with me that the key for leaders to manage better lies in their ability to empathize with the team members and let their concern truly reflect in their virtual actions. It is unarguably understandable that even a great leader may not be able to answer to questions like- Is the Virus getting better or worse? Will it be gone in a few weeks or few years? How long will it take for life to get back to normal? Having said that, the decisions still must be made and how we make & communicate those decisions, teaches us a lot about Effective Leadership.
Here’s my submission on steps that can be taken by leaders to maintain good connection with their teams virtually and continue the work, maintain good relationships, culture and values of an organization despite the social distance.
- Practicing the art of ‘Social Distancing’ couldn’t be more imperative than ever. It seems like a complex task at first but mostly because we’re not used to it. It helps to think about those who’ve been confined to their home space even before the virus struck this world and this takes us back to ‘Empathizing’ with others as it helps us to walk in their shoes and be able to combat the negative effects on our mental health. As a leader, if you’re aware of some employees in your organization, who leverage the flexi work policy or work from home option, it would be a good practice to ask them to come forward and share their experiences on adjusting to work from home and what helped them. Silver lining in today’s world, ‘We’re all in it together’. The challenges being faced by one are almost if not entirely the same as everyone else’s with a common motivation.
- Be ‘Compassionate’. I read in an article that people are most productive and display exponential growth when they feel a sense of ‘Safety’, ‘Trust’ and ‘Empowerment’. Therefore, leaders must focus on the ‘Truth’. Sometimes, as a leader, one must hide certain facets of the truth to avoid chaos and catastrophic response, but, it has been proven that employees respond positively to a leader who speaks the ‘truth’, you may withhold some information (if necessary) as well for the larger good. Jack Welsh once said, “great leaders deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be”.
- Continued focus on ‘COMPETENCE, RESULTS AND ACCOUNTABILITY’. Empower experts and know who and when to mobilize, empower and execute. Continuity gives employees a sense of calm, knowing that while the mechanism to deliver may have changed, organization & leaders continue to remain the same. As human beings, we tend to derive a sense of calm in knowing that not everything has changed.
- LISTEN WELL. As a leader trust that you know that real action lies at the frontline and if we don’t listen, we won’t be able to make the right decisions. Right now, almost every story has an important message and good leaders must ask their team members also to practice the art of ‘Listening’. This will also help you PREVENT BURN-OUT.
- BUILD TRUST. Create the rules, norms and accountabilities, embrace the new era of the digital world, support your employees working from home, empower them with the right tools required to deliver and engage stakeholders and trust them.
- Continue to stay connected with Employment Lawyers for latest trends/developments in employment laws affecting your workforce and engage with the marketing and communication team to continue to communicate to your employees.
- Maintaining Organization Culture and taking care of your talent is crucial during these confusing times.
- Monitor cashflow and engage in a dialogue with concerned department heads as to what can be eliminated and what can be the possible outcome or setback. Important to remember is that there’s no set date to the effects of COVID-19. So, it would be good to evaluate expenses from that lens to be able to weather the storm and package something that benefits everyone.
- Leaders need to ensure organization data security protocols are being followed. Most large organizations already have the safety features built-in however for those who didn’t feel the need for it until now, look now at getting it together for continuity of work in these times and foreseeable future.
- Consider how best as a leader and an organization, you can continue to support the employees who’ve been negatively affected by the COVID situation such as continuation of Benefits, Health Care, if the organization can contribute to continued benefits and so on. Its important to think through this situation, keeping in mind, different types of employees, employees categorized as disabled- their safety and wellbeing under the umbrella of state & federal regulations as they’re undergoing frequent change in the current scenario.
- Research has proven that teams working virtually are more productive, however to ensure that teams need to be more cohesive, show high levels of commitment, high level of team identity, increased levels of trust and psychological safety. It’s challenging for a leader to make sure these levers are in place when you’re working remotely, as the work seems more task focused which in turn leads to disengaged team members. Leaders are required to set correct expectations when teams first start working remotely. Manage this transition carefully. Increase social communication, have a thought through communication plan in place addressing the media, who, when etc. Clarify the team’s purpose, focus and prioritize tasks. Focus of team alignment is crucial. Have an operating plan or agreement within the team, weaving collaboration and coordination with each other. Spell things out a bit more carefully and openly. This is not what usually one would need to do so consistently while working from office or face-to-face. Draw out an engagement plan, make efforts to connect with key team members on regular basis. Be agile and train you team (if required) to work remotely.
- Leaders also need to manage their biases carefully while managing teams virtually like someone not wanting to turn on video during a conference, one might not mute their lines when not talking and so on. It’s easy to fall prey to these biases but working through it, is crucial during these times. Working from office, everyone’s day is quite similar, however when working virtually, everyone’s day is different from another. One might have to manage children, elderly people, pets or something else around them which is not usually the case in the regular work environment. This leads us back to building trust and communicating effectively.
- Remember to reward and recognize your team members. Managing conflict is a mammoth task while working virtually, especially during these chaotic times. There are so many kinds of conflicts like task related conflicts, process related conflicts, settling disagreements. Aside from setting up norms and behaviors to be followed internally, leaders need to also identify and have mediators in place, set the rhythm that the team can adapt to. Research reveals it is difficult to manage silent/withdrawing employees- what could it mean possibly? Leaders must know that never let silence go unaddressed. Have a conversation with the employee, understand the issues, ask questions and seek help internally if required.
- It is extremely important to create opportunities for employees to have their voice heard and making sure that employees with accessibility issues are operational and contributing in meetings/discussions as well. Seek comments before closing the meeting through writing or speaking to engage everyone, introverts and extroverts alike. It does put an enormous burden on leaders because virtual leadership is much harder as it’s not just about managing tasks but also managing uncertainty in these times.
- Explore other channels of digital communication to break down the barriers such as Slacks, etc. schedule a virtual coffee hour or a casual get togethers. Leverage instant messaging tools to strike a balance between formal meetings and casual conversations which the team would otherwise have on a normal workday.
- Another important aspect to continue to focus on is fostering inclusion while working virtually. A few things that can be done are listening fully before responding, ability to acknowledge each partner’s contribution, create a safe environment, share stories about what’s going on, collaborate with other functions and not just the team. Encourage online work communities to promote virtual engagement and inclusion. It’s a great way to help like-minded people to come together, connect and blow off steam together.
- Leaders need to ensure they’re being consistent with their behavior. Remember you don’t have to do it all by yourself, reach out to others for help. You may be aware of someone in the team with relevant skills, please remember to reach out. There’s no better way to foster engagement within the team.