2012 was my first experience being on a remote team. Prior to that, I had been working in an office 9-5, five days a week with a team that I loved. I had the corner cube so people would stop by and talk to me all the time and, being the social person I am, I really enjoyed it.
I outgrew the job I had and early in 2012 I applied for (and got) a role that was 100% remote. When I’d tell people they’d say, “Oh my gosh that’s awesome! You get to work from your home all the time which is going to be great!” I have to admit, I thought so, too. The flexibility of being home in a space I’d created for myself sounded amazing. In fact, I even went through the process of physically and mentally preparing, creating that home office just the way I liked it. But, guess what? I struggled. It was challenging; me, being a typically social person, working from home felt very lonely. Yes, I had more time with my kids; though they still went to daycare. However, when they were home it was very challenging to have my two little kids (who were 2 and 4 at the time) around when I was trying to get work done. Remember, this was 2012 when I had plenty of time to prepare and wasn’t also trying to homeschool my household in the middle of a pandemic. That’s why when I think about most of us who are rounding the corner on one year of a global pandemic and working from home, I hold so much empathy for all of us just trying to do our best.
As leaders and professionals, we’re still in uncharted territory. Still going through this together by dealing with and overcoming adversity and showing resilience and problem solving. We’ve all had to do that over the course of our career, but this is completely different. Here’s the secret though, even though that first remote role was challenging and I was lonely, I also learned a great deal about how to thrive in that environment. So much so, when Amir, Chris and I began Inspirant (also remote), I knew what I needed to do professionally to be successful in a virtual workplace and I’ve continued to refine that even further over this last pandemic year. Here are my observations about leading in a virtual workplace and I hope they help or at least serve as a reminder as you continue your remote working environment.
Yes, we’re all humans, I know, but sometimes business gets in the way. We’ve still got to get our work done and we can’t press pause, waiting for things to get back to normal. Life as we knew it is going to look a bit different for some time to come and so we can’t stick our heads in the sand. As a business leader and human being, show empathy and think about your team that’s continuing to navigate a remote environment. How are you checking in with them? If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend coming up with some sort of regular cadence to check in. I would also recommend that all of your calls and emails start with, “Hey how are you doing? Is there anything you need?” One of my favorite questions to ask my team is, “Is there anything I can help you with? How can we help each other?” Change happens at an individual level and one of the basic tenants of change management is to figure out how things are affecting an individual then change to meet them where they are.
Establish Your New “Normal”
It’s been nearly a year and, if you haven’t already, it’s time to establish and embrace a new normal. Trust me, I can’t wait for this to pass either and want to get there as badly as you do, but let’s be realistic about where we are and how we adapt. Don’t delay on establishing your new normal. What that means as a business leader is you get to show others what that looks like because they’re looking to you. Video calls? Daily coffee chats and times for connection? You set the new normal and then embrace the change.
Be More Flexible
We’re going to have to be a little bit more flexible (remember the human being observation above?) What that means is that we might have to back away from traditional office hours and focus more on the quality of work, what teams are actually producing, and then making sure they are supported in the way they need to in order to get work done.
Any change should include communication and boy have we been through some change. I remember having a conversation with one of my favorite clients about how many times we need to communicate and how some brains process messages differently. So don’t get frustrated or be afraid to communicate things over and over and over again. Building on the video calls and regular communication mentioned above, our team has been doing morning coffee chats everyday at 9:00, no agenda, and when I’m not able to attend one, I miss it terribly. Finally, share messages from leadership often. Hearing here’s how the company is handling XYZ is so important and employees need to hear it often, especially when everyone is remote.
Do Not Micromanage
As a leader, we can still lead remotely without micromanaging. Instead of firing off an email with tasks, virtually check in on your teammate, similar to how you would if you were in an office together. Approaching work this way is much more effective than playing taskmaster or expecting a daily report on work achieved. Adaptation to a new way of working, and how others work for and with you, is key.
Change can be good. Change means that there’s progress and people are looking at new and different ways of doing things. Yes, change can also be scary and that’s why there’s a whole change management process to help guide people through at an individual level. You have very little control over change and disruption but what you DO have control over is how you harness it. Now is a great time to work on the evolution of yourself, your team and your company culture.
Let’s face it – 2021 is still going to bring uncertainty. However, I would challenge you to think differently. Reflect on the past year and think ahead to what you want your team to look like this year and beyond when we “return to normal”. What does your modus operandi look like now and what will it be when you come out of this? As for that 2012 version of me who was lonely and looking for socialization? I still feel that way sometimes (I miss in-person conversations!), but I’m harnessing those observations mentioned above and taking it day-by-day just like you. I’d also welcome a virtual conversation anytime, so reach out and let’s set up that video coffee chat.