This piece by Alexander Glowacki — with contributions from Michael Sylva and Joaquin Guirao — is part of our series on working remotely, adapting to change, and innovating as a business during a crisis. See our remote work offering to learn how Designit and Cooper Professional Education can help you design a culture of collaboration that will empower your team to do its best work, remotely.
Some say humans are great at adapting to new situations, but we’ll quickly resume old ways once the dust settles. This is partially true, but we also form new habits, and the impact can be sizable even if only a few of us do so. For example, during the London Underground strike in 2014, commuters were forced to find new routes to work, and 5% ultimately stuck to their new and more efficient commute. The long-term gains saved by reduced congestion ended up being greater than the short-terms economic cost of the disruption.
Although many things will return to business as usual, enough disruption has already happened to leave a lasting change. We’ll all need to understand and adjust to this “new normal.” Businesses need to reevaluate their business methods and processes; people need to reconsider how to best make use of their individual strengths and weaknesses. The charismatic leader might struggle to convey the same level of persuasive engagement to her team over emails and video calls, whereas a shy person who’s great at expressing himself through writing might suddenly thrive after having struggled to engage with his onsite team.
Here are three reflections to get us thinking about what will stick:
The remote workplace is here to stay
The working-from-home trend has only been accelerated, and companies — even those that were initially reluctant — are now seeing that their employees can actually get work done from home. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, large U.S. and U.K. businesses spent an average of $5,000 in annual rental costs per employee, with only 40-50% of desks in actual use. Furthermore, according to a study of 600,000 desk-riders, two in five said their office spaces prevented them from work productively. It would be foolhardy for businesses to simply resume their old ways, keeping costly and underutilized infrastructures after experiencing that great work is possible outside the cubicle.
Improved efficiency and reduced cost: the end of the business trip?
In 2019, U.S. business traveler spending reached $334 billion. While business trips might not be as luxurious as during the golden Pan Am era, many have friends that are overly cheerful about their frequent-flyer bonus points or lounge access. Today, businesses are realizing that many of these trips, conferences, and workshops easily can be done and attended remotely, while still maintaining a high level of engagement and collaboration. We’ve all been in meetings that could’ve been emails.
The importance of communication
Working remotely isn’t as simple as bringing laptops home and firing up WebEx and Slack. With more teams collaborating from afar, the risk of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of tasks, company policies and business processes will only may increase. Not only can this be frustrating, it’s also very costly: loss in productivity, reduced customer satisfaction, and unplanned downtime costs U.S. and U.K. businesses $37 billion a year. Those who can coach and direct remotely will have happier and more efficient teams.
Remote will (and already has) become a way of life. The world’s most innovative companies have long mastered this duality: growing a profitable core business while simultaneously exploring the revenue streams of tomorrow. We all need to master the same dexterity by being as dedicated and effective with our remote teams as we are with onsite teams. Whether you’re looking for advice on how to lead yourself, a team, or an entire organization, these pointers will make you more comfortable and capable in our new normal.
So, what does remote leadership look like?
Trust has never been more critical
Knowing what to do — and how to do it — gives us the confidence to focus on what truly matters.
Working from home might sound relaxing: comfortably sitting on one’s couch with a laptop and a pour-over coffee in hand. What’s absent is a sense of constant confirmation from coworkers that you are doing work. A common pitfall is when faux productivity gets in the way of getting work done; the response time on emails and chats may get priority over focused work. You need to set a clear path of direction and ensure everyone internalizes it. If done properly, everyone should confidently understand what to do:
- Set the purpose and objective of the team
- Establish the working methods and forms of work
- Make individual expectations clear for each and every team member
Right here! This is where too many feel satisfied and move on to the next task or team check-in. But the job doesn’t stop after having made the “what” clear. It is as important to create a common platform for how the group should manage its relationships, thoughts, and conflicts. This takes time and effort, especially in the beginning. However, by providing your team with crucial tools and resources, they can quickly establish autonomy and trust without having to rely on managerial oversight. Make sure everyone has the capability to engage in constructive and inclusive dialogues about:
- The group’s objectives, values, and guidelines
- How to get to know each other as people and as professionals
- How relationships and emotions should be handled and addressed.a common structure of communications
Don’t forget about the feelings on the other side of the screen
Fostering a sense of togetherness and belonging is more important than ever before.
Dedicate time to establish an environment with the same degree of humanity as in the office space.
For many people, work is a major source of social interactions. This is where small talk with friends and colleagues happens, and where they find a sense of belonging outside the home. Working remotely can, if not managed properly, create a sense of disconnect and loneliness that’s detrimental to individual well-being and a team’s productivity and engagement. People need people. You need to dedicate time to establish an environment with the same degree of humanity as in the office space. These three fundamental needs are especially important to growth and well-being:
- Enable a sense of belonging and togetherness within the team
- Make sure everyone feels in control and has the mandate to manage their own situation
- Make sure you and the team spread appreciation and a sense of togetherness (care for each other)
Be clearer than ever and mind your tone
Don’t leave someone perplexed or uncertain until the next check-in.
A benefit of remote work is that it’s possible to participate in more conversations than you ever could before. No running between meeting rooms and no stressful taxi rides to client premises. It saves us a great deal of time as we simply can jump between online meetings rooms without leaving our desk.
While words easily transmit online, a lot of body language and subtle cues gets lost. Therefore, we should be mindful of how we communicate; subtleties of wording, tone of voice, and subtext can easily be lost in translation between two screens. To illustrate, at the office you can afford to be more brash as people get to see how you carry yourself throughout the day. They can pick up more cues and often there is room for quick chats by the coffee machine to clear the air.
All these cues or micro-interactions are lost online, leaving coworkers (or your team) wondering exactly what you meant. No one wants to get off a call feeling perplexed and uncertain. A bad feeling can linger for the rest of the day or until the next check-in. Therefore, we need to be more conscious and thoughtful on how we express and carry ourselves, both in writing and over calls.
Appreciate feedback freed from constraints
The web camera makes us more egalitarian, more alike.
The onsite office is filled with unspoken and structural features that declare hierarchy and power. The web camera makes us somewhat more egalitarian, more alike, freeing us from many of the constraints of the office space. The remote workplace offers a buffer against the feeling of being on display that many feel in open office plans. This security can free people to offer more honest feedback.
Bet big on building trust early on, and autonomy and efficiency will follow.
Merely interacting through a screen can lower hierarchal barriers by providing a bit of distance and a perceived safety barrier. It’s also easier than ever to schedule more frequent one-on-one sessions and adapt those to fit individual needs.
Accept that not everything is quicker online
Bet big on building trust early on, and autonomy and efficiency will follow.
A remote worker’s commute is essentially the time it takes for their laptop to wake up (minus coffee). You can engage in multiple instant messaging conversation in parallel with peers across the whole world, and experience a new sense of effective connectivity. One thing that isn’t as quick is forming new efficient and autonomous teams. Trust and a sense of belonging are essential components in reaching that stage in a team.
We need to be more patient and persistent remotely, in order to help our teams to overcome physical distances, lack of social arenas, and perhaps general inexperience in remote work. Simply putting a team together, calling for a kick-off meeting, and then letting them run with it is setting them up for failure.
It might seem counterintuitive to take a more hands-on approach, but remember, even the most professional coworker is a person too. Like with any group of friends or sports teams, it takes time and effort for trust and relationships to form. So, at the beginning of each new team, remote leaders need to be prepared to spend a lot more time and effort directing and building relationships than they normally would with their onsite teams. But with time, remote teams will be just as efficient and autonomous as any team onsite and you can take on a more visionary and less hands-on management approach.
Inclusivity has never mattered more
Have regular check-ins with your “office antagonist” to break groupthink.
In an open office space with most coworkers within reach and sight, it’s hard to forget someone for too long. But in a remote work setting, the only people you really see are those in your virtual meeting room or calendar invite.
Work hard to overcome the “out of sight, out of mind” pitfall. Mitigate this by scheduling regular team meetings and one-to-one check-ins; predictability is more important than frequency in remote settings. Also make yourself approachable and tip the hierarchical pyramid on its head: employees should trust you to have five minutes whenever — for whatever — and that you are committed to empower them to do their best work
In addition to fighting isolation, which is hurtful and destructive, inclusivity also does wonders in moderating groupthink. In remote settings, it is easier than ever to only turn to your likeminded allies, whilst making it even harder for those with contrary opinions and viewpoint to raise their hand. The risk of creating a false sense of consensus and harmony has never been greater, which discourages innovation and can lead to misguided decisions deriving from accord rather than critical and objective contributions from the team. Be mindful about whom you involve in processes and decisions, and have regular check-ins with those that will challenge you.
Shaping a better future
We have seen this change in work-life leadership coming, and the only true disruption is the hastened speed of transformation. Right now, all of us are scrambling to cope, but soon routine will creep in and the present situation will become everyday. Many of us will need to adapt further. Businesses will need to understand the relevance of their core business now more than ever, and quickly rediscover their position in our new normal. Falling behind will be both risky and costly.
However, hidden within all this gloom and wretchedness lays hope. This is a pivotal moment in the sense that we have an excellent platform on which to build change: ending old, bad habits and uprooting structural inequalities to create a more sustainable future, as leaders, as businesses, and as people. And remember; leadership is not about titles or positions. It’s about one life influencing another.
Previous installments in this series include “Three vital skills your team can borrow from improv amid COVID-19,” “Diagnose your team mindset in the time of coronavirus,” and “Six best practices for remote meetings.” See our remote work offering to learn how Designit and Cooper Professional Education can help you design a culture of collaboration that will empower your team to do its best work, remotely.
Alexander Glowacki is a Business Planning Lead at Designit Oslo.