As working from home continues throughout the world, and companies begin to re-evaluate their short- and long-term plans for office space leases, and return to work plans, a lot of managers are also thinking about their leadership styles, and how they can potentially continue to effectively lead teams virtually going forward.
David Burkus, keynote speaker, and organizational psychologist, and author of Leading from Anywhere shares his six tips for not only being a more effective leader of a virtual team, but how to be a key contributor to the overall company culture – even when that culture is reduced to Zoom meetings and DM chats.
Tip #1 – Encouraging Teams to ‘Work Out Loud’
When team are remote, it’s quite easy to lose sight of what employees are actually working on, and managers often feel like they’re managing individual relationships vs a team. When this happens, it’s easy to lose sight of what everyone has on their plates, and how it impacts all other team members. While these exchanges would typically happen organically in an office, it’s a lot more difficult when everyone is in their own home.
By borrowing a page from the ‘agile’ or ‘scrum’ model of working, and scheduling a daily stand-up. While daily may be too much, using the model of asking the following questions, can help your team overcome roadblocks, focus on urgent projects, and identify opportunities to work as a team to meet deadlines.
Tip #2 – Developing a Shared Identity
In teams that spent their working hours in an office, there’s already a shared camaraderie and identity. People knew, and followed, a company’s core values, and teams functioned as a unit. When people are working from home, particularly when new people are onboarded, that sense of shared identity may not be as easily replicated, but it’s still possible. Perhaps it’s hopping on a Zoom meeting a few minutes earlier than scheduled in order to socialize, or maybe it’s even a matter of encouraging employees to opt into a deliberate program where people are randomly assigned to a 30-minute virtual coffee chat once a week (a practice that the Swedish refer to a ‘fika’ – a break taken to enjoy a coffee and a break).
Tip #3 – Develop a Culture of Psychological Safety
When teams are remote, it’s easy for everyone, including managers, to get caught up doing the day-to-day work, but not thinking beyond those assignments. When the focus is on making sure that the slides in a meeting are running precisely, or that everyone’s on mute during a big presentation, we miss opportunities for teams to ask questions, to come up with new or innovative solutions, or to express an contrarian position to a task or idea. One idea for managers is to have someone watch them, and watch the team, to see if there are any disconnects between how you’re managing the meeting, and how employees are interpreting the message. If your team is simply carrying out the work, and not feeling safe to speak up, shifting your focus to encouraging civil discourse is important.
Tip #4 – Allowing for Flexibility
As a manager, you know you need to ensure your team is giving 100% to their jobs. However, when teams are remote, it’s critical to also recognize that the lines between work life and home life are blurred. As a boss, accepting and understanding that 9 to 5 is no longer the way it works is critical to successfully managing a team – people are working around children’s schedules, taking shorter breaks, and tend to work longer hours because their office is now in their home. As long as the work is getting done, allowing employees to work a little earlier, or end their day a little earlier shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, managers should encourage flexibility to help their teams avoid burnout.
Tip #5 – Encourage Setting Boundaries, and Set the Example
Conversely, employees also may need help setting boundaries to ensure their work gets done. If team members were in the office, their family members wouldn’t come walking into meetings, or interrupting their workday with questions. When team members are encouraged to set spaces between work and home, it helps them better focus on their work during their workday, and on their home life on their own time.
Some of this may include encouraging a ‘faux commute’ – using the time that you’d usually spend community to prepare for the workday or decompress form their focused work time.
Another idea may be to purchase a small ‘do not disturb’ sign when work focus needs to be the priority, and teaching family members to respect it.
Tip #6 – Take Nature Breaks
As a manager, taking breaks for yourself is also critical. But, as Burkus points out, it shouldn’t be just any break. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has huge benefits including increased focus, increased energy, and decreased stress levels. Even just a brief walk around the block can have a positive impact. By not only taking breaks yourself, and turning towards the sunshine, it will help you be a better manager to your team, and lead from a place of increased focus and calm.
While returning to the office may not be something we’ll do in the near-term, learning to lead in a virtual environment is a skill that will serve not only you as a manager, but will benefit your teams as they work to establish their own work from home routines.