2020 has changed the workplace. We went from in-person meetings and regular travel to neither in an instant. While working remotely isn’t new, there has never been a time when everyone was required to work from home. Until now.
The WFH environment has perks, including autonomy, wearing slippers to meetings, easy access to favorite snacks, and the ability to sneak in family time. But it’s not without challenges.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All,” tells us that the WFH environment is showing some cracks: Projects are taking longer, collaboration is more difficult, and integrating new employees is more challenging.
Most notably, early productivity gains from working at home have leveled off, and people are generally feeling fatigued. Which brings us to the question at hand: What can leaders do to ensure people feel engaged and connected without face-to-face experiences?
Tips for leading teams in a WFH environment
1. Help people manage their energy
Before COVID-19, I traveled frequently. Sometimes I’d take a 5 a.m. flight, head straight to a meeting, and then take a red-eye home. I was in motion for a full 24 hours. It wasn’t bad because I was constantly being recharged by the energy around me — during my commute, in the halls, at the sandwich shop. I was engaging with strangers, colleagues, babies, pets, you name it.
Before the pandemic, we could easily seek out energy when we needed it. Feeling stumped or uninspired? Just pop over to a colleague’s desk for an impromptu brainstorm.
None of this is easily accessible now. I sometimes feel more exhausted after a six-hour workday at home than when I took a 5 a.m. flight for a client meeting and didn’t stop moving for 24 straight hours.
Yes, sitting in one place makes it easy to get to meetings on time, but the lack of diverse environments, physical activity, spontaneous connections and stimulation in general is leaving us drained. Not to mention the energy expended when figuring out a new technology platform or tool.
We must figure out how to recharge and reestablish our missing energy and help our people figure this out, too. We need to give them permission to go for a walk or phone a friend for a quick chat. It will look different for everyone, but we must consciously recognize how we feel and figure out what keeps us energized and motivated when working in a somewhat isolated WFH environment.
2. Reinforce the role of structure
At home, distractions are plentiful as our personal and professional lives overlap. The dog, kids, spouse, mail, laundry and that endless pile of dishes. We must prioritize staying organized and focused.
For example, if you need to make outbound calls, it’s dangerous to do this based on when you have free time because that free time might not present itself. The quantity or quality of our work can’t decrease because of our environment.
Leaders, we must help people find their best way to create structure, organization and follow-through. It might seem basic, but the importance of structure cannot be dismissed. And I’m not talking about having an appealing background for your Zoom and WebEx calls. That’s superficial. Creating a real game plan for the structure of your day is vital to your success.
3. Conscientiously create connections
Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with other leaders to discuss how they’re managing this crisis. How are they helping next-in-line leaders? How are they empowering the front line to feel engaged and safe?
We usually also discuss how it’s harder to connect with others when not in the same physical space. We used to simply walk around to check in and connect. Now we must be intentional and consistent in our efforts to create meaningful connections.
Thankfully, most people want to connect. At my company, we set up peer-to-peer calls to make this possible. Not surprisingly, people are sharing that they’re anxious, concerned, and scared. What has surprised me is how vulnerable people are — more than one person has cried during their peer-to-peer.
Clearly people want the opportunity to connect. So, leaders, don’t make assumptions about how people feel because our assumptions likely aren’t accurate. We must be proactive, intentional, and consistent in creating opportunities to connect.
Being a great leader in a WFH environment means helping people reenergize, reorganize and connect in meaningful ways. These actions are invaluable in creating a sustainable and successful WFH culture. And since working from home doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, the sooner we master leading in this physically distant world, the better for us all.
For more than 20 years, Jim Haudan has been helping organizations unleash hidden potential by fully engaging their people to deliver on the strategies of the business. With his background as a coach, it’s not a stretch that the company Haudan co-founded focuses on tapping employees’ discretionary efforts — the kind that produces winning results. He’s the author of the national best-selling book, “The Art of Engagement: Bridging the Gap Between People and Possibilities” (McGraw-Hill, 2008) and a co-author of What Are Your Blind Spots? Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back.
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