Team performance is inextricably linked to leadership – that much has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the lockdown-induced shift to remote work did transform the particular challenges of leadership. How to keep up productivity while being mindful of members’ physical and mental health? How to hold effective meetings and minimize technological vagaries?
According to a recent Forbes article, work-from-home (WFH) arrangements don’t automatically impair employee engagement. Rather, it depends on leaders whether team potential is harnessed during WFH.
Here is a closer look at the big issues business leaders – from team supervisors to CEOs – face during the pandemic. And how to best tackle them.
With employees unable to meet in hallways, stop by each other’s offices, or have a quick chat at the water cooler, ensuring communication is a core challenge leaders face.
A recent survey by Microsoft published in the Harvard Business Review found that managers took on a more active role in communication, both within and across teams. Overall, they sent 115% more instant messages after the transition to remote work, while other employees sent 50% more.
The key, however, is not to communicate simply more – but more effectively. This means communicating succinctly, with clear goals and expectations in mind, and choosing your channels wisely.
Email is the default avenue of communication for many leaders. It is also terribly inefficient, as another recent Forbes analysis outlines.
Generally, email is fine for asking quick questions, sharing a file, or responding to a scheduling request. But as soon as something requires more complex discussions, a nuanced understanding, or creative input, having a (video) call is more efficient.
Choosing a communication platform for your team is one of the most crucial WFH decisions.
Overall, it is best to centralize communication. Instead of juggling notifications from five different apps, team members just have to keep their eye on one or two. For this, team collaboration apps, conference calling services, and Unified Communications platforms are invaluable.
Online meetings are an integral part of WFH – but leaders need to make sure that they are both necessary and efficient.
The number and duration of meetings – and the strictness of the schedule – are within the purview of managers and team leaders.
Microsoft’s researchers found that while meetings increased overall, they were considerably shorter than before, averaging 30-minutes. Other articles also suggest that meetings lasting between 20 and 30 minutes are optimal for keeping engagement high and proceedings efficient.
Steve Jobs’ cardinal rule of meetings was to have only essential people present, which cut down on explanatory ballast and tech troubles. Each item on the agenda – well-defined in advance – should have a participant responsible for it.
Trust is an integral component of leadership, now more so than ever.
While it’s natural to be curious about how your staff handles their work projects and timelines during WFH, it’s crucial to show confidence in them. Resist the temptations of surveillance and micro-management.
Assume that your team is doing their best. In some cases, this may not be on par with their normal performance at the office – especially if they are facing added challenges at home, such as childcare.
In general, it’s best not to focus on inputs – exactly which tasks each team member is tackling at a time. Instead, concentrate on team accomplishments – the overall outputs.
Fostering team spirit and building rapport among physically distanced staff is currently a central leadership task.
Microsoft’s survey found that virtual social meetings increased by 10% within a month of the transition to remote work. Team members wanted to connect with each other on a human basis.
Leaders can harness this need and take the initiative. Organize virtual ‘casual Fridays’, encourage ‘water-cooler’ chat spaces, schedule digital coffee breaks, or set up a Slack channel dedicated to swapping baby pictures, memes, and cat videos.
Finally, it’s a manager’s responsibility to ensure that remote team members can successfully balance their work and personal lives.
When working from a home office, it’s only too easy to let sales figures or annual reports encroach on otherwise relaxing evenings. Especially if it seems like other team members are constantly online.
Managers need to discourage always-on culture in the interest of their team members’ mental and physical health.
Removing incentives for 24/7 availability, discouraging messages at all hours, strictly limiting meetings to daytime, and implementing a virtual out-of-office policy go a long way towards achieving this balance.
Recent statistics show that two thirds of companies are planning to keep a distributed workforce model post-pandemic. That means that leading a remote team will no longer be a temporary emergency measure. It will become a standard requirement and essential leadership skill.
The sooner managers find sustainable solutions to the challenges of heading a distributed team, the better they will be able to operate in a business world transformed by COVID-19. And the larger their success will be – both for themselves and their team.