When you think of a leader, you picture someone in front of a group telling a story or casting a vision of the future. As leaders, we are used to leading people. It sounds pretty simple. What’s not simple is when the people are not physically there to lead.
In the new Zoom world that COVID has ushered us into, we are now interfacing with staff almost exclusively via phone, email and video calls as we minimize personal contact and send all staff home that can work there. As a leader, that experience of being with your team, interacting in person is gone. If reports are true, we are likely never going completely back to the world we left behind.
So, how do we build new capabilities and how do we use them to lead a workforce that is mostly seen behind a screen?
In 2019, we were engaging in monthly team building events that were all in person. When COVID hit, our team was adamant about continuing the momentum we had created prior to being sent off site. But how? Team building via Zoom or any video communication is not a well documented process. The challenges for both the team builders and the leadership team are the same: they lack the tools and knowledge to achieve what worked in person, remotely.
Our company was fortunate in that we had adopted using Zoom for sales calls a year prior to the pandemic onset. When everyone moved to working from home, our sales team didn’t miss a beat and we actually improved our sales during the shutdown.
The skills the sales team had developed and the rules they used were meaningful for the rest of the company, so we quickly provided leadership and guidance for “Zoom/Video Meeting Etiquette” that our sales team had learned from hundreds of Zoom meetings.
Business leaders often feel most at home in front of employees discussing the future of the company or casting vision for a new development, but today, we are at home, alone, just like everyone else.
So, how can you as a leader provide security and hope and foster teamwork with remote and disparate teams? Here are some tips:
- Redefine “workday”
With parents having kids at home with school responsibilities, it's not well aligned to simultaneously expect them to be on a video call or respond to a Slack message immediately. By focusing more on results and allowing flexibility around schedules, individual team members can contribute as their evolving schedule requires without fear of reprimand or disapproval from fellow team members.
- Increase your meeting frequency and reduce meeting length
Video meetings cause psychological fatigue. They aren’t natural and we struggle to read the queues that are easily seen in person to person interactions due to limitations in our technology and our use of it. That struggle leads to fatigue which will lead to a reduction in attention, focus and ultimately the quality of the meeting is deteriorated.
Having meetings more often allows for more touchpoints in a day, which may have happened informally in your physical office environment and now have to be created intentionally. At Recordsforce, we increased our use of sprint meetings and added more meetings for specific areas we were focused on improving. These shorter but more frequent meetings allowed for the types of communication we typically expected from teams working in person.
Additionally, our use of weekly check-in meetings with every staff member have been more consistent and those meetings have been taking longer. There’s been more time spent talking about personal events and situations. Our focus on the wellbeing of our team members has kept us safer than many other companies and has enabled us to continue to operate in a challenging time.
- Review what benefits you are offering
It’s important to mention, the increase in stress levels for an extended period of time can lead to a decrease in mental wellness if employees are not able to properly care for themselves. Like a coach recognizing when a player is injured and needs to be pulled out of the game, it’s important to be checked into your staff's mental health now more than ever.
Fostering self care in your staff and providing paid time and space in their schedule for them to take personal time and to have access to affordable health care is crucial during this time. Without the space to take time and the ability to be out of the office without losing money, employees will continue to come to work when they are sick. This is now a terrifying scenario for anyone running a physical production operation, knowing there could be a potential COVID outbreak amongst your staff. If they can’t afford to be out of work and to see a doctor because of your paid time off or medical benefits policies, that is your responsibility as the business leader, not theirs as wage earners.
- Simplify your message and repeat it often
This is always a good idea, remotely working or not, but with the limitations of our digital communications, it's now more imperative than ever to make sure you are being understood. Without the ability to read body language or sense the mood of a crowd because you are on a video call where everyone but the speaker is muted, we have to make sure we cannot be misunderstood. Our goals must be clear, simple and well defined for everyone in the company to understand.
- Support and teach great video etiquette
Help your staff excel at online engagement with simple rules for them to remember. (See Rules for Great Video Meetings here.)
Not everyone thought about how their environment’s appearance on Zoom made an impression. These rules include being considerate regarding what is in the background of your video, making sure it is clean, always using video when on video calls and always being prepared to be on camera during the workday.
We also created the expectation that everyone that has a camera will use it while on calls. That was a shift most of our customers have not yet embraced themselves, but we find them turning on their cameras when on calls with us. It helps to build a connection that is a better form of communication than text or voice alone.
- Create work from home standards
Everyone that is working from home should be optimizing their work environment the same way we do at the office. Not everyone has a home with a great workstation just waiting to be worked at. Often people find themselves at dining tables, coffee tables, ironing boards (standing desk), and other potentially less than ideal work setups.
We’ve taken steps to make certain the work environment is private, safe and adequate to do the work from. We ask employees to send photos of their work from home stations so that we can evaluate any concerns. We also provide headsets for staff to use while on calls and upgraded equipment for our core staff that they can take home like mechanical keyboards, bigger 4K monitors, along with the fastest production machines.
- Stay connected via chat all day long
Use systems like Google Hangouts or Slack to keep teams constantly in touch and up to date. Make sure everyone that should be is included. Ask that chat channels be kept professional because they are company property and may be monitored.
- Have virtual happy hours
Not every online event needs to be company focused. At Recordsforce, we have happy hour events where employees are able to have relaxed, fun, non-work related conversations with their coworkers. We even use breakout rooms so the entire staff can have short personal conversations with just about everyone else in the company. This is our own version of the “virtual water cooler effect” which has been shown to increase overall productivity, encourage open communication, positively impact company culture and boost morale.
As a leader, you want to increase the frequency of meetings and touchpoints with both teams and individuals. You want to focus on the whole person and not just the employee. Consider greater scheduling and workday flexibility especially for those dealing with children at home or family members who may be front line workers dealing directly with COVID. Focus on providing up-to-date science-based information regarding safety. Update your use of technology to improve your video conferencing, home office appearance, home office bandwidth, and online etiquette. Remember that your team members have increased stress levels and to be a source of safety and security for them during this challenging time. You are the leader. Lead them through these challenging times bravely and with humanity, and we can all get through this faster and more safely together.