COVID-19 created a unique learning opportunity for the world, as it forced millions of people to quickly transition to a work-from-home environment. This new reality has also presented many challenges for how to adapt and stay productive, while also still taking care of ourselves and others.
For leaders, navigating COVID-19 has been a true test of flexibility and effectiveness.
The qualities of successful leadership while working remotely are the same as when working in person, but there are differences in how leaders demonstrate these qualities.
Here are five key differences for how the best leaders are navigating working from home during these uncertain times:
1. They offer more compassion and empathy.
The key to being a truly effective leader is understanding that your people are above all else human beings, just like you.
It’s easy, especially during times of stress, to forget that behind the sales numbers, critical deadlines, and to-do lists are the unique individuals who comprise the teams that ultimately run the business.
Great leaders put people first, and stress the business and work second.
As Simon Sinek writes in his book Leaders Eat Last,
“the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”
We’ve already seen examples of this as several top executives have chosen to take pay cuts in order to avoid laying off employees or so they can distribute paychecks to furloughed workers.
But compassion and empathy aren’t one-time grand gestures, they show up in how leaders communicate with their people every single day.
The best leaders know that in this virtual working environment they must spend more time connecting with their people, asking about their personal challenges and offering to help in whatever small ways they can.
Successful leaders show up with compassion and empathy in order to meet their people where they are during this time of crisis.
2. They show more vulnerability.
“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability” — Brené Brown
No one can escape the painful effects of COVID-19, though certainly some have been impacted more severely than others.
Yet even leaders are coping with their own personal struggles as they battle to protect their people and save their businesses.
The best leaders demonstrate bravery during a crisis by not hiding their personal or leadership struggles. In fact, they actually communicate them more.
A great example of this is Marriot’s CEO Arne Sorenson. In the face of significant revenue losses, he wanted to deliver an encouraging message to his people. His team advised him against it, not only because of the bleak business outlook but also because he had recently undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer, which left him looking frail and without hair.
He disagreed, knowing that his people were more important than his appearance, and his message inspired many other leaders to follow suit.
Being this open and vulnerable as a leader is extremely difficult, but it’s also incredibly necessary.
When people see their leader as authentic, they are able to connect with the real individual behind the high-ranking title and also put more trust in them.
So when working remotely, successful leaders aren’t afraid to be unpolished and down-to-earth on video calls or show off their true selves at home. They also are the first to admit that they don’t have answers during these unprecedented times and will need help figuring things out, one day at a time.
It’s this level of vulnerability that underscores our commonalities as people and ultimately unites us — making it a key factor for leadership success.
3. They trust their people more and push for results less.
Being trusting is especially challenging for some leaders during work-from-home, because now they can’t oversee their employees work.
This can bring about feelings of uncertainty and stress that push leaders to stop trusting their people and actually micromanage them more.
Many ineffective leaders have started to track their people’s time, check in on them through video calls, and send out constant reminders of what needs to get done, which instead alienates their employees and lowers productivity.
Successful leaders, however, know that in this new environment it’s more important than ever to trust their people and give them the freedom to manage their personal and work schedules.
“A leader’s capacity to inspire trust in others — that is, to be trustworthy — is essential in motivating and inspiring members of his team. It’s also essential in helping everyone involved endure crises and manage difficult situations.” — Forbes
Now, more than ever before, good leaders understand how to be flexible and give their people more autonomy — not less. They demonstrate their ability to trust by delegating work, listening to their people’s ideas, and learning new ways of collaborating digitally.
They also learn to differentiate their leadership by showing up with compassion for their people so they can tailor their expectations to meet each individual’s work-from-home reality.
No leader can predict how long this reality will last or what’s to come next, so successful leaders rely on their people by trusting them more.
4. They encourage taking more time off work.
Burnout is a predominant issue in America’s working culture, as well as many societies around the world.
Although there isn’t yet much data on how burnout affects employees working remotely, many believe that working from home can make us more sucestible to burnout.
Vanessa K. Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, writes,
“With the suddenness and degree of the shift to remote work, the loss of childcare, and all of the worries that accompany the pandemic and its economic fallout, all of the things that typically cause burnout are intensified, which means the risk of burnout is intensified.”
Good leaders understand this reality and therefore encourage their people to take more time off than usual.
And they don’t just give lip service to this practice, but rather they model it themselves by spending time disconnected from their own email and work devices. They even communicate these breaks from work to their people as part of being vulnerable and trusting.
In these ways, the best leaders put their people first by protecting them from virtual work exhaustion and by reinforcing the importance of mental healthy over productivity.
5. They spend more time building morale.
One of the most important parts of leading during a pandemic is remembering to make time for fun. Stress is all around us right now and so it’s even more necessary to interrupt work in order to bring joy to everyone’s day.
The best leaders stay attuned to how their people are feeling and know when it’s best to shift the focus from work to play.
People are by nature social animals and while social distancing may protect us from catching the virus, it also makes us feel lonely and disconnected. Even virtual meetings can’t replace the regular in-person office small talk and drive-by chats with colleagues that usually motivate us at work.
So, successful leaders offer time for their people to socialize outside of regular work through virtual coffee chats, happy hours and lunch breaks.
Even more importantly, the best leaders understand that people need connection outside of screen time. So they build morale offline by giving their people time during the day to enjoy a nice walk outdoors, play with their kids, or simply to rest.
Building morale looks different when working remotely, but it’s an even more important part of every day that leaders recognize and plan with intention.
While COVID-19 will someday pass, the lessons from this time will persist and the best leaders will emerge from this pandemic by succesfully demonstrating these five key qualities.
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