Examining The Gains And Losses Of Our Changing Work Environment

(Forbes published this article in the early summer and I am posting it here because the strategies are evergreen.)

Organizational life has changed. Yet even with a global pandemic and a broken economy, the world keeps on “worlding.” In addition to the threat to public health, the disruption to our livelihood and our businesses is challenging many millions of us around the world. We have changed how we work and lead. Our work lives in this liminal space is worth examining. Here are a few observations and recommendations worth noting.

Get On Video Selectively

It’s times like these when we reflect on what we miss the most. Meeting informally is one of those things.

Virtual work has seen leaders taking on extra effort to seek out conversations that would have occurred by happenstance at the coffee machine, the work lounge, around the ping pong tables and in private offices. Now, everyone’s calendars are filled with back-to-back videoconferences on Zoom. Need to address a problem? Schedule a Zoom meeting. Initially, many raved about Zoom calls because they enabled remote video contact, but now, I’ve heard people in my network complain about how exhausting it is to go from Zoom call to Zoom call. It’s a better idea to ask yourself if a voice call is needed, if video needs to be on or if an email should be sent. Use videoconferences selectively. It’s not the only way to make connections among people.

Book Time Of Your Own

One client company of mine instated a 30-minute, meeting-free zone, organization-wide. It was communicated by the CEO, who is doing what can be done in a hurried, emergent environment to ensure people’s well-being. It’s a recognition that in addition to the loss of informal time, we are forfeiting alone time to think.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that we’ve idealized extroversion and teamwork, and this new “groupthink” has left leaders with not nearly enough time to reserve thinking of their own. I see this in my work, too, across all industries. This 30-minute respite is a useful directive and experiment.

Pooling Collective Intelligence Is a Smart Way Forward

A lot has been written about top-down leadership as the most suitable style for urgent situations. Overlooked, though, is the expanded role a more decentralized model of leadership can offer. The emergency situation is exposing and, in some cases, exacerbating company vulnerabilities that require far more mind trust than the senior team can provide.

The same client company I discussed above seized the opportunity to engage its employees in adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those that can’t be solved by experts. They require courageous creative thinking. Crowdsourcing models such as these develop people’s strategic thinking abilities so that many more can make sizable contributions. And the proposals are far more considered since the crowdsourcing process encourages radical ideas where diverse perspectives are sought out and heard.

Taking on truly transformative ways of working by addressing challenges frees up the senior team to see the big picture by encouraging large-scale transformation and innovation thought through by others. This leaves the senior leaders to fly at 43,000 feet, the altitude at which a commercial passenger airplane flies safely at its maximum speed.

Team Retreats Reimagined

Once considered a luxury for some who viewed off-sites as time away from getting things done (or, at least, many had low expectations of what could be achieved), retreats are now seen as invaluable. And that’s a very good thing. Now, these retreats have urgency driving their agenda. Done remotely, the logistics of navigating time zones isn’t always easy, but it can be done. The previous model of a few full days away is now being replaced by two to three-hour multiday retreat sessions in home offices or people’s living rooms. It’s a recognition that in-person human hours are not the same as Zoom hours. Shorter bursts of meetings are far more productive than one long stretch when you are online.

Work In Unity

Leaders who are clients of mine have also reported less infighting, and fewer impasses caused by intractable disagreements. Not all senior teams are acting harmoniously, no doubt, but early reports of reaching agreement following a rigorous exchange are telling. There’s nothing better for business continuance than when people are driven by a common purpose.

Looking to what’s happening around the world also reveals countries shifting from discordant divisions across political party lines to a unified voice. Canada is showing a common front against the virus even though the ruling government party finds itself in a minority situation. And in Europe, there are calls for unity. There’s even an appeal for a global ceasefire endorsed by the United Nations while the virus rages. In time, we will know if this will have an enduring effect.

What are the long-term effect of these changes, and will they stick when the emergency situation is over? It seems to me that it depends, in part, on how long this lasts. The duration of the crisis, the reason for all the changes we are making at work, will decide for us whether returning to how we did things is even feasible. We want to be deliberate about processes and practices so that we choose wisely what we want to keep, and we discard the bad practices that were bred out of speed and desperation and evolve them so they are better.

A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com. Credit to the beautiful photo goes to Elana Mozhvilo.

Advice for Leaders Newly Working from Home

I might be in the lower percentage of those people who enjoy working from home. My work as an executive coach and before that as a management consultant has provided me with the opportunity to choose where I work, for the most part.

Many more people are working from home as a precaution to protect from the further spread of COVID-19. You’ve been told to work from home, and you are nervous about whether or not you can do it successfully. Maybe you tried it once or twice and failed. With a little bit of foresight and planning, and following good advice, you can make this work for yourself and for your team.

Be Real About What You Are Worried About
The secret is that you have to find solutions to your fears. Like anything related to leadership, you will be far more effective if you are honest with yourself and admit those areas where you expect that you’ll be challenged. In this case of working from home, you’ll need to help yourself and plan to keep up your level of productivity and not lose your sense of work fulfillment.
To that end, first, get clear with yourself on what you are jittery about. If it’s your fear that you won’t be motivated to work when you are at home, identify your distractors. Is it social media, fear of loneliness or household chores like cleaning out the fridge or doing yard work that will siphon off your time? Once you identify what you know will likely take your mind off work, make plans so it doesn’t stop you from getting work done.

If you are the only one in the family who’s staying home, don’t fall in the trap of doing everything during the workday because you are there. Be firm with your boundaries. Being at home isn’t the same as having time off. Continue to share whatever household tasks you can with others in your family. When my spouse also began working from home, we continued to share household responsibilities.
If it’s social media that pulls you in and gets you going down a rabbit hole for hours at a time, set a schedule of when you will indulge in the channels that delight you. Hold yourself to specific time limits. But beware of the social media discussions that can sour your mood. When you are at home, your mood needs protecting more than you might be used to because you are on your own, at least when you are new to this new work arrangement.

Be A Good Boss
I learned early in my career that I can be a very demanding boss when I’m the boss of me. In other words, many of us make the mistake of becoming workaholics who are immune to paying attention to the signs of overwork. We are all fueled by wanting to do high-quality work and avoiding being a bottleneck for others in the collaborative work we do, but we can go too far. If this is you, my advice is that one thing that can make an impact is to make sure you take breaks.

Ground Yourself With Breaks
What I’ve learned over decades of working in a home office is that when I venture outside and take a walk, I am far more productive. Don’t let a full day of meetings prevent you from doing it. Make room for being active in your calendar. If you want scientific evidence that taking breaks is imperative for productivity, have a look at Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s really not. You’ll sleep better at night and be more productive during the day. This, in my experience, is hard advice to follow but has huge dividends if you do it daily.

Stay Connected
When it comes to interactions with your team and stakeholders, you’ll want to review your calendar and see which meetings you can hold in a group or move to a one-to-one. Once you are on the call, be sure to switch on your camera and invite others to do the same. It’s easy to send emails all day, but don’t do it. You’ll find that scheduling calls and seeing people will not only improve the focus of the group calls but also restore your sense of affiliation to others. As a leader, this is vital if you are going to continue to show you care about the members of your team.
Relatedly, it can be lonely working from home, so structure in some social calls to maintain the sociability that you enjoyed when you were able to share a coffee with people you saw in the halls.

Here are a few other tips from my experience:
• Get dressed in the morning as you would for work.
• Keep your pantry stocked with healthy foods. Don’t let junk food satiate your hunger or your boredom.
• If you are a compulsive snacker or a coffee addict, do not work in the kitchen.
• If you are a natural planner, plan your day. If you aren’t, make a list based on your goals.

Working at home isn’t hard, but like anything new, it may take you time to adapt to your new situation. You may surprise yourself by how much you learn to enjoy it.

Photo credit with thanks to djurdjica boskovic. This article was first published on Forbes.com.

Cultivating A Performance Culture Of Respect

There are few things more important for a leader than fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute their ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to take risks without fear of any negative consequences for speaking up. I’ve seen firsthand the lengths involved in identifying, preparing and promoting talent when I ran a management assessment center. To spend plenty of resources for that purpose and then not use the talent is a terrible waste.

Amy C. Edmondson has written the latest sine qua non about psychological safety in the workplace. If you didn’t know, Google’s study on what makes the best teams was influenced by Edmondson’s early research. Google ranked psychological safety as the first and far and away the most important of factors vital for team success. But getting it right can get messy.

If you as a leader insist on high performance standards but neglect psychological safety, employees will want to speak up about quality or safety concerns, but they’ll feel anxious because they know that their observations and general input to make something better will be ignored or ridiculed. Their contributions, most of the time, aren’t welcomed, so they don’t offer input, and so on it goes. I’ve seen examples of this, and as an executive coach, I’ve heard of many more from my clients who share their stories. There have been situations where a senior leader demanded ambitious goals thinking it would take ambitious efforts, and then modeled bad behaviors such as a raised voice, throwing things and humiliating others with their words. The leader wanted to stretch the elastic band of possibility in an uncertain market, but their actions kept people silent, dampened people’s drive, encouraged cautiousness and promoted fear.

On the other hand, lowering performance standards and relaxing consequences isn’t the way to go about it either. When you do this, all you get is a “nice” culture at the expense of one that promotes challenge and innovates. Letting go of holding people accountable reduces people’s motivation to take risks and set ambitious goals. It reduces engagement.

If, however, there’s a high bar for performance and attention to promoting sensitivity when people take interpersonal risks, the environment will be productive, and people will feel open and ready to disagree. The Goldilocks principle is at play when this combination is exactly right. In a psychologically safe workplace, there’s challenging work to do in ways that are mutually respectful so that when people fail and recover, they do so without reprisal.

But let’s be careful not to oversell psychological safety. It doesn’t have the muscle to go all the way to motivate people to collaborate with one another, and that’s key because collaboration is how work gets done. Psychological safety is a hygiene factor, not an engine. When it’s absent, boy do we notice.

The Dynamism Of Trust And Collaboration

We also need to notice how psychological safety interacts with collaboration. What’s important for leaders to recognize is that trust is foundational. We can’t cultivate purpose without it.

We know that having a view beyond ourselves, to the group, the team, the enterprise and the higher mission opens our appreciation of what we are working towards and gives us the energy to work interdependently.

Collaboration without trust isn’t genuine or effective. The stepladder to effective collaboration begins with trust, so it’s disappointing that executives in a large study rated building trust very low in relation to the other factors of instilling purpose and generating energy. This news is hard to swallow and suggests that we still will be facing a trust deficit for some time.

I feel good about the leaders I know who read about management concepts with the intention of raising their leadership game. However, I’ve noticed as we hunger to learn, we can inadvertently overemphasize a useful concept like psychological safety, believing it can deliver more than it can. We can also slip up by overlooking the importance of trust in creating effective collaboration. Understanding and applying both go a long way towards creating a flourishing culture at work.

 

This article was published first on Forbes.com Thank you to Rodion Kutsaev for the photo.

Getting Unstuck

How are you doing today? One of the many things I’ve learned about how to be with people during this crisis, is to give up ‘How are you?’ and ask a question that expresses more of our empathy and our humanity while giving people the space to say what’s really going on. “How are you doing today?” does that.

I’ve been asking a lot of people what the experience of this time is for them. We might all be interconnected and “in this together” but these times are accelerating and intensifying the inequities in our world that we live with. Just yesterday I saw a magazine cover with the header Rich Corona Poor Corona – who lives, who dies and who thrives. That captured it.

As I continue to ask others, I keep thinking about what I’m learning. It’s an immense question to consider as life’s restrictions continue without reprieve and has a bigger answer than the space available in this blog post. Yet, when I look at my own experience of this time with the advantages I have, I began to notice that there have been four stages to my personal experience of this time, so far. Viewing your experience in stages is a simple way of looking at a block of time. I encourage you to have a look to see if you can define stages, and if so, what they’ve been. Here have been mine to date:

Stage 1:
I found this time a little scary but mostly stimulating. I was staying in, signing up for all sorts of webinars for professional development and personal interest. I created a handbook for living and leading in uncertain times which I shared widely. It was early days and I wanted to be helpful.

Stage 2:
I became sick of staying on zoom calls and I couldn’t focus. I feared that I wouldn’t have the concentration to read a book. So I joined a virtual book club as a test and the temporary community offered both comfort and excitement.

Stage 3:
A friend lost both his parents to COVID and everything went dark.

Stage 4:
I worked hard to regain my focus and recognized that I couldn’t wait until my motivation returned so that my habits would continue. I had to re-imagine all the ones I worked hard to design and do. It took some time to reimagine new designs for eating and exercising and even working in this new world.

Stage 5:
I enrolled in an online learning program and my creative juices are flowing again to create new materials, read, write and learn. My multiple groups, some I’ve been a part of for years and some just newly formed have helped me stay connected to myself and to others. I’m astounded that I am as creatively productive as I have been. It’s also true that there are dips in my energy.

Naturally, there have been sad and worrying moments, but for me, getting out into nature has been a standout experience I will bring with me into the future when this is behind us.

The day before yesterday, I became aware of the paradox of nature once more. There was comfort, it was peaceful, still and static and it was also filled with change and dynamism. How I viewed the natural surroundings felt familiar, but there was something foreign and odd about it.

We walked slowly and thoughtfully through cornfields, and then along the shores by a creek with brook trout. We sat by the shoreline to eat the lunch fixings we had brought with us. We were careful to taste our food, not just eat it because food is now an ordeal to procure. “Savour it”, I remember reminding myself.

When we were in the forest I felt as though I had entered into a universe. I noticed and then said aloud that I was appreciating the small wonders around us. The sounds of the Canadian geese that flew by close enough to see their markings, the mischievous burdock that grabbed hold on our socks, and the sounds and sightings of a butterfly with dark tips on the edges of its wings that revisited many times. When I returned home, I reviewed my photos and thought about what John Muir said at a different time:

“The clearest ways into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

I’d had trouble with focus in this pandemic but I knew that the hard part was behind me. There was and will always be the forest that makes adventure and calm available.

Photo credit: Sheila Goldgrab