Millions of people are now grappling with how to work from home. But for those in charge, the question is how you lead from home.
It starts with the most fundamental principle of leadership: making people feel they will succeed. Here’s how:
Communicate your vision for getting the team through the crisis. Use video conferencing, not an audio-only conference call or, worse, emails or texts. Your team needs to see you and see each other to reinforce the sense that they’re all in this together. And they need to be able to question you, offer ideas, collaborate and coordinate. Your job is to map out the road ahead. Emphasize the most important organizational priorities. Explain how resources are being redeployed to meet those priorities. Be clear and concrete—this is not a half-time pep talk but a carefully thought out game plan, despite the new ground rules.
Reach out to each team member individually. Ask how they’re doing and listen actively to really hear what they need in order to succeed. That includes understanding their domestic situations—children at home or a family member suffering from the virus or suspected of having it. They may be other independent stressors as well. You want to make sure everyone is up to dealing with the stress, with change and with all the action items coming their way. You should also make sure that they are reaching out to their teams. In fast changing circumstances, these one-on-ones need to be repeated at least every other day.
Delegate a crisis communicator. Choose someone well respected and trusted to send out an open and honest daily crisis update for all employees. It will help people manage their anxiety and it will fend off distracting, productivity-killing rumors. A separate update should be sent every other day to other stakeholders—investors, customers, suppliers and public health authorities when appropriate.
Promote best practices for online meetings. Besides the inspirational/informational meetings and the one-on-ones, there are two other types of meetings critical to the survival of an enterprise: project meetings and process meetings. Projects involve groups of people working together to figure out how to enact a desired change. Processes involve groups of people working together in a routine, repetitive fashion to produce or deliver something (which could be physical like a product or could be information like a status on accounts payable). Make sure your people know the difference and know how to conduct online meetings appropriately for each circumstance. Because productive on-line meetings will be crucial to productivity and survivability, leaders or someone they designate should sit in on as many project and process on-line meetings as possible to help project and process teams develop productive online meeting routines.
For project meetings, focus on milestones. The team leader should ask each person responsible for achieving a milestone to give a concise status report and answer any questions that arise. Before signing off, the team leader should summarize all changes in the project plans. Crisis project teams need to meet daily; other project teams can meet as needed.
For process meetings, focus on metrics. Leading an effective on-line process meeting is tricky. Everyone has gone home, but most processes require some urgent modifications. Who is going to operate the receiving dock? Who is going to decide which maintenance routines need changing? These modifications can be managed as if they were projects, following the procedures above. When no further changes are required, on-line process teams need to maintain the routines they’ve been assigned and report on their metrics—not milestones—they use to detect if their part of the process is working properly. On-line process meetings should therefore be organized around people reporting metrics and everyone else involved with the process discussing the best ways to incrementally improve it. The process leader should focus on making the requisite changes as quickly as possible using a project management format. Then use on-line meetings to keep everyone engaged in incrementally improving their metrics.
Look for new prompts about performance. Most leaders develop a sensitivity for how their teams are doing and the performance of the overall enterprise. They can sense a vibe as they walk around and overhear conversations or feel the pulse of the work being performed. Maybe things are too quiet—we must not be getting enough orders. Or voices are louder than normal—some group is under stress. (When I was CEO of International Rectifier, a power semiconductor company, I could tell daily shipments from the vibrations in the floor of our assembly facility). Working from home, leaders no longer have access to such prompts. It is crucial to build substitute prompts through all of the varieties of online meetings, to take the temperature, so to speak, of key team members as well as of overall performance.
You may be maintaining your social distance, but online should be a lifeline for drawing your people closer together than ever.