More people are working remotely than ever before as a result of worldwide shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This puts executive leaders in the awkward position of leading from home. Traditionally, leadership involves face-to-face meetings, getting one-on-one time with other executives and having a physical presence across the organization that helps build trust with the organization’s employees.
With meetings and daily work moving online as employees settle in to working from home, how can IT executives maintain a strong leadership presence in a newly remote organization?
Keep on top of tech, security, and support
The first step to fostering organizational trust in your ability to lead IT from home is to ensure IT operations and support run smoothly and securely. And that means making sure every department has access to what they need in order to work remotely.
For most organizations, there’s a good chance some departments will be “more technically savvy than others,” says Michael Coakley, CIO of White Plains, NY. It’s important to communicate with department heads one-on-one or in video meetings to figure out which departments need more help getting employees set up for remote work.
Once people are well-equipped to work at home, you’ll need to consider security. With workers out of their typical environment, working at home with children, spouses, roommates, pets and other distractions could cause employees to slip up on IT security. To prevent this, Coakley’s team has been sending out regular check-in emails to employees with reminders about security concerns, spotting phishing attempts and advice on avoiding suspicious links.
Coakley also sought to ensure that everyone knew the IT department would be just as accessible as it was before the shutdowns. His team took measures to set up a system that sends help-desk emails and tickets to multiple channels, creating a “level of redundancy” so that people aren’t left waiting and are helped as soon as possible.
Build trust virtually
Building trust with your employees is an important aspect of leadership and it’s something that typically happens on a personal level, says Patrick Kinsella, CTO and senior vice president of engineering at Onepath. Without that “face-to-face interaction time,” IT leaders will likely find it more difficult to “build and maintain that relationship equity,” he says.
To maintain this type of connection virtually, Kinsella’s team jumps on a quick video call at the start of the day to check in with one another. Each day, they pick a question that everyone answers during the call, a ritual that always “results in a funny story, and it ends with the team laughing often to the point of tears.”
“As cliché as it sounds, 20 or 30 minutes of daily personal time with your direct reports has an unbelievable effect on mood and morale throughout the day,” Kinsella says. “We’re not just working from home — people are going through personal matters, like having family members who are working out in the field. These additional stressors make interpersonal relationships that much more important.”
Coakley regularly checks in with his team to recognize their efforts and acknowledge the hard work they’re getting done during a difficult time. He also reaches out to other departments supported by IT so they know the department is ready to handle any questions or concerns.
Ultimately, it’s about saying to your employees, “We are here to support you and we will help you achieve whatever you need to achieve at home that you used to be able to achieve at work,” says Coakley.
Give people time to work
Regular check-ins and meetings are a reasonable expectation when your department goes remote but avoid overwhelming people with so many virtual meetings that they can’t get their work done.
Sarah Greenberg, licensed psychotherapist and leadership coach at Betterup, suggests practicing “essentialism” when it comes to meetings. That means keeping meetings focused and concise, so people still have pockets of “flow time” to get their work done.
“Even though consistent meetings are important, people still need these time pockets in their day for deep work, particularly now in light of the pandemic,” she says. “People need time for connection, not just with their colleagues, although that’s very important, but also with their family, with their friends and checking in with loved ones.”
That might mean redefining what the traditional workday looks like. While it may seem to challenge your ability to manage every report, giving employees the opportunity to adjust their work schedule around their circumstances can pay dividends by building trust. You may have employees who struggle to work in their home due to distractions and outside stressors. They may want the opportunity to work at night or early in the morning, taking time off later in the day when it’s convenient for their schedule. Showing your reports that you trust they are capable of completing their work regardless of schedule can help foster a relationship of mutual respect and trust that is vital for leading at a distance.
Encourage self-care and work-life balance
Although employees are working from home, work-life balance can be more important now than ever. With no definition between work and home, employees might find themselves overworking or feeling a pressure to be “on” after hours.
One way to avoid burnout is to have clear and frank discussions with your employees about expectations during this time. Encourage workers to take breaks when they need it, set clear goals for the work week and keep the lines of communication open for workers who may be struggling with productivity.
“I think the next thing that leaders could do is promote autonomy and flexibility. Giving people clear expectations and guidelines, but then within that leaving plenty of room for them to decide how they want to accomplish their tasks,” says Greenberg.
Leaders need to practice self-care, too
Self-care might feel like the buzzword of 2020, but it’s just as important for IT leaders to practice self-care — especially when they’re preaching it to their employees. Greenberg says that “emotions are contagious,” even at a distance. If leadership is stressed out then that energy can easily bleed into your team.
“A leader simply practicing self-care, taking care of their own mind and ensuring that they’re committing to their non-negotiables for staying balanced themselves is going to positively impact the balance of their team,” says Greenberg.