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Forced to stay at home
If you live in an area highly affected by the new Corona virus (Covid-19), and you don’t work in the health sector or you do not provide basic necessities and if you are lucky enough that you can devote yourself to work instead of having to think about most urgent needs of your loved ones, it is highly likely that you are at home right now trying to manage your work.
Even the most ‘ambitious’ of the many books presenting ‘new ways of working’ will explain how, through careful planning and choice of IT tools, a structured involvement of managers, careful monitoring, training, etc., you will be able to introduce a new culture into your structure in a way that is more effective, fair for the employees and socially useful.
However, no one has been trained, not even us writers, for an abrupt change—a big bang so to speak, in which working from home becomes obligatory rather than a choice and not for 1-2 days a week, but for five. In scenario in which, even if you did go to the office (if it were even open), you would essentially be alone.
Obviously, it is the loss of positive experiences provided by social interchange which we miss the most. Managers and team leaders especially feel the lack of being self-effective and influential.
But, it is not only that. From a psychological point of view humans adapt to change in four relevant steps:
- First, self-evaluation and the question whether we have enough resources and skills in order to cope with the situation, something that many of us doubt.
- Second, evaluation of the situation and whether the change makes sense. Of course, we understand the rational arguments for the changes, but nevertheless, they are imposed on us without our control and do not have an individual or entrepreneurial purpose.
- Third, evaluation of consequences which for most of us are negative and have any positive aspects.
- And fourth, hope for improvement. Right in the middle of the Corona crisis, there is little more than the hope that it will end. Being involuntarily caught up in a situation which cannot be controlled and has an unclear outcome creates helplessness and undermines self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy. The lack of social contact and influence as well as mobility and open daylight only adds to it.
If you are thinking that it will only take a few weeks, or that you are already well-prepared, you probably underestimate the situation. The extensive use of work from home will go on for a long time and, probably and hopefully, will become radical in the culture of your company, without wanting to totally replace office work, which in many cases remains the best way to manage relationships and work.
Even experienced team leaders are often overwhelmed with the management of virtual teams.
Psychological studies explain why: virtual teams are ”minimal groups”, in which only the (often arbitrary) group affiliation determines the team’s identity. In such groups, the polarization and emergence of subgroups quickly occurs. Other team members are not seen as a person but as a supplier and are therefore quickly and heavily criticized for mistakes or delays. As a result, conflicts often arise.
In addition to dealing with people, the use and acceptance of technology is also a problem. The main reason for rejecting new technology is a lack of skills that lead to a sense of helplessness: when the technology is unfamiliar and, for example, the deadline is approaching, nerves fail.
Another, initially less obvious problem is that technology is often accepted and used for various reasons, which also leads to conflicts: teams see exchange platforms as a way for professional and private communication, leadership skills rather as a way of structuring and control.
Adapt your management and leadership style (without upheavals)
Whether your management style has been refined over many years or you are still looking for your own methods, the new setting does not require you to give up your leadership principles, which you apply daily to push people to make things happen.
On the other hand, it will not be possible to leave everything unchanged. You will have to change your way of acting and to adapt it to the needs of the new context. People will no longer see you at work, and therefore you will not be able to lead by example.
They will not be able to knock on your door or come to your desk for a question. You will not have lunch or coffee with them. You will not know exactly what they are doing, what they are working on and how they are spending their time.
When you communicate, information received will be less than what you would have in a face-to-face discussion. You will miss the gestures and the facial mimics in front of a camera will be different. If you are making a video call, you will have a lower level of interaction, especially in meetings with many people.
You will also miss the informal meetings you have in an office, which are so precious for gathering information, understanding the mood of your collaborators and sharing principles and motivation. Drawing conclusions will be more complex and checking them with your colleagues as well.
Managing all this requires important countermeasures attributable to three basic aspects: technology, management practices and leadership style. Without wishing to investigate every aspect in detail here, we report below what we believe are the fundamental principles to be taken into consideration in trying to adapt our way of working to the new market’s needs.
Many of you will already have the technology needed to operate remotely. Even if you are already accustomed to use it, it is worth reflecting on what you have available to be able to use it at its best.
Make sure that you have the following enabled at least:
- A video conferencing system that allows you to share the PC screen (ideally, open to the outside without needing to contact a service center).
- A chat system to be used in ‘one-on-one mode’, for small exchanges as well as ‘many-to-many’ for work groups dedicated to individual activities or for the entire structure. The main point to watch out for is not to create a group for each micro-activity, rather only few are needed. It makes sense to not adopt the chat system that you use in private, which would be a cause for constant distraction for your colleagues.
- A well-organized cloud, where all documents are kept, accessible to all the people who have to collaborate in their drafting or consult them for their work.
- A collaboration system that allows everyone to work on the same version of the document at the same time, without many copies coexisting and demanding someone reconstruct the final version.
Management practices will also have to be adapted to the new context to reflect the aforementioned effects of lower physical presence. The most important aspect is that you will have to spend much more time planning the work of others, wondering what to do, how and with whom.
Having no way of verifying the ongoing work simply by approaching colleagues, it will be very important to:
- Identify the priorities of what people work on, clarifying in detail the purposes and timing of implementation, which you must enforce. It will not be impossible to change priorities and objectives while work is going on, but will take much longer than in a normal situation, due to the lower speed and efficacy of circulating information.
- Assign tasks clearly and to people who can perform them. Training on the job is much more difficult remotely, which is one of the reasons why young workers usually prefer to work in the office. Try to make sure that the tasks given to each person are in line with their abilities.
- Clarify the path of sharing and expectations (how the success of the initiative will be measured). How you intend to check the progress of the work, what you expect from each meeting and how you will the measure of the quality of the work done (e.g. sales, customer satisfaction, quality of the output, etc.), are all aspects that must be clarified to all involved people.
The most important aspect of your leadership role will still be motivating people to follow you.
Working in virtual teams brings people a feeling of isolation that can lead to people feeling things aren’t real, which in turn can lead to developing their own interpretations of reality, creating, for example, imaginary stories about interactions with other colleagues.
It is not necessary to distort your way of being and communicating, but you have to think about how to transfer it by different means and times. It is therefore necessary to maintain a high frequency of both personal and group communication, which must be organized and not improvised.
These points are important:
- Organize large team meetings, scheduled on a regular basis, ensuring that all participants can express their opinion, while preventing a few people from dominating the rest.
- Plan one-to-one meetings or mid-term work group meetings in advance and frequently. These meetings should not be perceived as checking the progress of the work but as a support to help for a better performance of the activities.
- Leave the right time, at the beginning of the meetings, to talk about informal subjects to cultivate the relationship with people and acquire a greater perception of the state of things and people. Avoid getting straight to the point with the intent of efficiency.
- Spend more time listening to people and record the mood of everyone towards the topic you are dealing with to avoid misunderstandings and discontent that could slow down or hinder the correct course of things.
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A three-weeks program to foster productivity
It is normal that it will take time to be able to return to a stable situation, in which we feel we have regained control of the situation and are confident we can complete all the activities necessary for the proper management and development of our job.
In what follows, we have traced a short program of how the first period can be dealt with, following a forced extended period of working from home for 5 days a week, which we are using in our Italian office, which first had to face this emergency. Depending on the situation in your company and depending on your type of team, it can be adjusted and adapted. Nevertheless, we hope it will be an inspiration to those who are starting to tackle the topic now.
- Review the hardware that the company supplied to you and think about how to best use it, check and speak to your internal experts. If necessary, combine it with market solutions. Concentrate and focus in particular on the use of the web conference and chat systems. Check their characteristics and correct functioning.
- Communicate as much as possible with colleagues trying to support them in their doubts and problems. Organize a one-to-one video call with all your direct collaborators and a group video call with all your team members, in order to make the current situation clear, express your intentions and record their moods and concerns.
- Concentrate work on the activities necessary for the business continuity, suspending the progress of all non-priority development activities.
- Review the planning of development activities and try to rationalize them by focusing on the main ones. In making this assessment, consider that it will be more complex, once assigned, to redirect them quickly. The new situation will also bring short- and long-term consequences that we have to face now, such as managing suppliers and clients in a different way. It is better to prioritize a strategy in which they are gradually reintroduced.
- Restart development activities following the new plan, reassign roles and activities in a timely manner. Give deadlines for work sharing and expected outputs.
- Plan a project on the introduction of new tools for remote work, in order to be able to replicate all the activities carried out within the office. Here there could be legal issues, where alternative solutions to paper have not yet been defined, or activities where a little structured and very frequent interaction is needed, such as the management of creative brainstorming or agile teams which could need new tools. Managing clients remotely will become even more important, and every development in this field should be strengthened.
- Carefully plan one-to-one and group communication (be creative), carry on communicating with your collaborators. Use video as widely as possible for meetings and one-to-one sessions and prefer the use of chats over e-mail. Organize group chats for the most important activities which will also make it easier for you to keep track of the situation of activities without being invasive.
- Set up training and coaching sessions on the new way of working for managers belonging to your area, so that they can quickly manage the new situation. Possibly prepare support figures to answer both personal and technical questions that will arise in applying the new way of working.
- Based on the previous 2 weeks, you can start to adjust the means of communicating, checking the tools used, the frequency of communication, depending on your management style that may be too much or even too little, and think about its development (timing, content, management, communication style). Dedicate special attention to cross-functional team dynamics to prevent internal imbalances.
- Organize cascade training from managers to their collaborators by preparing the appropriate material or using what has already been prepared within the company. It is common that within each team there is someone more used to technology, often, but not always, the youngest. Assign them the role of pivot for the team, giving them the task of acting as a point of reference for others.
- Focus on goal management and monitoring. As people’s perceptions of remote work change, you won’t see them working or confront each other in an unstructured way, making your own idea of their qualities and skills. It is therefore necessary to clearly define objects and measurement systems to make people aware of the parameters they will be measured and evaluated on.
Schedule some time every week in your agenda, alone or with your collaborators, to analyze the progress of the new ways of working and evaluate adjustments to be made during the work.
Compare and share with your colleagues and with your experts on the progress of activities to improve and consolidate a homogeneous work culture within your company.
Start immediately and keep it simple
It is important to act quickly, but gradually, to prevent your colleagues from entering a situation of isolation or being submerged with requests without being able to follow up on them. It is therefore better to initially do less but with more structure and awareness.
Remember that, unlike teams in one place, the quality of work results in virtual teams depends less on a sense of belonging than on equal exchange of information and good coordination of roles and tasks.
Virtual teams also need more time to develop common routines and values and more effort to maintain them. But research shows that members of virtual teams can be both more productive and satisfied than traditional teams if the conditions are right.
We are aware that even these quick changes are more than just an emergency program: the adjustments and experiences our companies, teams and employees make these days and in the months to come will stay and permanently change the way we work and co-operate.
This may be a threat, but it is also an opportunity to create a meaningful purpose: getting acquainted to new technologies, creating a sense of productive work in virtual teams, investing resources in a better support of teamwork and leadership and, not least, creating a new sense of how we get in touch and serve our customers.
In uncertain times it is more important than ever that banks and insurers remain good partners for their customers and present themselves as part of the solution. Further information can be found here.