I’m writing this from the desk in my one-bedroom apartment on the Isle of Dogs, looking out over the River Thames. It’s a lovely spot, but it’s the same view I’ve had every day now for over seven weeks. I can’t remember the last time I spent this long in one place. 

My days are normally spent moving around London, meeting clients and friends for coffee or lunch, or travelling to be with my family, who live variously in the UK, Holland, Germany, Italy and the USA. I used to think of myself as a digital nomad; now not so much the nomad. 

The current situation is not business as usual for anyone. The adjustment has been most manageable for those of us already used to working from home, but even for us, and certainly, for the vast majority, the last few weeks have felt like the start of a huge social experiment. 

As we start to emerge from the lockdown, we hear people describing this as the new normal and wondering whether things will ever go back to precisely the way they were before. I rather hope they will, because I find videoconferencing a poor substitute for real human contact. 

Nonetheless, this has been a hugely accelerated shift to virtual working. It was already a trend, so it seems likely at least some of this shift is going to be permanent.  Especially as social distancing is going to be with us for quite some time.

As I’ve talked to people over the last few weeks, the conversation has ranged from the practicalities of working from home to the more challenging problems of trying to manage teams and businesses remotely. 

There are some common themes emerging and I’ve tried to pull these together here into five lessons I think we’re learning about how to manage our people remotely:

  • DON’T ASSUME EVERYONE’S OK

This crisis is affecting each of us differently and some are coping better than others. For many of us, the economic shock is quite profound. We have friends or family whose businesses are struggling or whose jobs are gone. And we have the human tragedy of Covid-19 itself. 

On the practical level, not everyone has space to set up a home office, especially younger people, who may live in shared apartments and find it quite stressful to try to work from home. Even more senior folk may find their normally quiet space now shared with their family.

People are used to coming to work and leaving their personal problems at home, but that’s impossible right now. The normal separation between work life and home life has become hopelessly blurred and, on top of that, we have the added psychological stress of isolation. Even as lockdown is eased, this feeling will be with us for a while. 

So, it’s important, now more than ever, to check in with every member of your team. You may be speaking to them regularly via video conference, but it’s much harder to pick up non-verbal cues over video. So, make sure you ask how they’re doing and don’t assume everyone’s OK.

  • STAY CONNECTED

A lot of people are commenting on how much more productive they are when working from home. This is partly because they’re not wasting time travelling or sitting in unproductive meetings and partly due to a lack of distraction. 

The problem is, a lot of that distraction is actually hugely important social interaction. One of the things we’re learning is we don’t go into the office just to work – the social dimension of having a job and working with other people is a crucial part of our lives.

So, how do you compensate for this, when all your team are working from home, and how do you prevent them from becoming disengaged?

One of our member firms, Zuhlke, who are software engineers, have described how they manage remote pair-programming, using videoconferencing and screen-sharing. Pair-programming is the practice of having two coders work together on the same task. 

What they’ve found is, in addition to all the usual advantages, there’s a very useful social benefit in having team members in regular or constant communication. There’s a more general lesson here, about encouraging members of your team to work together on tasks, even though they’re physically separated.

Generally, people are adapting well to the work part of working from home. However, the psychological strain of social isolation may be more of a problem, which is why it’s more important than ever to stay connected with your team. 

It’s hard to know what you can do to support people who are struggling with all this, but it certainly helps to have a routine. 

My strong recommendation is to increase the frequency of scheduled interactions, whether they are stand-ups or progress meetings or regular one-on-ones with each member of your team. The more structured, scheduled interaction you have, the better. 

  • DEMONSTRATE LEADERSHIP

Leadership is rooted in personal interaction. Every leader knows they have to show up, see and be seen, listen and be heard. And, of course, all these things are more difficult when everyone’s working from home. So, how do you lead by videoconference? 

What you absolutely don’t want to do, is retreat into managing by email. Even in the best of times, we’ve all seen people whose idea of leadership is a steady stream of motivational emails. This doesn’t work in an office setting and it certainly won’t work now. 

What you do need to do is get on the video calls, get on the phone, talk to your people and listen to them. Now, more than ever is the time to lead by example. Your teams will watch how you operate and take their cue from you.

If you want people to collaborate, make sure you collaborate. If you want people to reach out to clients, make sure that’s what you do and are seen to be doing. The tone you set, in your virtual interactions with your team, is the only real social cue they’re getting, so make sure it’s the right tone and that it is positive. 

It’s OK to acknowledge things are difficult. It’s important your people can see and understand what you’re going through, so they know they’re not alone. It’s really good if your team sees your kids interrupting you; it shows you’re human too. 

I think one of the most striking things we’re seeing is the importance of an organisation’s values. Lockdown is a pressure test for the strength of a company’s values and my sense is the companies with the strongest values are surviving in better shape.

Most importantly of all, make sure everyone knows what direction you’re heading in and what they can do to contribute. Which brings us neatly on to the fourth emerging theme – what is your road map for navigating them out of this crisis? 

  • FOCUS ON BUSINESS RECOVERY

Most companies are now starting to think about how their business will recover from this pandemic and what plans they need to put in place to manage their recovery. One of our member firms, Fluxx, have just published an excellent article on how to create your Covid-19 business recovery plan. The main point they make is the level of uncertainty. 

Things are going to change and keep changing. So, the key to recovery for most companies will be the ability to continue to adapt to the new normal as it changes. Because the new normal is going to keep evolving. 

This means, from a leadership perspective, we need to make sure we’re listening to our employees, customers and suppliers to make sure we understand their challenges and priorities and are responding accordingly. 

One of the key things to think through is how the return to work should be phased, in terms of the products and services that will be switched back on, in which locations and employing which segments of the workforce. It is likely this will have to be staged over several weeks and months, rather than happening all at once. 

In all likelihood, due to social distancing measures, it will not be possible to have as many people working in the same building as before and there will most likely be additional health and safety measures to put in place before people can return to work. 

In many ways, the transition back to work is going to be even more difficult to manage than the lockdown itself. We will be working with fractured teams, including a mix of people who are in the office, working from home, on leave or furloughed.

The lockdown was implemented very quickly, the return to work is going to take a lot longer and be a lot more complicated and challenging. 

  • EMBRACE DIGITAL LEARNING

The need to identify and respond to constantly changing problems, means your people need a way to rapidly acquire new skills and abilities. These might be as simple as how to use video conferencing software, or as complicated as how to develop better client relationships while working from home.  

In fact, Covid-19 is proving to be something of a lightning-rod for changes in how companies think about training and is dramatically accelerating the move to digital learning using the latest generation of e-learning platforms.

The benefits of these new learning platforms are rapidly apparent in employee engagement and satisfaction. Their previously unmet need to learn what they want, when and where they want, is now being fulfilled by familiar learning environments in which they can build their own playlists and access them at will. 

And from the company’s point of view, e-learning platforms are highly effective in closing the skills gap and supporting the development of flexible career paths – allowing companies to focus effectively on developing the skills of their existing employees, rather than always having to go out to the expensive job market. 

By way of example, Deutsche Telekom closed all their stores during the lockdown, displacing 100,000 workers. These are people who are not used to working from home. To keep them engaged, Deutsche Telekom has been working with one of our member firms, Skillsoft, to put together a four-week, role-based learning programme, designed to take an employee from a customer service role to a customer service manager role. 

So, if you have not done so already, now is the time to be embracing digital learning, not just to keep your people busy (which it will) but because this is going to be critical to the future of your business, especially in this new, remote working world. 

THE ART OF DISTANCE MANAGEMENT IS NOW A CRITICAL LIFE SKILL

These five lessons are just a few of the things we’re discovering during lockdown, that may hold us in good stead in the months to come. Whatever the new normal proves to be, it’s certain to involve continued remote working for many of us and the teams we manage. 

I hope it won’t be too long before we can meet and work together in person again, but I suspect even then, it will be something we do from time-to-time, rather than every day. Learning how to work together remotely is now a critical life skill and I hope these five lessons prove useful in this context:

  • Don’t assume everyone’s OK
  • Stay connected
  • Demonstrate leadership
  • Focus on business recovery
  • Embrace digital learning