Business management

The professional’s guide to leading a practice through lockdown

Expert Q&A with Quiver Management’s Jan Bowen-Nielsen.

What are the specific challenges to leading a business remotely at this time?

“Dealing with uncertainty is the main issue and there are two or three stages to that. When businesses were thrown into lockdown, leaders had no choice but to send teams home – it was not strategic but reactive – but I’ve been impressed by how adaptable many businesses have been.

“The next element is dealing with reopening businesses over the next six months of uncertainty and beyond. Some firms have put their heads in the sand a bit and are just thinking about how to manage day-to-day. Others are more focused on what the world will look like after this, considering the possible scenarios and how they can be in the best possible position for each.

“A key area is the morale and motivation of staff and how to lead a team. Many leaders are not well equipped to do this. The old-fashioned directive and micromanagement approach, where you manage people by their input – the number of hours they turn up and sit in front of the computer screen – does not work in the lockdown environment. There has to be more coaching, empowering and trusting in people. Managers must be clearer about the output they want.

Help your staff feel resourceful and motivated to do something about whatever worries they have. Help them deal with uncertainty. It’s change management in its purest form

Jan Bowen-Nielsen
Director and co-founder, Quiver Management

“Another challenge is how to manage what you don’t notice. Leaders are used to an environment where they can see what’s happening in the workspace. Now that they can’t, they’re wondering what they’re missing, which makes a lot of leaders anxious. It’s harder to notice those colleagues feeling down, for example, or see the things that aren’t working as well as they should.

“Productivity among teams is also a challenge when you don’t have people in the room. There are contributory factors to consider, such as home schooling, how good the home office set-up is, whether the technology works, whether people have access to information and can they collaborate well enough. Research shows that remote workers are generally more productive, but this applies to people who are set up and have chosen to work from home. Whereas during lockdown many people have been thrown into it with systems that are not adequately set up.”

How do you maintain morale among your staff in difficult times?

“First, you need to make people feel important and included. It’s easy when you’re remote to feel out of the loop and that your status is threatened because you lack the usual acknowledgement from colleagues or know what conversations are taking place. Whatever people are doing, they need to know that it’s adding value. Communication is critical to that.

“Second, routines are also important. People have been suddenly thrust into a different work environment. Getting up at the same time every day and building some routine is essential, including childcare – and leadership should encourage staff to do that. Establish some regularity about when you have team meetings. Have your morning call that sets the scene for the day at the same time every day. Emphasise to your team what should stay the same – that creates a level foundation of comfort when everything else around them is in flux. Then, it is about leading in a way that is empowering the team and entrusting them to work actively – not micromanaging but coaching and setting specific goals.

“Socialising is also essential, so we need to socialise virtually. You need to replicate some of those informal conversations and team spirit that takes place in a co-located office.

“Leaders must also monitor the mood closely. That means having good-quality one-to-one conversations and getting a sense of how people are doing. Help your staff feel resourceful and motivated to do something about whatever worries they have. Help them deal with uncertainty. It’s change management in its purest form.

“Over the next few months as we work remotely, people have to have something to look forward to, not just getting out of lockdown. In terms of development, they need challenging and interesting work to do.”

What are the best ways to communicate remotely? Do different channels have different functions?

“You need to supercharge your approach. How do you create those conversations that take place in the office? The chat over the partition walls and coffee machine? The casual thank yous and exchanges? Small WhatsApp groups can help groups on projects where people can check-in and have banter and casual conversations.

“Start every virtual meeting with checking in and allow some informal chat. Ask how people are organising their days, get a sense of how they are coping in this environment. Encourage sub-teams to meet and solve problems together. You match the message to the medium – if it’s complex and personal, it’s video calls. If you don’t need an immediate response, emails work a lot better.

“We have to get our heads out of the mindset that virtual is not as good as being in person. Obviously, you miss some of that chemistry when people are in the room. But you need to make the best possible use of the technology available. And to be honest, things can be easier and more effective on virtual platforms.

“The fact is that we will be doing this for a while. We’ll get used to the etiquette of these meetings. Much of that is things leaders should be doing on a day-to-day basis. Team meetings can be more efficient now. You can see on screen who is engaged and everyone can have their say.”

How do you convey difficult news at this time remotely?

“It is not so very different from doing it face to face. If you do it over video, there is not much lost. Recognise that the team you’re giving the message to are made up of individuals and they potentially have some significant pressures. Their mental health may be suffering and they may not be in an overly resilient mood or could be feeling overwhelmed.

“Before you get to that situation of giving a difficult message as a leader, you should already have had plenty of one-to-ones. You will have built up a good understanding of where that individual is right now, workwise and personally. Hopefully you have a good sense of how the team will deal with the bad news. Whether the news is delivered remotely or in person doesn’t really matter. It’s the groundwork that is most important.”

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