Helping Teams Focus When They’re Suddenly Working Remotely

The nature of work is changing – fast! The mandated precautions being put into place due to Covid-19 has left most workforces attempting to adapt to working completely remote. As uncertainty swirls around us, leaders are faced with the challenge of helping employees focus on what they can control.

Culture is leader-led. That’s perhaps truer than ever in a moment like this. So much of the engagement level and focus a team demonstrates is a result of the experiences their immediate leaders are creating.

Increase Visibility as Certainty Decreases

Leaders should increase visibility in moments of disruption and uncertainty. This leads to greater alignment and focus. Most of us are now attending virtual meetings. Those should be happening frequently – with web cams on. A team needs to see their leader right now. Your body language speaks volumes. It can be calming.

In the absence of virtual meetings, the next best way to increase visibility is through conference calls, short video clips, or emails. None of this communication has to be lengthy, but it should be frequent.

If your team normally has meetings once a week, you might consider doing them two or three times a week. One of them could be the normal length. The others could be briefer and feature a “huddle-like” atmosphere. The longer the period without seeing and hearing from a leader and peers right now, the higher likelihood of distraction, confusion, and a lack of focus.

Doug McMillion, the President and CEO of Walmart, is one leader who is effectively demonstrating this principle. Almost daily he is posting to LinkedIn pictures of him in different Walmart locations around the United States. Along with the pictures of him interacting with Walmart associates on the floor of the store are typically a few lines of text of what he heard and felt while in the store.

He recently posted this message to his associates on social media as well, “Dear associates, words can’t express how proud I am of each of you for the incredible effort you have put in over the past few weeks. In the face of uncertainty, you have delivered for our customers, members and each other. To you and your families: Thank you. I’m grateful.”

McMillion’s visibility is intentional and designed to demonstrate empathy as well as focus. His employees can see what their leader is doing in the midst of the chaos around him.

Help People Feel Heard, Virtually

As we increase visibility, aim to both communicate adjustments the business is making in light of fast-changing market conditions as well as give people the opportunity to feel heard. Our visibility shouldn’t be just one direction. Facilitating discussion during this moment leads to greater focus and alignment.

An effective question to ask a team during a virtual meeting would be: “What reality do we most need to acknowledge right now?” This question allows them to share all the disruption they’re feeling. A follow up question might be, “What part of the problem or solution do we need to own?” That begins to refocus the team’s energy around what they control rather than the chaos. The next two questions a leader might ask are, “What else can we do right now?” and, “Who will do what, by when?”

We call this process See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It. They are the Steps to Accountability. Accountability and ownership don’t happen by accident. Creating a Culture of Accountability is never easy but current world conditions make it incredibly challenging without intentional and continual effort by leaders.

Focus on Results

Virtual teams need constant reminders of what results matter most. What results do they need to be focused on? Without clear direction on the two to three results the leader needs effort focused on right now, dispersed teams might get distracted or spend time on things the leader doesn’t view as most important.

Consider an example: A large health insurance organization had thousands of employees, from nurses to behavioral health professionals, working mostly from homes located across the U.S. As the customer needs changed quickly, leaders of this part of the business huddled to define three Key Results that they needed this remote workforce aligned around.

One was around growth. Another was customer experience. The third had to do with compliance. In virtual sessions of no more than 100 employees at a time, leaders presented the Key Results and facilitated discussion around them.

No organization has the luxury of time or calm right now. That increases the need for clarity around the most critical results a team or teams need to deliver in the short-term. When leaders clarify to remote employees the results that matter most in the next few weeks or months, it allows the workforce to make decisions around what to prioritize and what to stop working on.

Recognize and Reward Desired Behavior

In this moment of disruption, virtual meetings and online collaboration tools provide a great opportunity to recognize and reward desired behavior. Innovation and adaptation are more important than ever. As you see members of your team demonstrating the urgency, agility, or problem-solving mindset needed right now, call it out. That’s easily done digitally. It sends messages to others of what you, as the leader, are looking for. Water what you want to grow right now.

As unsettling as these times are, they provide an opportunity: Disruption destroys the status quo and accelerates innovation. Those who intentionally lead their team in the appropriate ways will find their remote workforce maneuvering the rapids, even avoiding the boulders while using the white water to accelerate movement. They’ll come out of this stronger and better positioned than before to meet the demands of their customer.

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