For most of us, these past few weeks have been an intimate experience of what it means to live under Corona-lockdown. For several weeks we have been living in a state of civil emergency and dealing with huge uncertainty and instability, as well as new business and leadership challenges. It has also been a time of accelerated transformation – with home office set-ups and online meetings, complete transformation into a virtual world has become the new norm.
In a time of crisis it is critical to demonstrate good leadership, and as leaders it is up to us to find and facilitate the best way for everyone in this new situation to work together. There is already an abundance of articles with tips and tricks for better processes in the home office; this article explicitly does not address this topic. Instead, we would like to share some initial insights from the reality of the home office experience, and to elucidate some current polarities which have a major impact on company culture, and which can spell the difference between success and failure for you as a leader.
These insights are based on our clients’ first-hand experiences of the advantages and disadvantages that come with the home office set-up. Advantages that people have experienced include greater flexibility and personal responsibility, which go hand in hand with a better balance between work and home life – not to mention doing away with the daily commute to the office. Disadvantages that have been felt are the lack of social exchange, and the sometimes considerable stress of having to combine work with childcare – all in the cramped confines of the home. Despite these disadvantages, overall productivity in the new home office situation is estimated to be higher than in the traditional office environment.
Polarities that arise in the context of the home office
A polarity consists of two apparently contradictory positions between which a balance needs to be found. Unlike problems, polarities cannot be solved or eliminated – instead, they need to be identified and managed. Below we outline three of the most burning polarities (see Figure 1) that affect company culture in the current situation, and we propose three specific, practical approaches for dealing with them.
1. Trust versus control
With everyone working from home, you can no longer keep an eye on your employees – this requires a new kind of trust. Gone are the casual encounters at the coffee machine, we can only see or hear each other during prearranged calls or virtual meetings. At the same time, when employees are facing anxiety and uncertainty, sometimes the new home office situation genuinely calls for stronger management and firmer control. How can we strike the right balance between trust and control so we can continue to work productively – or even more productively than before?
Here are a few tips for achieving a good balance between trust and control:
- firstly, it’s important not to fall into the “control trap”. Because in times of uncertainty, it is a common response of managers to feel the need to exercise even greater control (for example, insisting that employees keep a strict record of their hours, phoning every day to check up on them, etc.). This is counterproductive, not just because it will make your employees feel patronized – it is also the wrong approach to the situation. What people need in a crisis situation is generosity and support.
- Providing the working day with a structure but without exercising too much control can be a good way to support your employees and hold the team together. It can be helpful to check in a few times a week with a brief video call, to bring up any important issues as well as to gage your employee’s emotional wellbeing, see what they are working on at the moment, ask if they need any support and give them the chance to offer feedback.
- If, as a manager, you make use of the current situation to encourage your employees to follow their own initiative, this can result in new, creative ideas. Granting responsibility feeds motivation and makes employees aware that each one of can, and should, help shape the future.
2. Closeness versus distance
Since the start of the lockdown we have only had virtual contact with our colleagues and team members. We are distanced – physically, at least. We no longer have the opportunity to greet each other in the morning, to chat over a coffee break. And yet at virtual meetings we all get a glimpse of each other’s private spaces, and every now and then we hear children in the background. How can we harness the physical distance currently imposed on us to continue to have meaningful interactions and maintain good relationships?
Here are a few tips for achieving a good balance between closeness and distance:
- With our home and work lives occupying the same physical space, the different facets of our lives become increasingly intertwined as we attempt to combine home schooling and family meals with our daily business – making it very easy for us to lose our sense of time. Before, you would never have called a colleague about a trivial matter at 5:30 on a Friday. In the current situaion, this is all too easily done. For this reason, as a leader it’s important to make it clear to your employees when they are expected to be available, and when it’s okay to switch off the phone and computer and answer the next day. Sometimes you will need to encourage individual employees to have regular times when they are “off duty”.
- Right now is also the perfect time to introduce a new, adapted meeting culture. A tried and proven technique is to start the meeting with a check-in, where everyone takes a minute or two to share their feelings. This may seem strange at first. But if you, as a leader, set a good example and allow people to see your vulnerable side, these check-ins will soon come to feel natural and instinctive – and they are a good way to engage with all of your employees.
- As well as holding virtual team meetings, in a crisis situation it becomes important for a leader to speak one-on-one with each employee, to find out how they are doing and offer specific support.
3. Seeing the positive side versus focusing on the difficulties
People react to change at different speeds, and in vastly different ways. Some people are inspired by the opportunities that this crisis brings, while for others the situation is a huge burden. How can we make sure that all voices are heard, even the ones that have a negative message?
Tips for finding a good balance between seeing the positive side and admitting the difficulties:
- In order to be a good leader to others, you need to be a good leader to yourself – this means that first of all, you need to be aware of whether you tend to see this crisis as an opportunity (leading you to give a bit too much emphasis to the positive aspects), or whether you find the situation scary and oppressive (and inadvertently communicate these emotions to your employees). At the moment, it’s important to give space to both of these viewpoints, and to be able to sustain this polarity.
- Also, in a time of crisis, it is important to listen to other people’s concerns. Being a good listener is essential in order to understand the perspectives of everyone involved (including employees, customers, suppliers, etc.), and take these views into account when making decisions.
- Transparent communication around the company’s financial situation is also helpful, though it’s important to find the right balance between caution and optimism in your prognosis.
- Acknowledging your own stress: when you notice that you’re feeling stressed yourself, it’s important to identify and acknowledge these feelings. This enables you to articulate your own growth process in a transparent manner, and give courage to your employees by acting as a role model.
Recognizing, exploring and seeking to balance these polarities can help to anchor and further strengthen a good company culture, fostering a stronger sense of community and solidarity (for more details on polarity, see Digital transformation as psychological transformation – an “INside job”). The strategic question is this: once the “new” normal is established, how can we take the positive insights from this massive involuntary experiment and use them to reconfigure the workplace and home office situation for our employees, so as to enable work processes to be more autonomous and less bound to synchronized timetables?