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“You need to provide your teams with the confidence that they can handle this, that the business will get through the crisis intact. Even if you don’t feel it, you need to project confidence and certainty.” 

In the uncertainty of [the first] lockdown, the foremost skill identified was the ability to acknowledge but to calm the fears of the organisation. The leader’s ability, in all his communications, to project confidence in the ability of the organisation to prevail is essential.  Sharing knowledge with the team helps avoid speculation. Particularly skilful are those able to show personal vulnerability – we are all afraid and vulnerable – whilst still projecting the stability all need from their employer at this difficult time. 

“You need to prepare for every video-call and the checklist has grown to include background, dress, camera, lighting, interruption prevention…, as well as new ways to read reactions. It’s harder to be spontaneous when all your spontaneity needs to be rehearsed.” 

The lock-down switch to video conferencing has meant that even the best face to face communicators need additional communication skills. Assuming they can first master the technology, preparing for the video call takes on additional requirements. 

In a face to face environment most of our leaders are aware of their own impact when they simply enter a room. They know the effect of for example choosing their clothing appropriate to their day; dressing to impress clients or suppliers in contrast with their everyday ‘look’. They know and prepare the best venue to host their client meetings, choose whether to visit or to summon a colleague to their own office, or meet in a conference room. 

Now, in addition to selecting the appropriate outfit and background, those whose personality was a function of their physical presence must learn a whole new ‘head and shoulders’ body language both to project the messages they intend, and to read the images projected by others. 

This ‘concern for impact’ is a competency sought in recruitment and talent assessment, but its manifestation in the home office world might indeed be very different from that in face to face. More introvert colleagues had recognised that a shared screen powerpoint slide, instead of a projection of themselves, provided both a prop to support their presentation as well as a shield to reduce their intimidation. Compared to standing in front of a room full of real people, an online presentation was preferred by many. 

It was clear that some people preferred the opportunity to prepare these static parts of their projected communication. In the same way as someone may have ‘the perfect face for radio’, some people appeared to have the ‘perfect personality for video conferencing’; they gain confidence from their ability to master the static parts of their communication, leaving less influencing to be done dynamically. Future leaders may be better equipped in this area.

“You need to create new ways to be available; to be accessible both on virtual visits to your overseas operations and whilst virtually walking the corridors outside your own office. But … now you can do both on the same day!” 

All our leaders have tried to find new ways to be available, not just for the formal routine updates, steers and decisions, but for the frequent, informal, unplanned contact through which leaders project their personalities, motivate and respond to the concerns of their teams and assess the pulse of the organisation.

In the early days of lockdown, our leaders reported days filled with meetings which usually each had an agenda, and then finished. Fine for briefings, problem solving, progress monitoring and planned communications. Extending the meeting agenda with ‘unstructured time’ created an opportunity for informal group, and one to one chats. 

Drop-in virtual coffee machines were helpful for socializing but our leaders felt these quickly became more formal whenever they appeared. In order to bump into people they wouldn’t normally meet a conscious effort was needed to reach out to people they wouldn’t normally.  Some asked direct reports to nominate people who they should contact. 

All reported they’d worked on being more available and initially accepted many more direct meeting requests than pre-lockdown practice, but with mixed results. Generally there was a need to balance being more available; filtering and prioritising the disruptions without losing motivation.

“You need to listen as much as ever but also more and differently. Introverts might prefer to contribute to meetings by chat; don’t miss these.” 

Listening is an essential leadership skill. Effective listening helps leaders respond to the needs of their organisation, be quickly aware of when desired outcomes are threatened, and to act on what is most important to their people.

Our leaders reported that listening in lockdown required an adjustment to their listening skills as the video call provided a barrier to informality and open expression. 

The amount of body available to express a ‘language’ of non-verbal signals is limited, and its range of movements are restricted by its owner’s awareness of the ‘best’ camera angle. Leaders must find ways to put video callers at their ease, and must also learn to express and read the restricted body language of the video call. Watching television news and magazine programmes has become a nightly learning opportunity for some of our leaders. 

When the video call becomes a multi-caller video conference the leader must still ‘read the room’. The VC application usually focuses attention on the speaker by default, but the  facility usually exists for the listening leader to select any of the other participants to observe in order to see how they are reacting to their own, or another speaker’s input.  

Those skilled video conferences can ‘scan’ a room whilst they, or a colleague, are speaking, and can, as in physical meetings, test who is listening, or their reaction to what they’ve heard, with a skillfully directed question. 

‘With no coffee machine, corridors or cafeteria we need to make better use of social posting to network from our home offices. Leaders need to be brave – this calls for much more exposure.’

Our leaders recognised the value of networks and of exchanging knowledge within the company; office workspaces had been designed to make people meet one another. 

Simulating these coffee machine or canteen meetings virtually is possible, but whereas physical coffee machine meetings are spontaneous, virtual ones are organised, and much less appealing than a real break and an opportunity to leave the screen and address one of many domestic distractions.

There had been an increase in scheduled (weekly) team networking meetings to encourage informal work-related technical discussions which might lead to technical exchange. To lead these online exchange meetings effectively required different skills and techniques than to lead the usual progress, or communication cascade meetings. These were most obvious when absent. 

But the biggest networking deficit was social, and new ways were needed to keep the quality social and supportive contact amongst colleagues which brings the sense of belonging to the company. Virtual pub games, quizzes and similar had been tried to increase social interaction, but  the most effective attempts to re-create this was through the use of workplace social media tools. 

Posting photos and commenting on others causes huge engagement between colleagues, taking up less employee time than used to be spent at the coffee machine, but with a similar network-strengthening effect. An important leadership role was to provide the right guidance, and to take the lead, in the use of workplace social media. 

In a post-workshop review with one of our leaders we talked about his advanced social media skills and that he’d developed these to maintain contact with his children at university, particularly concerned about the mental health effects of lock-down. Recognising that he had ultimate responsibility for the well-being of all his employees he was pleased to be able (and, I have to say, brave enough) to use his social media skills to bring a smile to the faces of his colleagues. 

Maybe of all the skills we’ve identified in our leaders as they address the challenges of home office working during the pandemic, this one wouldn’t be the first to spring to mind. But it’s key for one essential role which all leaders in lockdown should be ready to assume: that of CHO – Chief Happiness Officer.