2. Leadership Skills in Lockdown – Tasking and Trusting

1. Leadership Challenges in Lock-down
4th November 2020
3. Leadership Skills in Lockdown – Tending
6th November 2020

2. Leadership Skills in Lockdown – Tasking and Trusting

“You can’t just call them into your office for a kick-off. You now need to form, brief, motivate, set targets, monitor and performance-manage your remote teams, maybe without ever having met them in person”.

Our leaders recognised that, for their own direct reports, long periods without meeting one another face to face was normal. They enjoy a high trust environment, with highly motivated, and self-motivating, direct reports who have discussed, understood and agreed their targets and generally have all the skills necessary to pursue them. Practices for our leaders to manage their own immediate teams have changed little with the move to home office working.   

But leaders further down their organisational hierarchies face a new situation; regular face to face meetings with their teams, both formal and informal, are now with people working remotely from their home offices, sometimes for the first time. To have the confidence to work without being able to pop into the boss’s office to check what he meant is not easy for everyone. 

Effective tasking (briefing) of these remote teams required their leaders to additionally provide this confidence. As well as agreeing more precise, less ambiguous targets to help their team members to agree and accept accountability, leaders might also help their teams with establishing, or reviewing, a clear plan as part of their task briefing. 

Additionally, leaders found it helpful to share far more background than before as to why a task is important, and how it’s success will help towards wider organisational aims; briefing with a clear understanding of purpose and not just criteria to help autonomous decision-making in the face of the unexpected or unplanned.

New teams tackling projects started during lockdown, have been the first to form, be briefed, motivated and set targets perhaps without ever having met their leader or each other in person. Our leaders noted that ‘getting teams into your office to kick-off won’t work any more’. Even if not particularly personally inspirational, our leaders know to design such a kick-off to generate energy and enthusiasm within the team. Team members recalled well-led kick-offs where such energy and enthusiasm builds through exchanges amongst the team until it reverberates around the office. Team members leave with it and share it between themselves on their walk back to their offices or workstations, often via the coffee machine. Their informal de-brief and initial brainstorming of what they will do on this new project continues to build and mutually reinforce this new project energy.

In lockdown, team kick-offs by video-call require a mastery of the medium to convey the initial energy and enthusiasm, and then a carefully scripted and choreographed series of follow-up meetings between team members to ensure the project’s momentum is built. As we’ll cover in the next article, our leaders were very conscious of the need to develop skills in planning and executing their video-call performances.    

“You need to roll-out the high-trust culture you enjoy with your own direct reports; identify your organisation’s low-trust managers who will struggle with this and re-train them.” 

Low trust leaders, those who measure time spent at work rather than the output of their teams, are struggling during lockdown. Their need to see a person working physically to be reassured of their productivity, is no longer possible. Their lockdown response, additional reporting, particularly more frequent checks early in the life of a task, justified by the fact that there’s less opportunity to walk around to observe that someone has understood correctly.

Our leaders noted that they would be re-training their low-trust leaders for the high trust environment of home office working. To the usual mechanics of developing trust, giving tasks, making their teams accountable and measuring their output, they’d be helping them to build trust in, and then to trust, their own teams. Showing these leaders trust (that they have understood) and that they can in turn trust their own teams. The ‘pyramid of trust’ became a feature in the workshop output info-graphic of both teams.   

“You need to be tolerant of home office domestic distractions for both you and your team. With more flexible timescales and deadlines you need to develop new ways to ensure that things are delivered, as promised. Low trust leaders will need help.”

Leaders faced with their own domestic distractions, particularly those with school-age children at home, reported becoming more conscious of others’, and so having developed more understanding and tolerance of these. 

They have needed to develop new ways to ensure that things are delivered, as promised. So they understand better that their teams must, and will, do the same; do things in their own time and in their own way. More flexible working patterns, particularly when schools were not open, have been accepted, sometimes with more fluid timescales and deadlines. 

But low trust leaders will need help to maintain these personal benefits of working from home office. Once schools return it will be tempting to revert to core hours and to dial back the tolerance, adaptability and flexibility we’ve shown. 

“You need to help your team keep work and home life distinct and balanced fairly. Some used to use their commute to work to review, reflect, and transition from one to the other. You need to encourage them to find their WFHO equivalent.”

Our leaders reported their concerns that working from home office could give rise to an unfair and unhealthy Work-Life balance.

In keeping work and life activities distinct it was recognised that some use the commute to work in order to reflect and transition between work and home. With no commute, an equivalent activity (ideally some sporting, or relaxation activity, walk, simply changing into or out of work clothes) should be encouraged.

But whilst leaders recognised the individual’s need for this, it was the balance, and keeping this fair and healthy, which they felt they could best support. Who ‘wins’ from the absence of the daily commute, whether all commuting hours saved were for ‘life’ use or for ‘work’ use, or some equitable share, differed widely. 

Working from home offers the flexibility of being able to allow life activities to encroach into the usual day time working hours, and to compensate these for working hours during the usual home time evening routines. For those in or with teams on multiple time-zones, or simply those with high levels of enthusiasm for a new project, the possibility is always there to get the balance unequal, unhealthy, and unfair.

For an individual, getting their own Work-Life balance right should be a choice. It therefore is a skill, which can be developed, to ensure that the correct choices are made for the individual’s circumstances. 

It is for leaders to ensure that they create the appropriate environment in their organisation, and set expectations amongst their teams, such that it remains a choice available to all individuals. They must also monitor their team, and themselves, to ensure and encourage that healthy choices are made.  

……. Our next article in this series will look at the Tending skills our leaders have demonstrated to address these challenges.

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