Last week, I was attending a virtual conference for leaders. During open discussion, a CEO was sharing how he felt like he lost one of his super powers since the company went remote—his ability to casually connect with his employees. Loyalty was high at his company and he attributed much of that to chance hallway conversations with his people. In these informal interactions, he would peel back how he was thinking about the business. Since COVID-19 and going remote, however, he no longer gets the opportunity to connect with his people this way.
I confess, these serendipitous moments were a secret leadership weapon of mine as well. In these encounters, I’d get the chance to get to know my people a little better, and they’d get an insight into the bigger picture of our company. This, in turn, encouraged engagement and further strengthened our personal relationship. While these small conversations might have seemed trivial to us when we were in the office, I now realize how fundamental they were to my ability to lead, and my people’s engagement in their work. The presence of a leader alone can do wonders when it comes to team morale.
Leaders and Their Availability
We’ve seen this in our engagement data, too. We measure the driver “leadership availability” and what we are finding is that, while leaders are doing more proactive, intentional communication than before the pandemic, their leadership availability scores are still dropping. In the office, the moments between leaders and staff were easier to come by but today, there’s just more in our way. When we’re all working from home, however, the barriers to those casual conversations are steeper. To add to that, role power tends to be more in play in remote environments. It’s just tougher now that we’re all apart, and an out-of-the-blue call from a leader isn’t a sufficient replacement for a five minute check-in.
I believe this is because communication from leadership appears more formal in a remote asynchronous environment. The coffee breaks, the hallway conversations, the before and after meeting chats, have all been replaced with silence—or discussing with peers. These are all critical elements that humanize a leader and create an opportunity for informal context gathering for employees. In an office environment this can be solved organically, but if you are a leader and your company is remote, I think it’s important you take some intentional steps to improve how you’re showing up for your people in a remote setting. Here’s what we’re trying at 15Five to make our leaders more available to our people.
Ask Us Anything
We know, as leaders, that people come to us for answers. And we love it! With remote work, however, folks aren’t coming to us with their questions. Instead, they are going to their peers for the information that they might have come to us with in the past. While peer to peer interaction is totally okay, discussing big business operations without the adequate information is a surefire way to start rumours or confusion. Often, this is because these peers lack context around how these big decisions are made. To avoid this, our leadership is rotating through smaller team meetings to host informal “ask me anything” sessions. In these open Q&A sessions, employees will have time to ask us about big business priorities, day to day operations, and the challenges of working remotely. There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) flying around in today’s workforce. By participating in these smaller team meetings, we can make ourselves more available to address our people’s concerns.
If you want to make sure your people know you’re there for them, you might need to put in more facetime—especially now. We’ve always encouraged leaders to become involved in culture building activities, but, in our current situation, leaders have to put in that extra effort to join in. From team happy hours to talent shows to being more present on Slack, leaders can use these important touchpoints to encourage camaraderie and connect with their people in an authentic and personal way. It establishes your presence on the team and let’s your people know you’re there. Try adding a couple of these meetings to your calendar and see how your people react.
One on Ones
Finally, we’re having our leaders conduct one on ones with every single member of our company. Between the four of us, we’re dividing up the names of our staff and committing to putting time on each of their calendars. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is because it creates a space where an employee can feel safe to voice their authentic opinions. Not everyone wants to get into specific questions they might have in front of their whole team. We want to open up that direct line of communication so we can hear our people. Secondly, it demonstrates to our employees that their perspective matters to us and that we’re taking steps to listen to them. While taking on this many one-on-ones might seem challenging, we know in our gut that it’s the right thing to do.
When it comes to leader availability, there’s a myth that continues to thrive in some office cultures—the myth of the open door policy. You know, when a leader tells their people that they can just swing by their office any time they have a question because their “door’s always open.” Let me disabuse you of the notion that the open door policy works: it doesn’t—never has, and never will. To engage their people, leaders need to make their presence known throughout the organization so that folks can feel comfortable approaching them. But, what do you do when there isn’t even a door to be open?
Being present for your people during a pandemic where each employee has a unique working situation is tough. But it’s how you succeed under this pressure that will demonstrate your true mettle as a leader. Let’s face it—these days everyone is scrambling to understand the chaos that is the world around us. People are anxious, and scared, but, ultimately, they are craving stability. As leaders, we need to rise to this occasion to inspire confidence in our people and in ourselves. While we might feel, as that fellow in my webinar did, powerless right now, we are anything but. Just as we’ve done in the past, we need to adapt to this new situation and grow from it. Our people deserve that from us. They continue to show up for us, so let’s do this for them.