Five months ago, COVID-19 unceremoniously dumped us into the deep-end of ‘virtual environment’. One moment we were flitting in our offices from cubicle to cubicle, tossing comments and papers, beckoning co-workers for a coffee or smoke and the next moment we were staring into a screen and figuring out the co-workers on the other end.
Now that we are unlimited by the confines of geographical space, a new paradigm has reared its head. But arguably, nothing is being affected more than our ability as leaders to lead teams, sustain motivation levels and build cultures.
So, what is at play?
Isolation. Lack of human touch. Issues of trust. Inability to read body language. An altered work-life balance. And more.
Some have been in this place before and indeed have thrived in this environment. Decades ago, as Army officers posted in a purely air-maintained post in India’s North East, we had to motivate troops deployed in small outposts, often a day’s gruelling walk over sliver-like footpaths, carved into 20,000 feet high mountains. The terrain was forbidding, and telecommunication facilities either rudimentary or prone to frequent breakdowns. How do military commanders of junior to mid-level seniority cope with this ‘virtual’ environment?
Here are four things that we can learn from their experience.
Be visible. Connect as often as you can. Officers regularly trek to posts along the border and spend time — sometimes days — with the troops. They listen to them and walk around to get the on-ground feel of the situation. Such a walkabout may not be possible for corporate leaders, but indeed visibility over virtual platforms is not merely eminently doable, it is critical for maintaining an unbroken connection. This exercise must be frequent and top-to-bottom. MDs, CEOs and other leaders must make connecting with employees in groups a regular feature. Employees isolated in the confines of their homes can feel reassured by the presence of the leadership in their midst. A name on the email cannot replicate that, just as a nameplate on a door cannot be a substitute for human contact.
Be Conscious of the ones on the Margins. Personal problems weigh down people everywhere. Many do not necessarily exhibit signs of that burden on the exterior. On the contrary, some even appear happy and well-adjusted while simultaneously battling maelstroms inside. Hemmed in by their nature, they are reluctant and unable to come forward to share their troubles. But they need attention and friendship more than the others. Leaders must have a sensitive antenna to pick up these signals. Is a person quieter than before? Does she appeared under stress, is becoming less articulate or more distracted? Is the quality of work declining? In the days of the virtual environment, if we do not see these tiny red-flags, the affected person may fall off the map. Leaders must make a special effort to connect with such employees. A sprinkle of empathy — without the display of overbearing sympathy — could work wonders for morale.
Lay down a protocol. Most people are troubled by the absence of clarity. Since everyone is now jumping on to the bandwagon of virtual meetings, are weekends no longer off limit? Is there a quiet-hour for everyone to get productiveness going? Are breaks allowed in the middle of the never-ending meetings? Are people reaching measurable goals and work? Should a cap be legislated on the time anyone spends conducting a meeting? Unambiguously crafted protocols can ease a great deal of the stress caused by avoidable uncertainty.
Appreciation has whole new Value. In the pre-COVID days, a leader could appreciate an employee with a little tap on the shoulder or an appreciative smile or a quiet ‘well-done’. That boat has sailed. Now, unless a leader makes a conscious effort to reach out for recognition and appreciation, the motivation of the achievers will soon be parched. Make time for praise — both in group meetings and in one-on-one audience or emails. That effort is vital.
The stark conclusion is that we now need more process, not less. And we require better protocols, not fuzziness. We must be more conscious of the push for motivation.
The demand for real leadership just went up.