Effective Leadership in the COVID-19 Remote Working Era

Posted on March 31, 2020 at 11:34 AM


With countries locking down to slow the spread of COVID-19, the world is having to rapidly adapt to new ways of working, socialising, shopping and communicating.  For a fortunate few, the current situation represents very little shift from the way they have been working for some time.  For many of us, the fundamentals were already in place but perhaps not fully tested.  Others will have worked remotely at points but are finding that their WFH arrangements – adequate for short periods – are not up to the task when several people are doing the same, or when children are also in the same space vying for bandwidth with multiple devices.  For some people, working from home will be a complete novelty.  For companies, it is providing the opportunity to robustly and fully test disaster recovery and business continuity plans.  Whatever our situation, however, the global pandemic is affecting all of us in many ways.

Somewhat spookily, we recently wrote a series of articles on “Mobilising the messy, analogue moving parts”, focusing on creating the right conditions and developing the right skills to support managers in using software and online platforms to lead and manage their teams.  That’s all just become a great deal more relevant and we hope that people drew some useful insights from it, ahead of the current challenges.  Aside from the wide-ranging and long-term impact on the world’s economy, on organisations in all sectors and the risk to people’s physical health, we also need to be seeking to mitigate the mental health implications of isolation and quarantine during these difficult times, and leaders and managers can all play their parts in making sure that people are connected, engaged, focused and included.

empty office

We are in unprecedented times, and that calls for unprecedented leadership.  Leaders of organisations today are probably facing the toughest decisions of their careers and some of them will have been responsible for saving lives by shutting offices and sending people home, which will be unfamiliar territory to the majority of them.  Command and control models are likely to be ineffective in disparate teams, and managers may have to exercise far more trust than they’re used to and give more autonomy and freedom than may be comfortable.  I really liked what Jason Fried, CEO and founder of tech company Basecamp, said to his staff in one of his messages, reassuring working parents and those with caring responsibilities that they would receive full pay even if they couldn’t do a full day’s work in the current circumstances.  “Work should give. Work will give. Family first.”  His communications to staff reinforce the trust he has in them, adopting a mature and emotionally intelligent approach to leadership which seems to serve him very well.

effective leadership

In one issue in our series we focused on the need to build a team identity and create cohesion when we’re not face to face - in it we mentioned a really useful framework - David Rock’s SCARF model.  Managers can use that model now to think about how best to support, engage, inspire and mobilise their scattered workforce. I asked a CFO of a bank what he thought were the three most useful things you could do as a leader to support teams during a shift to remote working and to maintain a sense of team, based on his experiences of the past two weeks. 

“Calling them often, at least every other day.  Saying thank you, all the time but especially when they’ve done something out of the ordinary, beyond their usual skillset or when they’ve helped others.  And asking them what you can do to support them, no matter how small, to help them be effective, productive or comfortable.  Like getting a new chair sent out for their makeshift office or rearranging conference call times to suit different patterns of life” was his response. 

These fit with Rock’s principles of status, autonomy and relatedness.

Looking at the 5 principles, here are a few of our thoughts:

  • STATUS – managers need to help people to feel valued and important. Praise, recognition and feedback are more important than ever.  Keep up those regular check-ins, one-to-ones and conversations with team members.  No matter what kind of organisation you work for, you will be providing services or products that are important.  We can’t all be frontline NHS staff, but your work has a purpose and meaning and managers can help remind people what that is, and what their work means to customers, clients or service users.
  • CERTAINTY – with so much fear, uncertainty and anxiety, managers play a critical role in providing some sense of continuity. Maintain normality as much as possible, so have your usual team meetings, do what you say you’re going to do and don’t abandon performance management processes.  Provide every reassurance you can about the stability of the business and their part in it.  Jason Fried told his staff that the business was in good shape and would weather the storm, saying that their jobs were secure.  We may not all be in a position of that kind of confidence, but tell your teams what you and other leaders are doing to provide stability and to protect the business; seek the balance between maintaining a strong vision and having a realistic outlook.  Establish a structure and architecture for decision making and effective communication, making sure that people know who they need to go to for what, how information should be shared in the team.  Set goals – this is really important.  Get clarity in what people need to achieve and remind people of the common purpose, mission and vision.
  • AUTONOMY – now is the perfect time to really empower people; to trust them to achieve their objectives and to do the best job they can, to encourage them to find new ways of working and to work in a way that suits them. To support them in setting up new routines and practices.  To encourage them to learn and to share their learnings with others.  Make sure that everyone’s objectives are outcome-focused rather than output- or process-focused; ensure that people are clear on what they need to achieve and why, and leave the detail of how to them to decide.  Encourage people to set their own objectives and timelines, wherever possible.
  • RELATEDNESS – keeping in touch with everyone and helping them to connect to each other is critical. Create channels (such as WhatsApp) for real-time communication, and encourage the team to use videoconferencing for complex topics that require face-to-face communication.  Set up virtual coffee breaks, open online meeting rooms where people can come and talk to you during set periods of the day.  Move your usual team-building activities online: try a Friday Quiz, schedule your daily exercise with others so you can chat as you keep fit.  Set aside a couple of hours one afternoon a week where people can go online and hang out together, share their experiences and funny stories.
  • FAIRNESS – ensure everyone is included in meetings; set up times that work for as many as possible and speak individually to those who can’t make it. Listen really carefully to what people want and do your best to meet their individual needs.  Recognise that some people will have bigger challenges than others and that people will adjust and adapt to different degrees.  Be flexible in your approach to everyone and treat them as individuals.  Don’t make assumptions; ask them how they are feeling, what’s working well and what’s not working. 

Agility, empathy, forbearance and resilience are top of my leadership wish list right now.  What’s on yours?


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