What a successful leader looks like during a global pandemic, and beyond

successful leader

OpenLearning co-founder Adam Brimo.

This year has irreversibly accelerated the trend towards a fully remote workforce, and with it, the shift to remote leadership.

At the start of 2020, no one could have anticipated the challenges we have all had to face, and conquer.

In the business world, countless leaders and employees have been affected, both professionally and personally, and forced to adapt to new routines, and new ways of working, virtually overnight. 

This new world of work requires an evolution in the workplace that is designed to support both leaders, and their teams.

While some businesses were already testing the waters of remote working, others were thrown in the deep end as the world went into lockdown, when most of what we thought we knew about ‘doing business’ was no longer relevant.

For some leaders, the shift from in-person to remote leadership was a challenging one.

Not just on an interpersonal level, given people deal with the effects of not seeing their team on a day-to-day basis differently, but the change in dynamics to company culture as a whole.

Communication is critical when leading remotely

While we live in a connected world where tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams make remote leadership possible, being an effective leader from a distance requires a lot more than technology.

Regular communication through a variety of channels, including video conferencing, somewhat makes up for the lack of physical meetings, but there’s no doubt it is more challenging for leaders and teams alike.

At OpenLearning, we’ve faced these challenges for a number of years, with about 35 of our team members in Sydney, 20 in Kuala Lumpur and another half-a-dozen people spread out around the world.

Each team communicates with a variety of methods, from daily stand-ups, weekly meetings and spontaneous interaction through Slack or Discord, prompted by an article someone shares, a ‘funny’ joke or a picture of lunch.

A vibrant community is one where everyone feels comfortable sharing a new idea and the challenges of daily life working from home.

What a successful leader looks like during a global pandemic

Some may believe that company culture is created solely in the office, with face-to-face meetings and coffee catch-ups, but in reality, it comes from authenticity, empathy and supporting each other, no matter where you’re located.

Leadership values, such as transparency, authenticity and respect, now matter more than ever.

Many people are dealing with a whole spectrum of challenges — from working at home while trying to educate their children, to extreme isolation, and everything in between.

While leaders are not expected to be counsellors, people skills and empathy now matter more than ever.

During COVID-19 and beyond, leaders and managers must also rethink key processes in order to create a culture of trust and teamwork.

And that means not only ‘talking the talk’, but also ‘walking the walk.’

Leaders should be open about their own challenges and lessons, and also seek to understand their teams’, without judgement and with a supportive mindset.

It’s important to remember that teams may also be dealing with unanticipated and sudden changes with the company’s clients, operating model, products, and much more.

And all while adjusting to life working from home, when a quick conversation with a co-worker or team leader is not always convenient or easy.

Being an effective leader, remotely

Maintain a regular schedule and be deliberate about catching up with members of your team.

Increase connection ‘touchpoints’ over the course of the days, weeks and months through regular stand-ups, town halls, virtual coffee or tea breaks and spontaneous discussions.

Encourage separate connection between team members, and not just when you, the leader, are present.

Remote teams need the time and space to come together as a group to debrief on projects, share experiences and bond socially.

It’s easy for some members of a team to become marginalised while working from home, so be attuned to any absences and encourage connection.

Support your team and create a culture of ‘we’re all in this together’.

No one wants to feel that they are the only one finding this new reality difficult, so open up, and most importantly, listen.

At the same time, while light-hearted moments come much more easily when everyone is in the office, it’s more crucial than ever for leaders to create a friendly and thoughtful work environment to keep team spirits, and performance, high during these challenging times.

While no one wanted this working situation we now find ourselves in, all leaders and teams can thrive and emerge from this new normal stronger, and more cohesive, than ever.

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