Posted: March 28, 2020
As we settle into week two of lockdown, we’re starting to get a bit more of a sense of our new normal. It won’t always be like this, but we’re dealing with it now. We’ve got those heroes who are deemed ‘essential services’ limping along and mitigating risks that we didn’t even know about two months ago. Then there are all the businesses who have been unfortunately shut down by the lockdown. But in the middle are the huge numbers of us trying to navigating working remotely from home.
I’ve had the good fortune of working in a virtual world for almost 20 years. In my previous business, we had manufacturing facilities in Europe, USA and NZ, meaning I was often on a plane and forced myself into a virtual environment. At the time Outlook was the only viable option of choice. Luckily now things have evolved to be abundant and ubiquitous. What I learnt however over that time was that managing teams and keeping people engaged virtually is easier than most people think.
In a previous iteration of my consulting business we outgrew NZ, so I once again found myself operating in the US. Here though we had to completely rethink our model to enable us to help a greater number of people in a different way. At the time we had 13 offices and 160 people, however, the thought of opening another 200-400 offices to scale throughout the US was beyond our imagination. With the development of virtual meeting platforms we realised that we could take a different approach to the market by working with CEOs and leadership teams in a virtual world.
I had several somewhat counter-intuitive insights as we launched into this new operational reality. First of all (and which may be more obvious than some of the other insights), I soon realised that visibility creates accountability. Moreover, accountability creates engagement.
Accountability, Ownership, Engagement, Visibility
If you look at all the research that’s been done around team engagement one of the biggest drivers of engagement is “I know what’s expected of me at work”. The Gallup Q12 study is a great example. It turns out that people knowing what they’re required to do and how they contribute to the greater cause has a massive impact on their sense of ownership and engagement. Right now, this is essential.
Right now everyone in your team wants to know how they can help the business (and therefore their continued role) to navigate this current reality. What we call accountability, they will be calling ownership. They’re looking to you as the leader to let them know how they can best contribute to an outcome, so let them know what they can own. Clear accountability with visibility is the key to doing this.
Another significant – and more surprising – learning when we deployed greater visibility was that people would more regularly highlight themselves as being RED (to sound the alarm), or YELLOW (signalling I’m off track) rather than being GREEN (meaning I’m under control).
It’s logical to assume that people would rather code themselves as green or yellow, as opposed to red, as they didn’t want to look bad in front of their team. However, we actually found that the complete opposite was true! People started to understand that the meeting was for them and not for management. They took it as their moment to ask for the resource they needed to help them achieve the thing they were accountable for.
A simple dashboard acted as a visual mechanism that allowed people to easily acknowledge their need for additional resource to achieve the outcomes that they had committed to. I always made it clear to teams that it was OK to be off-track week to week. However, it was not OK to say that you were on track during these weekly meetings, only to then discover at the end of the quarter that you haven’t achieved your strategic objectives.
This simple process provided people a way to easily communicate their need for additional resources. As the business leader, you are the resource conductor – and if there was ever a time for this communication process to be necessary for your team to come together, it is now. Many businesses and people are working remotely for the first time; this is new territory to many.
Dashboard tools nowadays make it easy for you to see your business or team in the blink of an eye. You should be able to see where your business is at in a single screen. The right metrics allow you to chair the meeting, and encourage your people to talk to their metrics. It provides a safe opportunity for them to highlight additional support they need, in a way that they might not otherwise feel comfortable to do. This was always the case, but in the current environment – of forced remote working – it’s become even more vital. Many businesses weren’t set up or ready for a distributed workforce and it’s common for employees to feel like there’s less support from their managers when they’re not so visible or physically accessible to them. This helps to bring people back together.
Simply put: visibility creates accountability – accountability creates engagement. This is how you will maintain momentum now.
Leadership is needed
Right now, everyone in your team wants to contribute to your business, their jobs, and the wider community. As a leader then, your role is to work with them to identify the activities they can own, and lead them in a way that assists them to achieve these outcomes.
Find a way to give your metrics greater visibility. And finally, make sure the metrics you are focusing on are leading indicators, not lagging indicators. Most businesses believe they have great KPIs, but when we look more closely they are all lagging indicators (i.e. they tell you what has already happened). There is nothing you can do about what’s already happened. Your leading indicators are everything! (Hint: these are usually activities.)
Now is the time for decisive action – together.
This blog was written by Simon Mundell, Founder and Strategic Advisor at Advisory Works.