Virtual reality

Written by: Amy Carroll Posted: 20/07/2020

BL68_Virtual leaderGlobal lockdown has forced managers to embrace a new style of leadership 

Technology companies have been telling us for years that it is possible to work from any corner of the planet. But for most organisations, it has taken a worldwide pandemic to force their hand. 

Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics, only 30% of UK employees had ever worked from home prior to 2020.

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent international lockdown have turned those statistics on their head. Overnight, workers have had to get used to operating from their kitchen table – while also home-schooling their children. 

Their managers, meanwhile, have faced a steep learning curve when it comes to embracing the role of virtual leader. After all, the challenges involved in managing a virtual team are very different to managing a team in the workplace. 

Those challenges have been exacerbated by the severity of the current crisis and the speed of its onset.

“The biggest challenge most of us have with virtual leadership is that it’s a new way of working and we are unpractised at it,” says Julian Burrows, Director at financial services consultancy Sionic.

“Good leadership always involves the ability to build trust, to motivate, inspire and continuously deliver in order to be successful,” he adds. 

“All of these requirements remain when leading teams and businesses remotely. But they require proactive changes to our leadership style and for us to consciously practise emotional intelligence, conceptual agility and collaboration.”

Resetting expectations

First, it has been essential to recognise that leadership structures themselves must change. 

“You mustn’t spend too long trying to manage a crisis through your existing structures. You need to move quickly to a new model,” says Andrew McLaughlin, CEO at RBS International, which established a new leadership structure around five key pillars over the first weekend of lockdown.

“In other crises – and I’ve been through a few – it took people a while to catch up with the full reality of the situation. This time around, colleagues very quickly knew this was highly unusual. 

“Business goals and budgets have been affected to the point where they may not be entirely relevant. People needed immediate clarity about how they should apply themselves during this period.”

Elvina Aghajanyan, Head of HR at HSBC in the Channel Islands, agrees that managing expectations is key. 

“Set expectations as early on as possible,” she says. “In times of change, there will be a requirement to revisit objectives, goals and responsibilities. The majority of us work more effectively when we have clear deliverables, guidelines and timeframes.”

But understanding that it might not always be possible to meet those objectives, given the extraordinary circumstances in which people find themselves, is also important, says Martin Keelagher, CEO at Agile Automations. 

“It’s about understanding that your team might want to be working more, performing better and hitting those deadlines, but sometimes that just isn’t attainable,” he says.

Burrows adds: “Employees are in an unprecedented situation where they are trying to be mothers and fathers, carers, teachers and partners, while still trying to deliver on their work. 

“Setting realistic expectations of our teams is essential. Consider what others are going through and flex your style. Talk to your teams, collaborate and try and inspire your workforce to achieve new heights.”

Good communication has never been more important. For McLaughlin, the key to supporting and motivating remote staff during these tumultuous times is always to start with how people are feeling, not what they are thinking.

“With in-person meetings, you can get so much information from body language,” McLaughlin says. “Working virtually, you are denied that – and yet you know it is almost impossible for anyone not to have some kind of fear or sadness about the current situation. Prioritising feeling over thinking is vital.”

It isn’t just the stresses of working from home, adds Keelagher. Employees also have childcare, vulnerable relatives and insecurity around their livelihoods to consider. “There are a plethora of challenges facing the entire workforce,” he says. “We’ve never seen that before. 

“Even in the global financial crisis, many people felt quite removed. With the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone is affected. No one can escape its grasp.”

Getting the tone right

Establishing the right cadence for communication is key. Burrows says: “Emotional intelligence is essential right now – keeping conversations open, building connections, being flexible and employing empathy. Listening carefully during these times will reap rewards for the future.”

“You have to be inherently mindful of using emotion far more than your IQ,” adds Chris Clark, CEO of Channel Islands-based technology company Prosperity 24/7.

Aghajanyan adds: “As much as leaders want to lead and manage the business, it is critical that they prioritise leading people. The power of human connection, of kindness and empathy, has never been more important.”

And, as McLaughlin points out, when leaders sign up to lead, the pressure is on to keep up the good work. “You may only see a West End show once,” he says, “but the actors might be in the middle of a 100-night run. You need to give every performance that same energy and care that you would on the opening night.”

Inspiring collaboration and creativity can also be difficult when people are, by definition, isolated. 

Tech advances have been timely, enabling orderly group calls involving large numbers, as well as the opportunity for smaller breakout groups for brainstorming.

According to the Chartered Management Institute, 66% of managers have reported increased levels of innovation among staff during this time and, for many, the use of technology has revolutionised decision-making.

“If you think about normal meetings, you will often get a ‘meeting hogger’ or a ‘mood hoover’ who can change the dynamic,” explains McLaughlin.

“But if you chair it properly, there is actually something very democratic about the use of technology. It can enable everyone to make their contribution in a way that doesn’t always happen in person.” 

When elderly and vulnerable customers were put into lockdown before the rest of the population in Jersey and Guernsey, RBS recognised that these people would have an issue accessing cash. So McLaughlin’s team ran a collaboration session to generate ideas for a solution. 

“From that meeting came the idea to give those customers a time-sensitive code that they could pass on to a carer to take to an ATM, withdrawing a pre-selected amount, thus protecting them from fraud,” he explains. 

“From thought to finish, that took five days in a virtual environment. I am not sure it would have happened that quickly if we had all been in the office.”

In addition to the ubiquitous Teams and Zoom, meanwhile, Aghajanyan highlights other technology platforms – such as Mentimeter and Kahoot – that encourage inclusivity, gamification and play. Because for many, the office environment is about more than just work. 

Social interactions are key to individual, and team, wellbeing and performance. Isolation, in that sense, can represent a very real business risk. But it is possible to recreate water cooler moments or ‘work nights out’ while in lockdown.

Chris Clark has hosted a virtual karaoke night – which he describes as “disastrous but entertaining” – and junior staff have implemented online coffee mornings.

Aghajanyan suggests quiz nights, wellbeing challenges, yoga, ballet and Zumba sessions, as well as virtual fundraising for community support. 

RBS’s diversity and inclusion team even recently hosted a virtual ‘bring your child to work’ initiative. 

“We also arranged for a Teams clapping virtual project, motivating peers to celebrate the excellent support they provide to our customers, our community and to each other,” she says.

Elsewhere, Sionic has hired a trainer, who hosts group gym sessions, and also offers movie and book clubs. 

“We encourage each person in the team to have a virtual coffee or a virtual beer with their colleagues so that they are having the conversations they would have had in the office,” says Burrows.
Lasting change?

Many believe that the way society operates has changed fundamentally. Twitter recently announced it would allow its staff to work from home for good.

“People have grown used to being able to be flexible and companies should embrace it by giving people opportunities to work remotely, to work from home more often, select more flexible hours and reduce the need for expensive office space,” says Burrows.

“This should also be part of the island plan for a greener community, by encouraging people to work from home and not having the need for significant amounts of parking in town.”

Clark is convinced there will be a large reduction in demand for office space going forward as the anywhere, anytime, anyplace ‘Martini principle’ – long promulgated by tech companies – takes hold and businesses grapple with the health and safety requirements for using bathrooms or kitchens. 

“It could become a case of PPE to pee,” Clark says. “There is a lot to be aware of going forward.”

McLaughlin, however, believes it would be rash to assume that all businesses should reject the physical environment in order to become virtual organisations.

“It is true that we won’t go back to the way we were. But you have to be careful,” he says. “Many people are now working in a home environment that they never imagined would be required. 

“For some people, work-life balance may be improved; for others, it may be detrimentally impacted and they may desperately want to get back to the office.”

Companies will need to strike a new bargain with colleagues about the balance between home and office working. 

“If we do that,” says McLaughlin, “there is a chance we can improve the engagement, motivation, wellbeing and happiness of our colleagues. 

“But we are only a few months in. So, let’s make sure we keep learning lessons and balancing how people are feeling today with what might work tomorrow.”

Aghajanyan adds: “Covid-19 has been a great catalyst to what companies are capable of, how we can mobilise and utilise our resources more efficiently and with less red tape and bureaucracy. 

“Now, in the rush to return things to normal, we need to use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth getting back to.” 

A question of trust

A virtual organisation requires an inherent level of trust that many managers have struggled with in the past. 
   It can be challenging to strike the right balance between being supportive of people working off-site and micro-managing. Explaining that you trust everyone to get their work done, just as they would in the office, is key, according to HSBC Channel Islands’ Head of HR, Elvina Aghajanyan.
   “Encourage people to take short breaks during the day and have a set time for lunch – just as they would in the workplace – but ask that they let you know if they will be unavailable for long periods due to conference calls or project deadlines,” she says. 
   “For many, a five-minute check-in call at the beginning or end of the day will prove very useful. Make sure you are tracking objectives and monitoring progress.”
   Chris Clark of Prosperity 24/7 believes a virtual environment can expose staff who are less hardworking and trustworthy more effectively than in the office. 
   “If there are mischievous people, they will be mischievous in the office just as much as they are mischievous at home. 
   “It is possible to hide poor productivity more easily in the office workspace because of the social interaction – everyone likes that guy at the coffee machine. And that can hide an abundance of sins. 
   “Working remotely is about self-motivation,” he adds. “And there will be more scrutiny on those individuals who fail to deliver.”

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