Leading from Lockdown: Finding Balance in a Virtual Landscape

Header image for article titled "Leading From Lockdown" by Caleb Moore

My Dad always told me, “Work smarter, not harder son,” but how many of us actually believe in this old saying? It’s a thought I’ve been pondering even more throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With many of us  spending nearly all our time at home and our workdays protracted to cover virtual meetings, childcare and homeschooling, we’re working longer hours and experiencing more stress while doing it.

It’s popular to romanticize working an ungodly 100 hours a week to achieve your dream, and this may be the path that many entrepreneurs take. However, even pre-corona, we knew this wasn’t a sustainable strategy for a successful workforce as a whole.

Stanford professor John Pencavel’s 2014 study, “The Productivity of Working Hours,” identified a massive drop in productivity and an increase in workplace accidents among industrial workers who spent over 48 hours a week on the job. Another study of British civil servants conducted by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health’s Marianna Virtanen revealed that those who worked 55 hours a week scored lower on cognitive and reasoning tests than their colleagues who worked just 40.

Moreover, it’s not just productivity that suffers when we’re constantly burning the midnight oil. In 2020, Bloomberg rated Germany as the world’s most innovative economy – a country where people work just 34.34 hours a week according to OECD’s 2019 data (only Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands worked less). As a matter of fact, 13 out of the world’s top 20 most innovative economies this year were in Europe where workers spend just 36.23 hours a week on the job.

As leaders in the current reality, we have an even greater imperative to enable our employees to be their most innovative and productive selves. Just as elbow grease is not a business strategy panacea under normal working conditions, expecting our workers to “tough it out” is unlikely to move the needle in a Work From Home (WFH) environment. With this in mind, it is critical that we meet the challenge head-on and have a strategy to:

  1. Focus on output: Set a maximum 40-hour week for full-time workers with no minimum as long as objectives are met. Working hours can also be part of feedback during monthly check-ins. If the employee is “clocked in” too much, it should be addressed, and solutions identified.
  2. Communicate the big picture: Debrief your team’s high-level successes/failures on a weekly basis and outline the plan for coming week.
  3. Meet with purpose: Provide pre-read agendas for Zoom, Skype, Teams calls, etc…. Minimize the number of personnel on each call and keep them as short as possible. Schedule mandatory meetings in an agreed time block, while giving workers the freedom to perform other tasks when it works for them.
  4. Check in: We’re all used to annual performance reviews, but without regular in-person interaction, it is important for supervisors check in with their direct reports one-on-one at least once a month.
  5. Set the example: Avoid sending your subordinates tasking/inquires outside of normal working hours—And just as importantly, don’t expect answers/solutions to your tasking/inquires outside normal working hours. Think of the unintended message you may be sending and the perceived pressure to respond right away.
  6. Train: Become digitally literate, and if you already are, enhance your skills and provide training to your subordinates. As skill levels increase, they will become a long-term force multiplier that enhances team’s ability to adapt and perform.
  7. Invest: Ensure your WFH arrangements are optimized for your employees. This often involves much more than a Zoom and Office 365 subscription. Consult with your team and spend the money on the hardware and software they need.

If there is one thing that has characterized the business environment over the past 50 years, it’s a relentless pursuit of optimality. The pandemic hasn’t changed that. However, COVID-19 intensifies the risk of chronic fatigue, anxiety, short-term rewards, ambition, and an excessive sense of duty driving our teams into innovative no man’s land. Leadership is key to overcoming this hurdle. Be proactive and help your team work smarter, not harder.

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