Leadership First, Location Second

Managers will not be able to get away with the pre-pandemic ways of leading for much longer.

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By Deepali Vyas

There are countless stories of people having to lead under duress during the pandemic, but one in particular inspires me. A logistics executive I know normally managed a handful of lieutenants, who in turn managed thousands of employees responsible for the pickup and delivery of millions of packages each day. But over the course of one week last year, that logistics executive and all of her direct reports were grounded and confined to their homes, while the thousands of employees they oversaw had become frontline workers.

The executive could tell that everyone was on edge, justifiably, and losing focus. Isolated in her kitchen-cum-office, the boss was stressed and now felt herself taking on the frustrations of everyone else. Then she found inspiration—in a cookbook.

Everyone was now cooking more at home. She put out a request for recipes, and when she did, she reminded everyone that the work they were doing delivered all the things necessary—pots, food, ovens, silverware, you name it—to people all over the world so they could cook at home safely with their loved ones. The response was overwhelming. Thousands of recipes poured in from across the world. Her company created a virtual cookbook that any employee could access. She encouraged people to leave comments on what they made and who they made it for. The work dynamic still exists today, but productivity and employee engagement are higher than before the pandemic.

I’m not saying that a cookbook will help you overcome all your challenges of managing people remotely. But the work-from-home era has exposed how many managers have major issues leading when they can’t physically interact with their colleagues. They can’t read their employees’ body language on video calls (and employees can’t read theirs). Meeting times have to be scheduled, and there are no improvised chats. And the great brainstorming that can naturally occur when you put a few people in front of a whiteboard can’t happen when you can’t get everyone in the same room. Managers need to start putting leadership first, location second, because even when the pandemic ends, not everyone will be coming back to work in an office every day.

Managers will not be able to get away with the pre-pandemic ways of leading for much longer. The cracks will start to show, if they haven’t already, in the form of lower levels of productivity and engagement. More employees will quit, and fewer top-tier recruits will take jobs.

So what does “leadership first, location second” look like? Some of the savviest managers have created environments where people can be creative, innovative, and optimistic. There are plenty of software tools to mimic the whiteboard-in-a-room experience. Managers are also routinely checking in on each of their direct reports, asking how they are feeling, and charting out paths for them to grow.

These smart bosses are also creating team rituals to keep engagement high. Managers who had open-door policies when everyone was in the same office have set up virtual office hours, a couple hours of time on Zoom when anyone can drop in and talk. Regular virtual happy hours can keep engagement high as well. One mid-level executive I know even sent three bottles of wine to each of her direct reports and hired a sommelier to walk everyone through a tasting.

Most importantly, managers have to build trust over the distance. That likely requires being radically transparent with their teams and even their own bosses. Be open about what needs to be accomplished, the challenges that await, and how you personally are going to pitch in and help. What you think may be overcommunication actually shows that you are putting a great deal of trust in employees, who in turn will repay that trust by putting forth their best efforts.

Eventually, this pandemic will end, and some people will come back to the office. Managers will have to balance the inside and outside teams. That could be difficult, but these pandemic-tested techniques should still work even when we can be in the same room safely.