Virtual Whisperer — Working Virtually… On and On and On

We haven’t hit the dog days of summer yet, but somehow this virtual working thing seems like it’s dragging on and on and on. While most of the US hunkers down with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases, parts of the world are opening up. Yes, social distancing and masks help slow down the spread, and we need some semblance of a functioning economy while we protect ourselves from this virus. Still, I suspect we’ll see an uptick in cases as the EU moves full tilt into holiday season, and countries within it say hello to travelers. The UK has opened its pubs despite a clear correlation showing bars being a problem here in the US, so in my book, give it a few weeks before we see new cases pop up all over the place. I’d guess 40 out of 50 states climbing isn’t enough of a bellwether of what not to do… Be that as it may, we’re trying like heck to open offices, but don’t expect it to last.

Some leaders I’m speaking with are starting to open up their offices with desks six feet apart or separated by plastic barriers, with canteens and cafeterias closed and conference rooms taped off. Staff who come to work are reminded by visual cues that their workplaces aren’t really safe, no matter how you cut it. And unless they are traveling solo in cars, they are faced with risk in their commutes, especially if you believe scientists who are lobbying the WHO to accept airborne contagion as another source of spread. It’s a mess.

My informal poll of CEOs in routine conversations points to the following:

  • They are keeping offices closed or only modestly opening them. Those that do open have workspaces that look very different than before.
  • Their polls show employees landing in a bell-shaped curve. A few are going crazy at home and can’t wait to get back to the office. Most want a flexible environment in the future and to stay put for now. Some are saying no way in heck are they ever going back to the office.
  • They are worried about staff video fatigue, working too many hours, sitting too much in front of a screen, and maintaining a culture when their teams are tired. Harvard announced yesterday that the 2020–21 school year will be held by distance learning only. If that happens to grammar schools, and parents are forced to work from home, single-parent and two-career families will need special attention — mental health will be an issue that CEOs and their HR staffs have to reckon with. They are worried that stress levels are going to go through the roof, especially if we head into another winter season and people are still quasi-sheltering in place.
  • Leaders are worried about maintaining their culture and hiring and onboarding talent that will never have worked F2F with their colleagues.

Our advice from earlier posts:

  • Make sure people take time off, even if they can’t travel. Getting out of the workplace for even a few days is healing. Vacation is a must.
  • Make sure people unplug. Don’t allow anyone to email while they are on vacation.
  • Have routine coffee hours, biweekly Zoom calls, and routines of engagement in motion. Once a month all hands, once a week coffee hour, twice a month memo — whatever is your cadence for communicating, maintain it. Keep the culture connected.
  • Give people working from home a break. Tell them it’s okay to work part-time for a few weeks. Tell them you don’t expect them to work after hours when the kids are asleep, dog tired from a crazy day of cooking, cleaning, tutoring, parenting, bathing, shopping, and whatever else parents have to do.
  • Make sure executives are NOT emailing staff after hours.
  • Create buddies for new hires at any level — pair them with individuals who are peers and represent the best of your culture, and make them stewards of new team members. Give new hires an orientation guide so they know how to operate in their first few weeks and are connected to people by design.
  • Make sure HR is on standby to support mental health issues. Some people simply CAN’T work from home. Can you give them paid leave? Some people don’t ever, ever, ever want to go back to an office. Can you accommodate them? Some people are downright scared and need someplace to vent. Hire a corporate coach or counselor or otherwise make sure there are resources for your staff.
  • Keep things flexible. We have no clue what’s going to happen day to day let alone month to month right now. Between a pandemic, economic meltdown, toxic politics, media run amok, and social and racial inequality, it’s nuts now. George W. Bush once said a leader’s job is to alleviate fear. We have shareholders to please, P&Ls to deliver, and product transformations to navigate. But more than anything else, we have to look after our teams. Stay focused on team first, and a lot of everything else will take care of itself.
  • Keep staff off planes for business travel. No one needs the added pressure of feeling they have to go out when they don’t want to.
  • Let staff know that you expect them to look out for each other, your organization, and their families.

Prepare to stay flexible for the long haul, and keep work locations a choice. No matter what, working virtually in some form or fashion is here to stay. It’s going to go on and on and on.

Anthea Stratigos is a Silicon Valley CEO, wife, mother, public speaker, and writer, among many other passions and pursuits. She is Co-founder & CEO of Outsell.