How to Be an Effective Leader From Self-Quarantine

As the world partially shuts down to address the Coronavirus pandemic, you may find yourself working remotely for the first time.

How are you going to provide value and leadership to your teams during this disruptive period?

I’m not going to talk to you today about how often or how thoroughly you should be washing your hands. I won’t be discussing how to make hand sanitizer at home, or what stores have an unexpected stock of toilet paper.

I’m going to adhere to the age-old writing advice: write what you know.

See, what you may not know about me is that I’ve been “self-quarantining,” if you’ll allow me to use that term loosely, for nearly 15 years.

It was a sunny day in Southern California, sometime in April or May of 2004. Aren’t all the days in SoCal sunny? Excepting, of course, the freak, but quick rain storms that blow in a few days a year, and the annual darkening of the sky when the fires set in.

Yes, we have to step back this far in time, also known as The Dark Ages of Connectivity, before we had smartphones, Facebook was yet exclusive and unknown, and twitter still meant bird-noises.

I walked into my boss’s office and opened the conversation with, “What do you think about me working remotely?”

At this point in time, we worked in a beautiful office in an Orange County suburb, but my work didn’t require me to physically be there. Further, the cost of living, specifically the cost of owning or renting a home, was out of comfortable reach for me at the time, and my family just wasn’t overly attached to that area. We enjoyed it, but aside from that, nothing was keeping us anchored there.

So, we moved to Oregon, where most of my childhood friends and family reside, and I left the office commute behind forever.

I’ve since changed jobs, more than a few times, in fact. During one of those, albeit brief, career interludes, I dipped my proverbial toes back into the show-up-at-the-office routine.

I hated it. And, based on that, I’m comfortable saying I will never go back.

For me, being in an office and trying to work is an endless source of distraction and frustration. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally suffer from those same things working at home. Still, in general, I find that working remote works well for me. I’m able to remain focused and productive. More so even than when I had an assigned desk to report to every day.

Enough about me, this article is for and about you. See, I realize that while I love being a remote worker, not everyone does. For some, it’s downright nerve-wracking. The lack of persistent social contact, and yes, even the silence of a quiet home when you are used to the background noise of the office can become a distraction, as odd as that may sound.

So let’s talk about what you can do to stay connected with your team; how you can support their own time in isolation. And, of course, try to keep your job or business on track during this time of disruption.

Finding and Defining Boundaries

Like Lewis and Clark on their trek west, you need to get comfortable with some cartography. But, the mapping I’m referring to is not about navigating the wilderness.

You need to locate, define, and publicize your boundaries. And you need to help your team do the same.

As you first start working at home, you will find that you have more time on your hands, usually due to the sudden gap in your schedule that used to be dedicated to your daily commute.

If you are an engaged employee, passionate about your work, it can be easy to lose track of time and forget to clock out for the day and go home, virtually.

After all, the office is now right there, all the time. Your work is in reach and waiting for you. It can be challenging to step away and create some boundaries with your time that leaves you having a distinctly separate personal and professional life. Don’t fall into this trap. Be mindful of your need to find a balance that is both productive and fair to your professional self and your job, but respects your personal time as well.

If you read that last bit and said, “Honestly, I’m not that engaged or passionate.” — why not? Assuming you need to work, whatever work means to you, as most of us do, you deserve to be both engaged in and passionate about that work. Anything less is a disservice to your own happiness in life.

If you are leading a team, or you’d like to move in that direction, and you are struggling with engagement, I have a book that just might help.

Conversely, rather than being pulled back to your work early in the morning or late in the night, you may have the opposite problem. One where you discover that all the things around your house that demand your attention seem to be staring you in the face all the time.

Deliveries at the front door, and kids at the back door. The other adults in your house need your attention. The kids are bored as the unplanned third week off of school sets in. Another delivery is ringing the doorbell.

You walk to the kitchen for more coffee and realize you didn’t tidy up the counter, and then the trash needs to be taken out. Now one of the kids has smeared the jelly all over the dog, and the next thing you know you’ve missed three meetings, you have 47 voice mails, every surface in the house is covered in an unidentified sticky goo (that is probably jelly), and the kids and the dogs are both sleeping soundly on the floor. Complete, and blissful ignorance of the chaos you can’t unsee.

Then, in a flash of terrifying insight, you remember, “Oh, right, I’m at work now…”

It’s time to set some boundaries.

Talk to your family, friends, housemates, all the people that play a role in your day to day life, and ensure everyone is clear you will be working from home and may need some consideration from them so you can focus and have discussions with your office and teams.

It’s easy to get distracted when you are taken out of the office environment. It’s equally possible in the office, but we all tend to develop mechanisms for mitigating and coping with those distractions. We will need the same good practices and policies to manage the distractions at home.

As you establish boundaries and find what works for you, share those findings with your peers, and your team. They will all be struggling with these same challenges, and any essential advice from you that works well will, in turn, be well received.

You Need Digital Boundaries Too

While digital communication in the workplace is probably already the norm for you, at least it should be if you are in a role where remote work is even remotely feasible. You’ll need to set some boundaries around this as well.

When people can’t walk over to your office to “catch up” with you, you will find that they fall into one of two camps.

The first camp won’t message you on any instant messaging platform, whether that means Google Hangouts, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or whatever other tools you are using, because they are unsure what you might be working on and don’t want to bother you.

The other camp won’t stop messaging you on those systems available to them, because they can’t see you in the office, can’t talk to you comfortably throughout the day and, well, everything just feels off.

This change will take some practice to get right. Assuming you have tools that are integrated with your calendar (or even if you don’t), you should be using those tools and your status in the messaging system to communicate availability. Set yourself away when you need to be away. Set yourself busy when you are occupied, but necessary interruptions are acceptable.

Use a do-not-disturb setting or message when you need to focus, and above all, don’t feel guilty about doing so. You likely have established practices in your office that allow you to get work done, you should have those same tools when your office goes digital.

Be cautious in selecting the right availability to strike a balance between focus time and team time. This is very much a balancing act that requires both your attention and some practice to get right.

Be Ready to Navigate

People react to change in different ways, naturally. Some of your team will thrive, some will be downright miserable.

As a leader, your challenge will be to try and recognize the signs and read the reactions from your team, so you can capitalize on their newfound energy or take mitigating actions accordingly.

To do this, you will have to be more connected and reachable to the people that are obviously suffering from that lack of office connection. Make small talk. Chat a bit about this and that, just as you would in the office.

For those team members that go ultra-quiet but seem to be churning out high-quality work at a surprising rate, monitoring them is also in order. Take the time to ensure they aren’t hurtling towards a quick divorce because they’ve discovered the black hole of working 20 hours a day simply because the work is always there, easily in reach. Encourage them to check out daily, and on a rigorous schedule — the job will still be there tomorrow.

Be proactive in considering not just how you can support the individuals on your team, but how you can help the group as a whole.

Group meetings that would have been held in the conference room are now conducted via conference call. That is one important thing, yes, but the team needs to feel cohesive and connected to each other and the mission, especially during what is a significant amount of change occurring very quickly.

To drive this goal of cohesiveness and connectedness forward, consider and encourage the use of video in addition to audio in group meetings, wherever possible. You’ll need to balance the use of video against the quality of connection and supported features in your tools.

Don’t force video if it causes poor communication quality by degrading the audio — but where possible, use it. What we lose when we aren’t physically working together is the body language, facial expressions, and natural reactions that we see in people as we speak and work together in person. Video bridges some of this gap and will help to mitigate misunderstandings, miscommunications, and a general feeling of disconnect.

Success As a Remote Team Employee

Let’s recap the key points to successfully leading remote work with your team:

  • Set boundaries that keep you productive, but don’t cause your job to take over your entire life.
  • Expect distractions and impediments to your ability to focus and get ahead of them.
  • Communicate to your friends and family so they are aware that while you may be home, you aren’t “home.”
  • Pay attention to your own needs for communication and work to maintain the level of connectivity (virtually) that you require with your team to keep mentally focused and balanced.
  • Encourage your team to be diligent about scheduling: time to focus, time for interactions and don’t forget about time to be off work.

Remote work can be a significant shift in our daily patterns and practices. Still, with a bit of intentional leadership, it’s both achievable and a valuable tool for us to deploy when needed.

Be flexible, patient, and helpful with your team (and yourself), and collectively, we’ll get through this together.

I write articles similar to this frequently, in an attempt to help you answer the question: What can I do today to become a better leader?

I hope you enjoyed this, and if you want to see more from me, I invite you to join my group of Intentional Leaders here.

You’ll get a direct line to ask me your burning leadership and management questions, and be the first to know when I release my next book!

Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.

When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.

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