The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unexpected, unforeseeable situation. Virtual work — also known as home office or flexible work— has been normalized. This situation has created quite a few challenges for leaders, and they were not really prepared for them: changes in the way people work and collaborate together, changes in the way leaders communicate with, build and develop their teams, or changes in how we deal with conflicts and fears, to name a few.
For some companies, virtual work is not a novelty. They had been introducing blended models of work where corporate physical office coexisted with home office for some time already, when the pandemic hit us all. These companies had already faced these changes, so they were well on their way to operate fully virtually.
However, many companies were taken by surprise and were not ready for such a change of paradigm. They had to hit the accelerator big time to adapt to the new reality, both technologically and in terms of mindset. Technologically, the changes have been significant (apps, software, hardware, tools, platforms, etc.), but nothing that cannot be solved with some investment and a good IT crew. The leadership and engagement aspects have been more difficult to tackle, as they require quite a shift in our mindsets to make home office work for everyone.
There are 3 levers, interconnected to some extent, that companies (and leaders) have to continuously work on to make this shift of paradigm successful: trust, psychological safety, and accountability.
Trust is at the base of any balanced human relationship. We cannot conceive a healthy and productive relationship without trust. And you build trust over time and with interactions.
From a virtual work perspective, leaders are faced with a polarity that can be quite relevant and stressful at the same time, and needs to be addressed. That is: trust or control? Is it one or the other? It’s actually both.
You don’t see people as often when you do home office: you don’t know what they do, when they do it… So you need to trust them! Rely on the fact that your team will take responsibility for the tasks and outcomes they have to accomplish, even working from home. This calls for a need to wipe off the old paradigm mindset of “you work when you are sitting at your desk at the office” and shift towards a mindset of self-managing your time and your workload to produce results. Does trust take away the need for control? Of course not. But control needs to be seen as a way of support, follow up, and mutual accountability. If employees working virtually are going to be productive and effective, they need to feel that they are empowered and trusted. As Reina and Reina put it: “Trust starts with you”.
Is your mindset one of trust? Or control? Is trust your default position?
As Amy Edmonson defines it, psychological safety happens when “people [feel] they can raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion”. Virtual work setting limits the non-verbal interaction, the informal exchange between peers and colleagues, the coffee machine conversations, the cafeteria laughs and hugs, the opportunities for sharing… People may feel more distant than ever, and with that, people are less inclined to voice their opinions or take risks in the interpersonal arena. They feel more insecure and, as a consequence, the levels of openness and vulnerability decrease. The virtual setting is more limiting when it comes to openness.
Psychological safety is all about removing fear and bringing in acceptance, respect, and consideration. When people feel safe and secure, when they feel included, they think more clearly, they communicate better, they are more daring to try new things and take risks and they are more open to give (and receive) feedback. Psychological safety is key to people’s engagement, learning, innovation and market breakthroughs. Now, too much (an overdose of) psychological safety can stifle performance, and this can happen easily unless it comes hand in hand with accountability.
What are you doing to make people feel included and psychologically safe in the virtual setting?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, accountability is “the obligation or willingness to accept responsibility”. And the English learners section adds: “required to explain actions or decisions to someone”.
Here we find the key to the 2 previous elements: unless there is accountability from both sides, leader and employee, it will be difficult to generate trust and psychological safety.
When people are clear and accept the responsibility for their role or position and they are required to explain their actions and their outputs in a transparent way, they will deliver better results. The contrary is also true: when people don’t have clarity of roles and responsibilities and they are not held accountable, their performance will not be as good, and the learning experience will not take place. This can be devastating at an individual level, but also at an organizational level.
The virtual setting has shifted things around: new tasks, new ways of communication, for some maybe even new roles and responsibilities, so if we want people to be accountable, this new reality requires clarity of goals and expectations. Virtuality did not create the need for accountability, it existed before that, but it has made it more relevant than ever.
Accountability (or the avoidance of it) goes beyond trust and psychological safety. We can say that when accountability is the norm in a given organization, learning and change can happen. Accountability is key to organizational change. In order to make people accountable, you have to start holding yourself accountable for the success of the relationship and its results, you have to be a role model.
Do you hold yourself accountable? Don’t expect people to hold themselves accountable, if you are not!
A few tips to increase trust, psychological safety and accountability in your teams in a virtual environment (applicable to face-to face too!):
- Because of the reciprocal nature of trust, start by trusting your people, colleagues and partners. If you trust them, they will trust you. And make sure you let them know that you trust them.
- Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and your expectations in this new virtual context (if these have changed) and make sure people understand them too.
- Communicate often, even when there is no news to say. Allow for informal communication regularly too (virtual coffees or similar)
- Connect and re-connect both as a group and individually with each member of your team. Know how they are doing in a very personal way
- Be open and transparent (as far as you can go) when communicating
- Be authentic, show your own vulnerabilities
- Create a space where everyone can share feelings and concerns. Take advantage of the many available virtual tools: meeting rooms, breakout rooms, polls, etc.
- Ask your team for feedback, listen to it… and act on it!
- Give more feedback than ever
- Ask more questions than ever
The pandemic will pass, but virtual, flexible work will stay. We don’t know what percentage of it will coexist with the office work in a sort of blended format. We all need to learn to make the best use of it. And we can do that, whatever the format is, by building and inspiring trust in our teams, by creating psychological safety and giving the team a space where everybody feels included and accepted, and by making ourselves and our teams accountable for the work we do and the decisions we make.
A final note: You may be experiencing the same fears and concerns, the same lack of visibility in your organization, the same uncertainty and may be you are as overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation as your team is at this moment… you too need to take care of yourself.
What are you doing to feel safe and trusted? How do you reenergize yourself? How do you build resilience?