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Managing in Yoga Pants

In the last 24 hours, the following dilemmas have come up as friends, colleagues and family members have adjusted to working from home:

  • I forgot to stand up for four hours and now my legs don't seem to be working.

  • Can I not use video for certain meetings if I just don’t feel like it? (i.e., I did not brush my hair and am currently inhaling Pirate's Booty?)

  • Am I allowed to pee while on a conference call if I put it on mute?

  • My neck hurts from looking at my laptop while sitting in my bean bag chair.

  • What’s the protocol for my kids running in and out of the background of my video chat? Am I expected to mute my line every time one of them screams?

  • How do I not get divorced / break-up with my spouse, partner, roommate, sibling?

Luckily, the internet has quickly filled the void with emergency webinars, listicles, and Buzzfeed compilations of the best tips to work from home.  For those of us who have been working-from-home for ages, we are secretly smirking inside: how long do you think you’ll really “shower every morning, put on work clothes and “pretend” like you are going into an office?”  (Hint: about as long as your emergency jar of peanut butter lasts - i.e., three days).

What is less explored, though, is how to be a great manager during this time of uncertainty and when you are not physically present with your teams.  Managers are contending with these two new challenges of how to support their teams from afar and under a heightened set of emotions and anxiety. I’d like to share a few ideas of how you, as a manager, can tackle these challenges, but first, I’d like to share a little bit about why the work from home shift can be tricky…..

My second favorite sociologist, Erving Goffman, talks about the concept of “front stage” and “back stage” behavior.  Our “front stage” behavior encompasses how we operate in a professional-setting and, more generally, encompasses the behaviors we display in public places with people who we are less familiar with.  Our “front stage” behavior is often shaped by cultural norms and expectations. In contrast, our “back stage” is when we let our guard down and act more closely to our true selves. We engage in “back stage” behavior in our homes with the people we are closest to and when we don’t feel the need to follow a cultural script.  Research shows that individuals try to keep their front stage and back stage pretty separate (despite our push to be more authentic and bring our true selves to work!)

Well, when all of a sudden we are forced to work-from-home, our back-stage and front-stage worlds collide.  When we are in our homes, our body is subconsciously telling us our back-stage selves can come out to play, yet the zoom meeting we are on with our boss calls for our front-stage selves.  There’s a collision and we are left not quite knowing how to behave. I share this to convey the idea that the reason why working from home can be challenging is not just because it’s hard to motivate, our computer screens are too small, and we are constantly raiding the fridge - it’s because we struggle with our behaviors and ways of being.

We might find ourselves or our teammates behaving in ways that are atypical - this may be because back-stage behaviors are coming to light, or more likely, because we are trying to work through the dissonance of these two stages.  Add these funky behaviors to the uncertainty of what’s to come and the challenge of not being physically present….and we get a real management mess.

So, what can you do as a manager?

1. Develop explicit norms with your teams about how you will interact and work together remotely.  Teams that set norms - regardless of what the norms are - are far more successful than teams that don’t.  I don’t care if your team decides you will all wear sweat suits on your video calls, or if you have a 15 minute check-in at the end of each day, or that you are all on Slack from 9am to 5pm without fail.  What matters is that everyone on your team is crystal clear about what those norms are. Set the norms now - and here’s a norm-setting template to use.  Trust me, it will reduce disappointment and frustration when one member of your team NEVER gets on video, but everyone else tries to make themselves somewhat presentable to join the video call.

2. Set crystal clear expectations for your team.  Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect?  It’s the phenomenon that happens when we as managers think things take a much shorter amount of time than they actually do (and our new employees think the same). Remote working exacerbates the effect even more.  Because we are just sitting in front of computers, we, as managers may have the tendency to assign a bunch of work and expect it to come back faster than it actually can.  We get frustrated, meanwhile, our employees get frustrated because they aren’t clear about what to do and they can’t pop over to your desk to ask for a quick explanation. So now, more than ever, it’s important to be clear about what you expect from your team:

  • What’s the objective or end goal?

  • What does good look like?

  • What’s the timing?

  • What are examples (if possible)?

3. Be hyper cognizant of self-limiting behavior during conference calls and online meetings.  It’s really easy for team members to mentally “check-out” of calls and meetings when everyone is remote.  This behavior is called “raising the white flag” and is particularly detrimental when you’re trying to make a decision or have a discussion that needs everyone’s engagement and input. To help with this:

  • At the start of big meetings, remind people to be conscious of checking out and raising their white flags (obviously explain what the concept means first :) ).

  • Assign roles during meetings that keep people engaged. For example, you could assign someone to be the devil’s advocate to keep the convo engaging.  You could assign someone to remotely flip the slide deck and have that role be someone different from the presenter to keep another person engaged. Assign a note synthesizer.

  • If you are leading the meeting, engage with people directly by name.  Don’t just ask - “Does anyone have any feedback?”. Rather, try, “Mark, what is your reaction to slide 10?”  or “Thomas, what is one thing you would change about this decision?”

  • Lastly, be extra vigilant about who needs to attend meetings.  Large meetings where half the people are online shopping because they really don’t need to be there are to be avoided!

4.  Help your team manage their uncertainty and anxiety.  For anyone who has ever worked in a start-up that went through a really rough patch, the uncertainty and fear many of us are feeling right now may harken back to those days.  We have no idea of what the future holds, and have limited control of the outcome.  The Stockdale Paradox encapsulates this sentiment. 

The paradox is: that we should approach change or adversity with a combination of optimism plus brutal honesty and a willingness to take action. Put another way, the paradox is:

"You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

So what does this mean for a manager?  It means confronting the hard day-to-day and making the necessary changes to be realists about the situation.  The type of work we may do might drastically pivot, we might have to make hard choices about how we do our work, what we invest in, and who we hire.  We do not keep our head in the sand and pretend like nothing is happening.

But, we do this while remaining optimistic about the future.  We think about ways to innovate, unique ways to bolster our work communities, and find light, joy and curiosity about our new way of working.

5.  And lastly, as a manager, never forget the power of a simple question to your team member.  Ask your team member how she is doing and truly listen to her response.  Give her space to share her emotions and fears.

I wish everyone the best of luck as they navigate this uncertain time!


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