Leaders Working from Home: Lessons from 9/11

By 19 March 2020 March 23rd, 2020 Covid-19 communication, wfh, Working from home

In the past few days I’ve had quite a few emails from clients referencing “wfh.”  Leaders working from home is the new norm across the world.   While spirits are still high, you can put in place some things to make wfh work for you and your team.

This whole experience reminds me of the wake of September 11th, 2001.  I was working for American Express in the World Financial Centre (across the street from the World Trade), but on holiday when it happened.  I was the only person in my department who had their laptop with them and could access any work document for four weeks.  The back-up servers for Amex were in WTC 7, which no longer existed.  The phone lines were out.  The email server was gone.  Amex set up a toll free open-line phone number that Amex employees could call and see if anybody they knew was on the line.  If so, they could exchange personal phone numbers and/or email and then communicate that way.  In a matter of days we were all back in a network of connection.  The company pulled together.  We found virtual ways of checking in with each other and  staying connected.

Remembering those days brings to mind a few ideas for wfh leaders today in Covid-19.

1. Create a Virtual Water Cooler.

Working in the office may have always been back-to-back meetings, but there were times when you got a cup of coffee or lunch or went to the loo, and in doing so would undoubtedly say hello to other people or chat for a couple minutes.  Set up an open videoconference or phone line that wfh people can log into at any time for a break and to see who else is around.

2. Check in personally, one-by-one, with everyone you typically see in a month.

Yep, that’s going to take a while.  Call a few people at the end of every day (their time zone, not yours).  And no, not email. More than ever, people need to know you care about them.  This applies to peers and senior staff as much as your direct and indirect reports. What’s App may seem a good option, but a phone message is better.

3. Virtual Coffee with You.

For leaders with hundreds or thousands of employees in their organisations, virtual coffee breaks with you could be a great way for wfh people to still feel your presence and a connection with you.  Have your assistant choose 8-12 people at random to join you each time.  You can give a brief message and then people can ask anything they like.  Make it informal.  Let them see you in your home office environment, including informal dress.  Avoid numbers larger than 12 so as to avoid passivity or “crowd mentality” on the part of your guests.

4. Be Mindful That Homelife May Not Be Great for Everyone.

Some people will love working from home.  Others won’t have the space they need away from family.  Or the family situation may be tense.  And some may live alone.  While companies are making provisions for the equipment needed so everyone can work from home, take some time to think about each person in your team and what the experience may be like for him or her.  Consider how you can be more open or available to those who need it.  Or more understanding for those who may not have an environment as conducive to working well as they would like.

5. Build Rapport First, on Every Call

With resources tight, broadband speeds slower, and processes not working optimally, the stress level may be high at times.  This means that being ultra task-focused on calls will be a natural response for many.  Task-focused communication, however, can make someone who feels isolated feel all the moreso.  Remember to take the first minute or two at least to build rapport with whoever else is on the call.  This is easier with video because you can show them your dog, or introduce your child, or give a tour of your virtual space.  You can get creative with this as well.  For example, are you cleaning out closets while you are home-bound?  What’s the oddest thing you have found that you can’t wait to deliver to a charity shop when this is over? If you are on the phoneline, is there a sound or a song you can share?   For example, birdsong or raindrops or the annoying thump-thump-thump of the neighbour’s washing machine… Share with others your environment and get a feel for theirs as well.  This doesn’t have to take much time, but does make the interaction more human.  For more ideas on conference call icebreakers, check these suggestions from Jamie Davidson.

6. Learn from Long-time Virtual Colleagues

The one person in your organisation who always had to dial in to attend a meeting with everybody else in one room is now vindicated!  If you have such a colleague, take the time to ask them what their tips and ideas are for better communications and for staying sane at home.

7. Review Meeting Attendee Lists

Are there meetings you regularly host that could now be expanded to include others or conversely, reduced?  Bear in mind that teams work best with 5-8 people, and meetings of more than 16 invite passive “crowd mentality.”  As you adjust to wfh, it is a good opportunity to make any changes needed.  If those changes are to reduce a list, consider how to stay connected to that person or group.  Perhaps a different call with a subgroup would be more effective.

A Chance to Focus on Optimal Communication

The ways we use technology and communicate with each other are rapidly being redefined.  And it is possible that we can discover improvements that we will carry back to the office with us when the Covid-19 pandemic has finally ended.  In the US last Sunday, the democratic candidate debate was held in a closed studio due to Covid-19.  It was the first presidential candidate debate without a live studio audience since the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960.  Consequently, the candidates had no audience to play to and the result was a better debate.  Many have called for all debates in future to be closed studio events.

Now is the time to think broadly about what you do and how you do it.  Most organisations will have spent more time on the technical needs to ensure BAU (business as usual) while wfh.  In the wake of September 11, my whole life changed.  Instead of a two-hour commute each way into lower Manhattan, I had a new temporary office ten minutes from home.  I gained an extra 20 hours a week.  The fact that you are no longer commuting gives you more time for other things.  I suggest that you take at least half the time you are saving from no longer commuting and use that to affirm relationships with colleagues, clients, and friends.

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures