Image from Jaws 2 movie. ‘ I know what a shark looks like . . . And you’d better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again’ 
Jaws 2. ‘ I know what a shark looks like . . . And you’d better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again’  © Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the office, a second wave of coronavirus is forcing many workers to stay at home. The wobbly chairs have been fixed, the broadband upgraded, the Zoom-friendly lighting improved. Still, it is up to leaders to show they have learnt the lessons of Lockdown 1.

As police chief Martin Brody says in the sequel to Jaws: “I know what a shark looks like. I’ve seen one up close. And you’d better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again.”

The option to work from home remains a relative luxury. Lockdown will reopen divisions between well-off workers and poorer counterparts in cramped apartments. It still represents, in the words of Donna Flynn, vice-president of global talent at office furniture company Steelcase, “the extreme state of remote work and remote leadership”.

Yet leaders who took the crash course earlier this year ought to be better- placed to help staff, and to prepare them for an aftermath in which everyone will spend more time working out of the office.

First, they must lead with clarity. Ms Flynn told an online panel I chaired at the recent Global Peter Drucker Forum, that leaders need to be clear and intentional in how they communicate with their distant teams.

Second, they need to encourage connection. Teams found to their cost during the first lockdown that bad leaders substitute top-down communication and back-to-back virtual meetings for missing face-to-face contact.

Another Drucker Forum panellist, Ashok Krish, global head of digital workplace at Tata Consultancy Services, said junior leaders struggled when they no longer enjoyed the “ambient awareness” of office life — the instinct that someone in their line of sight needs help. Early in lockdown he found that some were overcompensating by scheduling 32 hours of video meetings a week.

TCS uses templates for different types of meeting to limit time spent online and ensure that routine updates — on project status, for instance — do not swamp productive discussion. TCS has also found that teams whose supervisors “chatted one on one with as many of their direct reports as much as possible did better than teams that relied on big group meetings”.

Diligent remote leadership takes time, Guy Ben-Ishai, Google’s head of economic policy research, added. He should know: he started his new role the week before the pandemic hit, working from home in Hawaii. To forge the right connections, he made a point of fixing frequent online check-ins with his new team members.

Such virtual links help teams apply the third main lesson of lockdown: collaborate. One Drucker delegate said her company had done lots of “mini projects” to bring people together from different, dispersed teams. Leaders may need to encourage such initiatives, but remote work veterans say it is vital to grant autonomy to staff. “The work we do today requires people to behave like adults; it requires us to treat them as adults,” said Tammy Erickson, who has conducted extensive research into teamwork and employee engagement. “If you’ve got people who are too dumb to figure out that they can do better work by collaborating with others, then you have got people who are too dumb and you have either got to educate them or get rid of them.”

Far from inhibiting the formation of more collaborative working cultures, virtual tools might help them develop faster. For that to happen, though, companies need to be able to restore true flexibility to their workforces.

Latest coronavirus news

Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.

That option was available well before the pandemic struck. In 2015, Nancy Dixon blogged wisely for the Drucker Forum about what she called “the oscillation principle” of remote work (“isolate to concentrate; convene to collaborate”).

The current constraints on free movement will prevent companies from putting such insights into hybrid work into practice immediately. As soon as lockdown lifts, though, they should seek to answer the question raised by Ms Erickson: what working environment — remote, collective, hybrid — is best for this particular type of work?

In the meantime, leaders need to apply a fourth lesson taught by the first Covid-19 wave: the need for compassion.

Keep an eye on your team’s “emotional landscape”, Ms Flynn said, be ready to intervene if necessary, and help staff manage their energy, collectively and individually — as well as managing your own.

The insights from Lockdown 1 are not complicated. They may not even be particularly surprising. Leaders should have been using them already. Yet for some reason, many are still doing remote leadership wrong. Here is a second chance to get it right.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

Tell us: Are you experiencing pandemic burnout at work?

Three individuals working at their home work stations
© FT

We are exploring the impact of the pandemic on people's work life and want to hear from readers. Tell us about your experiences of working during the pandemic via a short survey

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article