How to be the best leader possible—even while your team is WFH

4 min read
Greg Storey
  •  Apr 6, 2020
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In case you missed it: We launched a new free book, Remote Work for Design Teams. To celebrate, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be publishing excerpts we think Inside Design readers will find especially useful. First up, Greg Storey’s chapter on remote leadership:

For the past 25 years, I’ve been leading teams in myriads of businesses—small companies, gigantic global conglomerates, large national operations, etc. I thought I’d observed just about everything you can imagine, but as I write this the world is on lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic—a time only previously imagined as science fiction.

In my over two decades of experience, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. While I may not have all the leadership answers right now, I am sure the most genuinely helpful advice I can impart to you right now is this: Whatever leadership or management style you had yesterday needs to change quickly. Your team needs strong servant leadership.

Your designers need a work and life support system, and ding—you’re it. That doesn’t mean you have to have all of the answers; you won’t—nobody does right now. But you can listen. Fall back on your discovery process and use it to map out new requirements for your team, family, and community. There will be a time for strategic and transformational leadership later. Right now, your team needs a coach.

You’re likely still trying to process what’s happening. What’s it like to lead a team that you can’t hear or see? That is to say a team that’s not seated in the same room as you. People who aren’t even in your peripheral view—perhaps for the first time ever.

It’s time to let go of our definition of normal—because that’s gone. Make no mistake, we’re on a path to a new reality that’s forming in real-time—from entire industries to the GDP of countries. As leaders, we have to do what we can to help our teams, partners, and companies weather this storm-and-form period as best as possible.

Take the lead on reimagining cultural norms into a virtual equivalent or better. Just as our work is not tied to a place, neither are meetings or happy hours. Don’t overthink this and start simple. From what I’ve observed in client conversations and chats with design leaders, people want to talk. They need to vent and hear themselves think out loud. Be the leader needed right now by bringing people together; because we all need more conversations and more interactions—you included. At its core, it all boils down to this idea: People first, work second.

There is a certain connection you get from being around others and that disappears completely when you’re distributed. Grabbing time together now requires an invitation link and meetings only last so long. Out of sight, out of mind happens way too easily when working remotely. You have to prioritize time with your people—all of them.

It’s time to exercise those soft skills and put intent behind your standing 1:1s and team interaction times. This will give you time to “see” your people and an opportunity to observe their behavior. The business will always provide distractions and want your attention, but you’ve got to give your people the priority. Never, never, never-ever assume that anyone who reports to you will be “good” if you want to skip their weekly 1:1 session!

And don’t skip out on your regular rituals with your team, either. Now that your team has dispersed into working from their home, you’ll begin to miss the ability to put together ad-hoc team activities like happy hour or team lunch. As working remotely can lead to feelings of isolation, group functions become even more important to the health of your team. Setting standard interaction time is a way to ensure that your team has a built-in requirement to connect socially. It doesn’t have to be happy hours or coffee over video, either: Play virtual Pictionary or charades using Freehand. Try a cooking challenge, wine and painting, or karaoke. Take turns teaching each other how to say greetings in new languages or spend five minutes in group meditation or breathing exercises—any time or activity will help you stay close with your team—even if you’re physically distant.

Remember that you’re the one responsible for building up your designers— to make them better, stronger, and smarter. Time with each designer is critical to build them up, so they are prepared to crush it when they get back to their desks. Work with your team to remix concepts into a playbook that works for you. (And then please reach out and share it with me; I’d like to hear about what you’re doing.)

Last thought: Take care of yourself. There are people who depend on you, so make sure you’re strong, healthy, and here to stay.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. To read the full, unabridged chapter, download Remote Work for Design Teams.

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