The future of work arrived out of nowhere three months ago on the back of a once-in-a-century pandemic. We’ve all been forced to rapidly and radically adapt to new working norms. But I don’t see this as a momentary blip. It’s the paradigm shift in team working behaviors and practices our team's research has been calling for—and coaching for—for the last 20 years. I just wish this new era had been ushered in by happier circumstances. Now, as the lockdowns are lifting, we should take what we've learned as an opportunity rather than rubber-band back to old habits.
Let’s not go back to work; let’s go forward to work.
Audacious executive teams at organizations like Delta, General Motors, and Verizon have exemplified behaviors that go beyond collaboration to what I call Co-Elevation: a “we will go higher together” commitment to the mission and to each other, as I describe in my new book, Leading Without Authority. And around the globe, strategic and operational debt is being retired, bringing an end to the misalignment of teams and dysfunctional behaviors that have corroded value in the past. Today, we must maximize team performance to capture new growth opportunities and guard against unexpected risks. Today’s challenge is to recognize the opportunity to solidify what has emerged out of necessity and identify practices that will sustain those positive new behaviors in the changing world we’re facing.
We should use the opportunity of our lockdown experiences to “recontract” with each other around our social norms at work, particularly among our executive teams. Now’s the right moment for leaders to meet virtually with their locked-down teams to open a candid dialogue:
- What working behaviors are better now that were not so great in the past?
- Does the team agree that in each of these areas, we want to sustain the emerging better behaviors?
- What new set of high-return practices could we adopt to sustain the better behaviors going forward?
Our research institute began the development of reconstructing and high-return business practices 20 years ago. Then, more recently, we began a multi-million dollar research project in 2012 that has been documented many times in the Harvard Business Review called “The New People Rules In a Virtual World.” You can check out this work at www.virtualteamswin.com.
Here are eight radically adaptable and co-elevating behaviors I’ve observed in executive teams I’ve been coaching through the lockdowns, and some high-return practices that will sustain these behaviors for your team:
“How can I help?” I have heard those words more than ever as the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded; I’m seeing less siloed behavior than ever before. Instead, there’s a generous commitment to peer-to-peer co-creation and co-development that lays the emotional groundwork for Co-Elevation: not letting each other fail and determination to win together.
A high-return practice: Leaders can embed generosity as a behavioral norm by asking routinely after each report out, data sharing, or presentation, “what can any of us do to be of service to …” whoever was addressing the team.
Necessity has forced us to lean in as a team and across silos and draw from the combined wisdom that ignites innovation. Let’s not push collaboration back into hallways and serendipitous meetings. I’m seeing more teams discover how remote working can drive collaboration: where the psychological safety of breakout video rooms is allowing for more risk-taking and candor than ever before.
A high-return practice: Moving face-to-face and virtual meetings away from report outs towards collaborative problem-solving has been a keynote of my coaching practice for the last eight years. Let’s make collaborative engagement the keynote of future staff meetings. We should commit at least 50% of our time to collaborative problem-solving and adopt a more orchestrated process to ensure all voices are heard.
Teams have been forced to consider on a weekly basis: what do we do next? Let’s not retreat to one-year strategic and financial plans. Instead, there’s an opportunity to adopt quick, effective decision making as our behavioral norm and default practice. I have seen many executive teams, out of necessity, emulating Agile software development teams by negotiating and sprinting to iterative measurable results then adapting and sprinting again.
A high-return practice: My suggestion is to adopt weekly or monthly “Agile” sprints, as the need fits when we can come together as a team, look at how customer needs and the competitive landscape are changing, and agree where we will prioritize and devote scarce resources. Let’s discuss transparently as a team if we are on or off track. Work management and communications software can promote transparency in real-time.
Another practice we can adopt from the Agile Methodology is how engineers and coders self-organize into cross-functional teams with a single-minded focus on customers’ needs which we all know have rapidly changed. As expertise is baked-in from different departments, there’s a shared sense of organizational responsibility and checks and balances from different perspectives (as I explained in this piece for Fast Company).
Organizations’ rapid response to the pandemic has also shown the value of throwing out bureaucracy. Process is important, for sure, but it’s one of the Agile principles to trust motivated individuals to deliver. During the pandemic, I’ve seen exactly that: the old hierarchical rule book being bypassed and the right decisions being taken at the level where things need to get done.
Extending your team
I’ve always advocated looking beyond the org chart to understand who you need on your team to win. In the last two months, I’ve seen one of my clients treat suppliers fundamentally differently—and better than ever before—to help them survive this crisis. They have recontracted the working behaviors and practices of their supply chain, reaching out to them as an extended team, and committing to co-elevate—to win together—to deliver billions of dollars of value creation. One team I’m coaching is inviting clients to join internal recognition calls with frontline teams to directly acknowledge the impact their work is having and build a strong sense of shared mission.
A high-return practice: Why not commit to radical transparency? Virtual team meetings create the opportunity to record discussion and share it to accelerate learning and broaden understanding of more colleagues than could ever fit into a boardroom. And playback that idea in reverse: use the immediacy of video conferencing to dial in expertise from around the business—or external partners—to get instant answers or feedback on the questions and ideas being discussed. Virtual working has the potential to be more dynamic than physical meetings; it’s a question of breaking out of the boardroom mindset.
Taking care of our people
Before this crisis, many companies looked at what enlightened employers like Patagonia were doing for moms coming back to work and thought they were crazy. But I’ve seen more humanity and authentic concern than ever before; more care about parents with child care needs and flex time needs, for example. What do you get in return when you care? Loyalty, commitment, energy and ingenuity. My Chief Operating Officer has always worked half-time since leaving a big consulting firm 20 years ago because spending time watching the kids grow up was a priority And, by the way, my COO is the best business partner I could have at half the price.
A high-return practice: Organizations aiming to optimize remote working have recognized the most counter-intuitive element of human productivity: the more consistently you take daily time away from work for exercise, meditation, family and friends, the more productive you will be. These behaviors increase creativity, innovation, patience, curiosity, positive motivation and decrease restlessness, inability to focus, depression, and mental stagnation. Let’s hope the end of the lockdowns doesn’t prompt a return to old norms and instead accelerates discussions around flex time and encouragement of personal time for wellness.
Vulnerability and authenticity
We join video calls every day and are blessed to see each other’s homes, children, and often barking dogs or curious cats and are hearing each other’s struggles. It has now become harder for us to wear professional work masks; we’re exposed and bringing our whole selves to the conversation all around the globe. This old-school notion of keeping work and personal life separate is dead. To be able to drive to results, we must have a connection as humans and empathy for each other and each other’s goals.
Academics like Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, have advocated the power of vulnerability and empathy for the last 20 years. Finally, the whole world is doing it; even in typically machismo cultures. This is also core to Co-Elevation: we only win when we all cross the finish line.
A high-return practice: Keep this intimacy alive moving forward is the practice of a Personal-Professional Check-in; a simple sweet and sour check at the beginning of each meeting to see how everyone is doing.
Right now, people are speaking truth in the room—albeit a virtual room. People are being more courageous because the risks are too high not to be. But that’s not how it’s always been.
As the economy was recovering from the last great financial crisis, I called for more candor and courageous conversations as a way to bulletproof strategies and ideas and minimize risk. Through articles and videos for Harvard Business Review, I warned that lack of candor was contributing to longer cycle times, slowing decision-making, and leading to unnecessarily iterative discussions. The veneer of too-polite discussion was serving as cover for an overly politicized workplace. Colleagues who were afraid to speak honestly to people’s faces do it behind their backs. My research showed that 74% of teams didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting. And that is changing. After this crisis, let’s not go back to being conflict avoidant and passive aggressive.
A high-return practice: Candor breaks are the best way to find out what’s not being said. A surefire way to unlock candor is to break meetings midway into smaller groups to ask the straight forward question, “What’s not being said that needs to be said” and report back. Smaller groups promote psychological safety, higher degrees of risk-taking, and increase the odds that more voices will be heard. Alternatively, just pause the meeting and ask the team around the (virtual) table what’s not being said.
I recently led a virtual coaching session with the executive team at National Instruments. Even across a video link, using these techniques, they reported more candor and even better collaboration than in the face-to-face sessions they’ve done before the pandemic.
“How will I know if my people are productive?” That was the first question leaders always used to ask me when we talk about remote working. But right now, the leaders I am working with describe something different. There’s no loss of productivity. In fact, the new culture of agile sprints and the team coming together week-to-week is seeing accountability shift from the leader to peer-to-peer within the team. Right now, no one wants to let their peers down.
Going forward if managers are clear what needs to be done, and the team makes weekly commitments to each other about what they will do, we will all worry less about hours in the office and focus more on what we’re achieving together.
A high-return practice: Peer-to-peer accountability is the working norm and practice we should hold onto. And we can even go even further. After each team member’s report, the team should break into small groups and “bulletproof” each other's success by offering one risk that the individual might guard against, one innovative idea the individual might consider, and one act of generosity that the breakout group could offer by way of help. This simple practice can begin to shift the working norm toward a Co-Elevating team that won’t let each other fail.
Seize the opportunity
For years, disruptive technologies and disrupted markets have been pushing us all towards behaving and working differently together. But for too long, too many of us have kept playing by the old work rules. The pain of the pandemic has forced us to show up differently. We have an opportunity to reboot, recontract, and ask our teams: what does it mean to be a team member here, to lean-in and co-elevate, to commit to each other’s success? Let’s not waste that precious opportunity.