The nearly universal shift to remote work that occurred at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to adapt their collaborative processes or perish. In the months since, business leaders have struggle to not only sustain productivity, but also to preserve company cultures while leading dispersed teams through heightened uncertainty.
Now, as some employees head back to the office while others remain at home, collaborative processes must continue to adapt. I recently connected with seven executives and entrepreneurs to talk about how collaboration has evolved within their companies over the past several months and how they’re preparing for the future of work.
1. James Henry, Chief Technology Officer at PureWeb
The first step to creating an effective fully remote organization is acknowledging that it can be done. As a technology leader, Henry knew that remote work was a viable option for his team of developers and engineers, but he and the rest of PureWeb’s leadership weren’t sure how other business units would adapt. They’ve been pleasantly surprised. “While the introverts already like working from home, extroverts were more reluctant,” says Henry. “Now that we’ve all had to be remote for some time, the extroverts have adjusted by using the tools they would use for business to have social interactions with colleagues as well.”
He credits regularly scheduled team huddles—even when there’s nothing new to announce—to preserving cohesion among team members. Over the long term, Henry predicts that all organizations, including his own, will have to experiment with different ways to accommodate teams that are at least partially remote. A big part of that is incorporating technology as both a work tool and a watercooler connection source. “Make sure that a role exists to set the tone that it’s OK to relax and have a video conference with no business agenda, but for the sole purpose of casual catch-ups and virtual happy hours,” he says. By staying connected even when we’re not working, we can facilitate quality communication that makes us more effective when we are.
2. Alfredo Atanacio, Cofounder of Uassist.ME
Remote work affects everyone differently. Knowing this, Atanacio and his team implemented a tool for tracking the moods of employees, so that they could proactively address employee anxieties and concerns. “As leaders, besides following up on projects and business tasks, we need to also follow up on people’s emotions and circumstances during these trying times,” he says. Fortunately, modern technology makes that possible.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, Atanacio and his team plan to continue working remotely and have resolved to continue strengthening their remote capabilities. Part of that process involves collecting input from employees—including their thoughts on organizational leadership. Atanacio believes that constructive criticism is vital to growth. “Invite and welcome feedback,” he says, “Hold periodic virtual meetings with employees and encourage them to ask hard questions about the company and the situation we face.” By promoting transparent conversation between leadership and employees, companies can avoid the negative effects of unnecessary workplace gossip while ensuring that staff members feel their opinions are accounted for and valued.
3. Don Sharp, CEO at Coolfire
“Never waste a good crisis.” That’s the philosophy Sharp and his team adopted as they embarked on a mission to strengthen every aspect of their business at the onset of the pandemic. Realizing that a prolonged period of fully remote work presented a significant threat to company culture, they quickly implemented programs aimed at keeping employees physically and mentally healthy, and they started to rethink organizational communications. “What used to get done with a quick hallway conversation now needs to have a bit more structure around it,” he says. “Raise project visibility with regular status check-ins and meetings to ensure strategic alignment. After a few meetings, make sure people are getting value from that time. If not, iterate and improve.”
Sharp is confident that the short-term gains from investments in his company’s remote work capabilities will have a positive long-term impact on the business, ultimately making Coolfire more agile and resilient. “No one planned for a crisis of this magnitude,” says Sharp, “but now is the time to break away from the fragile walkaround culture plaguing many offices to move work forward.” The current circumstances have inevitably revealed weaknesses in the processes and systems your own company used to rely on. At the same time, it also revealed opportunities to improve. Don’t let them go to waste.
4. Tim Barber, Cofounder of Growth Sites
As many companies scrambled to adopt a digital-first collaboration model in response to the pandemic, Barber and his team felt fortunate. They had been working remotely for years and were confident that their processes would continue to support a fully remote business environment. What surprised them was how the nature of remote interactions changed. In short, they became more human. “Whereas before, our conversations centered mostly on work tasks, now there’s a new underlying current of care and concern for each other’s well-being,” says Barber. “The crisis has given us a chance to be more human at work, which is a huge challenge in digital-first collaboration.”
In a somewhat counterintuitive discovery, his team found that they could create more opportunities for social interactions by eliminating work-related interaction via automation. “Before we’d run through checklists in meetings or on the phone, but now we use Notion to sign off on checklists at our own pace,” he says. “Before, if a programmer pushed a new chunk of code, he’d send a Slack message or email to the rest of the team—now our codebase does that automatically.” By automating communications around work, teams can interact more thoughtfully when something truly important needs discussing. Barber believes that the pandemic may actually end up being a catalyst for extremely positive change in the business world.
5. Brenda Schmidt, CEO of Coplex
While the culture at Coplex had been built around transparency and collaboration prior to the arrival of COVID-19, Schmidt says that transparency has actually increased over the past several months. “When we began working remotely, we needed to be much more intentional about supporting our culture and staying connected while we were physically distanced. We also needed to overcommunicate with each other, as the informal office conversations no longer existed,” she says. To facilitate additional communication, her company created Slack channels around employee passions and interests, where people could share ideas, photos, and interesting links. Additionally, the Coplex Culture Crew organized regular companywide virtual events that brought team members together for the purpose of social interaction rather than work.
Schmidt has found that some employees become more easily overwhelmed or burned out as they try to juggle additional caregiver responsibilities with work being ever-present at home. “This time has shown us that flexible work arrangements are key to employee satisfaction and productivity,” she says, “but check in frequently with individual team members to identify blockers and concerns.” When everyone is physically separated, it’s more difficult to know when someone is struggling personally or professionally. As we approach the new normal, business leaders must strive to make themselves accessible to employees, regardless of distance.
6. Sabrina Bow, Ed. D., Executive Director and Cofounder, Lumen Network
With many employees being forced to take on additional responsibilities at home, Bow and her team have looked for ways to ensure that everyone’s time and talents are maximized during working hours. In her mind, one of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make when transitioning to a remote work environment is assuming that team members are always available. She’s found that simple actions, such as starting and ending meetings on schedule, and distributing meeting agendas prior to getting on a call, can go a long way toward alleviating stress and sustaining productivity during this challenging time.
As the leader of a company aiming to increase connectivity and communication among stakeholders in the education ecosystem, Bow believes that the pandemic has sharpened her team’s sense of purpose. “The sharp pivot to remote work puts a bright spotlight on the need for robust tools and solid organizational processes. We believe in practicing what we preach and have already embraced the work-from-anywhere paradigm,” she says. By drawing strength from the diversity of her team and constantly working to ensure alignment among the values, norms, and other components of her company’s culture, Bow is confident that Lumen Network will be ready to succeed in the future of work.
7. Kelly Knight, President and Integrator at EOS Worldwide
Amid the devastation brought on by the pandemic, Knight has watched her team’s response with amazement, as employees have helped one another persevere while also lending a hand to others in need. “We turned outwardly to lead and support all kinds of entrepreneurs and leadership teams in solving their most pressing business issues,” she says. “Many companies have shared that, if not for EOS, their organizations wouldn’t have survived the crisis.” That’s all the motivation she needs to continue preparing her business for the challenges of tomorrow.
Knight says that in times of crisis, business leaders must balance faith with disciplined action, clinging to both but never confusing the two. “We never surrendered to the idea that we wouldn’t come out of this better together, but we also knew that we had to pivot our business quickly to survive,” she says. While remote work was the norm at EOS prior to the pandemic, the need to reinforce the organization’s vision has taken on new significance. “We use what is called the Vision/Traction Organizer at EOS—a simple, practical tool that keeps us all laser-focused on the vision of our organization and our plans to gain traction towards achieving it,” says Knight. When everyone is on the same page and knows their roles within the organization, distance is no longer a barrier.
The COVID-19 pandemic will pass, but its effects on the way we work will last. Regardless of how your business is structured now, effective collaboration in the new normal will require thoughtful leadership and a willingness to fail, learn, and adapt quickly. Hopefully, the lessons from these business leaders can help you as you prepare your organization for the future of work.