Leading The New Normal: Everyone Working From Home

The coronavirus is forcing a sudden culture of telecommuting and companies must adapt quickly. Advice from CEO Matt Brubaker about how to get it right.

You always wanted to encourage more telecommuting but grow it at a reasonable pace; there’s still nothing like the team working together in one place. Now the coronavirus is here, enforced social distancing is the new corporate norm, and most of your people are trying to work from home.

What to do? You may not be ready for it, but CEOs and other business leaders must embrace the new—if perhaps temporary—reality that if any white-collar work is going to get done at the company for at least a few weeks, it’s going to have to get done remotely.

And there’s no time for grandiose long-term plans nor for establishing a new cultural expectation or technology infrastructure to facilitate its introduction. This is working from home on speed—and steroids.

Matt Brubaker, CEO of FMG Leading, a San Diego-based human-capital advisory firm, has been operating the company under a near-universal remote model for some time. His geographically dispersed staff also advises companies on how to establish their own systems for working from home.

Here’s how Brubaker is advising CEOs to approach the remote-working imperative that has arisen in just the last week:

Allow the two worlds to merge: Establishing a systematic distraction-free environment for remote meetings is for another time; it’s an unrealistic expectation for now, when millions of Americans are working from home consistently for the first time—many of them with the enforced presence of spouses and school-age children.

Instead, to help cope with collective and individual stress around the new requirement to work from home, Brubaker said, company leaders should let the company world meld organically into the personal sphere if remote meetings require it.

“Organizations that are allowing the personal to seep in right now are faring better, with a higher level of engagement” by those newly working at home, Brubaker said. “The best practice is to just be open. Not if the kid is hammering on a drum while you’re trying to lead a call, of course. But both worlds are real. People are sitting in the middle of their house right now and these are the people they’re sharing it with. They shouldn’t need to keep that buttoned up and under wraps.”

Overcommunicate like crazy: Leaders can pick up on non-verbal clues from their people after spending a certain amount of time around them. “If people are getting to the point of panicking and you can look them in the eyes, you have a sense of what they need from you,” Brubaker said. “But if that’s only happening virtually now, you can’t be as successful at that.”

So, he said, CEOs and their lieutenants should do two things. First, reach out to their people far more than they might in ordinary times when that person is in a cubicle in the next room. “Assume people are nervous and need to hear more from you,” he said. Second, “Constantly try to put things in perspective for them.”

Beware personality surprises: Underlings may seem to take on different personalities in a working-from-home scenario than when they’re in the office, if only because their work environments have changed dramatically. Leaders should be aware of that possibility and respond. “There may be a nervous Nellie and that may not be coming from people you expect it from,” Brubaker said. “So at times like these, you may find that your stalwarts actually need some reassurance.”

Establish open circuits: Slack and other internal-communication platforms are easy and cheap enough that a corporate cluster should be able to enjoy constant real-time electronic communication during an enforced work-at-home scenario. “Using e-mail to communicate back and forth with your people now is like using a carrier pigeon,” Brubaker said. “Use one of today’s tools.”

Make it fun: This may be possible only for companies that already have a thoroughly ingrained work-at-home culture, but Brubaker celebrated internet memes that show companies and their people “hosting” virtual St. Patrick’s Day get-togethers and other ways to make the whole regimen fun. “That says these people value their connections to one another and want to maintain them in some way at a very intimate level,” he said. “That makes a difference.”

Begin virtual meetings with Romper Room: Especially at companies where working from home is a shocking development to most people, Brubaker suggested opening meetings with a few minutes of planned disorder. “Put training wheels around check-ins,” he said. “Allow interpersonal stuff and people sitting in a room with their dog. That can feel sort of like kindergarten to some people, especially individuals who are more quantitative. But it makes a huge difference in helping people to be productive. Just don’t turn it into a group-therapy session.”

Manage the agenda: Leaders may need to manage the agenda of a virtual meeting “more closely or intentionally,” Brubaker said. Unlike a meeting conducted in person in a conference room, he explained, in a remote gathering there aren’t significant visual reminders of the progress of time such as a clock on the wall or people checking their watches. “You need to empower someone to be the czar, even if it’s just the person who keeps you moving through the slides,” he said.

Give ample time to recaps: Spend the last five minutes of such gatherings going over what transpired and delineating next steps. “Be clear about who is doing what, when the next call is, who’s going to set up, what technology you’re going to use, even if necessary down to the very granular level,” Brubaker said. Such discipline, he said, will help the next meeting go even better.

Make the technology work: Few things are more annoying – and less productive – than a phone meeting that falls apart because participants are using cheap microphones and words drop out. “Make sure you have a no-nonsense expectation that everyone has headphones that work,” Brubaker said. “People need to take seriously things like having their web cams working and knowing passwords. Think of it like this: If someone was going on a sales pitch and they knew their job depended on having a blue suit on with a red tie, wouldn’t they do it even though it’s a troublesome detail?”

Stay flexible and show compassion: “Keep in mind that individuals might be experiencing personal hardships while they seek to give employers their very best,” Brubaker said. “It’s crucial that leaders show real empathy for remote workers struggling to telecommute while schools are closed and [they may be] worrying about vulnerable family members and friends.”

Above all, stay human: As Brubaker put it, “People process fear and anxiety in a variety of different ways. Allow plenty of room for a diversity of experiences, and even surprising reactions.”