The past year has witnessed seismic shifts across the globe as Covid-19 has forced companies and societies into transition. We are in a unique moment in our world’s history and are seeing progress and change that may have taken otherwise decades to occur.
One of the biggest challenges has been for companies who had to reinvent themselves as distributed businesses and fast-track digital transformation initiatives. Leaders of these companies have reevaluated, reprioritized and reinvested in decisions for the longer-term health of their companies and employees. And it hasn’t been easy. Ensuring the consistency of product innovation, customer success and growth, all while supporting fully remote workforces required massive changes for some. And whether or not you were positioned for the remote work transition, there is no doubt that having balanced leadership made the process easier.
There are challenges and growing pains that come with remote work, which many leaders experienced first-hand over the past year. Network security, collaboration tools, more frequent communication, simply making sure employees had productive places to work remotely, are among a litany of things to be considered. Yet despite it all, the seemingly clear revelation is that remote work simply works.
As leader of a 800+ person company that was 60% remote pre-pandemic, shifting to a 100% remote workforce wasn’t easy (we still had to deal with challenges on a personal level), but it was far easier than for other companies. Thankfully, we had the infrastructure, tools and processes already in place. Being in leadership for the past eight years at a remote-centric company, I have learned many valuable dos and don’ts and believe in three things every leader should focus on for remote leadership success:
1. Accept that there is no ‘back to normal’; then adapt and grow accordingly.
There is an expectation that we will soon return to the life we had before the pandemic. While some aspects may indeed revert, things like remote work is here to stay. For those who still view it as temporary, consider the positives that have resulted from the past year (no long commutes, having more time for hobbies outside of work, etc.) and focus on outcomes, not hours.
There is no going “back to normal” and that is not a bad thing. Variances of flexible, distributed workforce strategies are effectively going to become more standardized and it is time to embrace these practices. The ‘old normal’ many yearned for wasn’t necessarily a great normal. We can make the new normal even better.
2. Strive for continual improvement, not perfection.
Being aware of challenges, big and small, is one of the best ways to continuously improve and innovate. A pandemic hobby of mine was building a wooden canoe—a multistep, multiphase project that required a lot of patience. The pursuit of perfection, however, prohibited me from finishing and caused me to only focus on the things I thought were wrong. After a while, I realized that this boat didn’t need to be the last or only boat I was capable of building. The most important thing is that it worked well (it floats!), regardless of the tiny imperfections that only I could see. This is a good example of embracing the lessons learned from doing and continuously improving upon them.
One of our team values (N+1>N) centers around continuous improvement, experimentation, and getting better one step at a time, together. I strive to be optimistic and encourage others to view any challenge as an opportunity to gather information and push through previously conceived boundaries. I often think about the quote from Bill Gates on the importance of information: “The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competitors, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd, is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage, and use information will determine whether you win or lose.”
Innovation should be viewed as a team effort, through the lens of making continuous improvements from the information we gather. We all have access to so many information inputs during the day—professionally and personally—and how we choose to use that information is up to each one of us.
3. Empathy and a human-centered approach are key.
Pandemic times would have been exponentially more difficult without empathy and understanding in the workplace. These are not normal times, let alone normal remote work times, with the lines between personal and professional life totally blurred. With employee workspaces sitting alongside kid virtual schooling for many, there was no distinction between where work began and ended. That, and myriad other changes we had to make to our “normal,” made it very difficult.
There are certain misconceptions of what a CEO’s role is, regardless of whether they are remote or not. At the end of the day, it’s easy for leaders to get lost in financially-driven decisions and only focus on the bottom line. Ensuring company growth and profit will always be important priorities, but equally important is growing a sustainable business that takes care of its employees and their well-being. Our economy too often rewards short-term and “growth-at-all-costs” thinking, but this does not lead to sustained long-term growth for businesses, especially for remote-centric companies.
As CEO, I am helping build a successful company that speaks to the many motivations of my employees, beyond just monetary and financial gains. This human-centered approach to growth and success is more important to me than ever.
The new normal is fluid and these massive changes will impact business and workforce operations for the foreseeable future. But adaptability and embracing change vs. static, flexibility vs. strict, is what will enable us as leaders to guide our companies through the inevitable obstacles that come with growing a company. We may not experience a pandemic of this magnitude in our generation again (knock on wood), but the lessons we learned from the past year and being appreciative of them will prepare us for any challenge that lies ahead.