COVID-19 has left offices empty, employers scrambling to navigate the reality of remote work, and C-suite executives with one question: “How can our business perform effectively without negatively impacting customer satisfaction and revenue?”
We interviewed three executives from different industries to learn how the pandemic has impacted their workforce, and how they are managing and collaborating with their teams.
Vinod Philip, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer at Siemens Energy
Crissi Williams, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Telecommunication Professionals (ITP)
Dave Davis, MBE, a Technical Director at ST Engineering iDirect but interviewed in his capacity as an ITP board member
Have decision-making processes been affected by the sudden lack of face-to-face interactions?
The timing of the pandemic coincided with the Siemens Energy spinoff, so Vinod said management’s immediate task was “identifying ‘critical to business’ functions. The creation of task forces to provide advice for both critical on-site and remote workers identified the ways of working needed to ensure key activities continued safely.” The company created working practices for effective remote meetings including tips on camera use, how to engage participants, and checking on the emotional state of employees. Vinod noted that the ability of employees to adapt became the focus, and in fact was key to the success of remote work performance. The typical “forming, storming & norming” required to build teams had to be executed without in-person engagement.
According to Crissi at ITP, remote work was already in place for most of their workforce prior to the pandemic. However, the need for improved infrastructure increased, and it proved to be a big challenge in the telecommunications industry as providers debated how to implement end-to-end service without being able to physically enter a customer’s home. Fortunately, service agents were able to help homeowners with no negative impact to customer satisfaction scores largely due to increased empathy from all involved.
What changes are necessary to lead, inspire, and direct your teams when in-person meetings aren’t possible?
First, good IT systems are non-negotiable. At Siemens AG, IT support worked diligently on the infrastructure to enable widespread remote working. Vinod noted that remote access points grew from 50,000/day to 170,000/day, overloading the networks. Thanks to the IT teams, health and safety teams, and field and factory management, increased capacity was realized within a matter of days.
Before the pandemic, more remote working had been a frequent employee request. However, some aspects of working from home had not been considered, such as caring for family members, home schooling, and how it could affect mental health. Understanding these needs has now been prioritized as companies recognize that empathy is a crucial skill for leaders to connect, promote inclusiveness, and create a sense of community within remote teams.
What have you learned from the experience, and what have you put in place to connect on a personal level with employees to instil a culture of empathy?
The main takeaway is to give people space to talk about their personal lives. The lines between home and office have blurred with remote work. Vinod says, “I’ve known some employees for 20 years without fully knowing their family situation. There is life outside of work! I stopped emailing on the weekends and became mindful that people are juggling a lot. We have all had to become much more patient.”
Vinod believes that remote working is giving people the freedom and autonomy to focus on results and outcomes rather than time and process. This has led to better work-life balance. But there has been a downside — less distinction between “work” and “home” means people are working different hours, which can exacerbate stress levels.
Crissi has experienced first-hand the struggles of a mother working from home, helping kids with home schooling while feeling overwhelmed. This shared experience has helped her empathize with the ITP teams. “It is important to understand your workforce. As a leader, I know my people well, and I am able to empathize on a personal level. In larger organizations, this may not always be the case.” Reaching out to people shows them she cares and lets her workforce know she’s human, asking questions such as “How is your mum doing?” or “What have you decorated lately?” Crissi also encourages people to turn their video on during meetings. It improves interaction and helps read body language, leading to better relationships and collaboration.
At the ITP, Dave has learned how “large organizational leaders may not know their staff on a personal level, but they need to trust that their managers do, and use that pathway to empathize. The pandemic has required focus to be on communication and personnel management and its effectiveness at a manager level.”
What steps have you taken as a leader to assure your employees that they might be “out of sight but not out of mind”?
Dave introduced daily touchpoints responding to the need for human connection. These focus less on work and more on emotional support to help employees fight the feeling of isolation. He endorses wearing “work” attire to stay in a “work mode,” and he encourages his team to take breaks, exercise, and change rooms for variety.
Vinod has made himself more present by conducting regular all-employee meetings and thanking people daily. He has also begun taking a more-personal approach by calling team members directly instead of emailing. “Very often, we have multiple opportunities every day to connect with others, and leaders must take advantage of these opportunities. If I can make sure that I’m staying visible to the team, then this whole out-of-sight thing can get addressed by my actions. The most relevant shift I had to make as an individual was to get comfortable with opening myself up to others on the personal side,” something Vinod says didn’t come naturally.
As the world continues to deal with COVID-19, remote working will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Culture is shifting quickly to support remote work. As our conversations with executives like Vinod, Crissi, and Dave have shown, companies can take concrete steps that minimize disruption. Key takeaways from these conversations include:
- Improve and strengthen IT infrastructure by building duplicate devices and contingencies to enable the swing from office to home working.
- Implement rituals to stay connected, including virtual socials, drop in sessions, and encourage all to speak their minds.
- Integrate empathy into your leadership style. Understand that managing home and work without additional support is a reality that impacts everyone in different ways.
The authors wish to acknowledge Kimberly Kopp for her outstanding contributions to this article.