by: Vernon Roberts March 7, 2021
Working Virtually was forced into action for many businesses due to the pandemic. Here are 3 big takeaways from the virtual experience.
1. Virtual does work.
Brick and mortar offices are nice but not essential for many jobs. We know this now. Pre-pandemic, leaders could not have imagined a totally virtual or remote workforce. I would even go so far to say that those leaders would have said that it would not work for them. Their company was different. Their people needed to come to the office every day for the company to work. Prior to the pandemic, leaders at Yahoo and other companies believed this. Then, it all was not true. To their surprise, not mine, business did not collapse because their staffs worked virtually. There was a learning curve, but it happened. Sales were made, customers were taken care of, and life moved on. While working remotely was a part of the pre-pandemic landscape, it was not offered to all and if offered, it was on a limited basis. I have been preaching virtual work and learning for years. Virtual can work but it requires a different skillset and a different plan. Look for hybrid work as the next big thing.
2. Leading and learning are different.
Leading virtually requires that leaders communicate in a myriad of ways to unite the team while getting the commitment of each individual on the team. It is like an airplane pilot flying with low visibility. The pilot relies on their instruments because they cannot see. They use the instruments to make important decisions. A virtual leader needs to do the same: deepening their individual relationships while communicating their vision to the team, understanding different cultures while uncovering and accounting for interdependencies. Leadership staples like "MBWA", managing by walking around are no longer possible. Each leader must create a virtual strategy by managing through virtual connections. The days of seeing busy workers up and down the hallways are gone. The days of not leaving until the boss leaves have vanished also. Outcomes are more important than visual attendance. If you lead a team, do not go the way of Blockbuster or the dinosaurs. Evolve.
Learning virtually has also been successful, and without the cost associated with travel. Is it like two days of face-to-face learning? No, it is not. Can it be thoughtfully designed to teach the same skills? Yes, it can. During the pandemic, I saw programs that were not as engaging virtually because they were face-to-face programs not redesigned or converted for the challenges of virtual engagement. Also, over the past twelve years I have learned that just because you are a good face-to-face teacher does not mean that you can master the virtual learning world. It is like the difference between driving a car and a tractor trailer. Some basic principles still apply but you must take more challenges into account to be successful.
Leading and learning both work if you learn and develop the skill sets required.
3. We are social beings.
We want to interact with each other, socialize with each other. This is true for work as well as our home lives. That is why solitary confinement in prisons is considered punishment. During the pandemic, work and home blended for many. The truth is that it was always blended. It just took the pandemic for people to notice it. When you come to work you bring your whole self with you. Weeks and months into the pandemic, social get-togethers and work meetings were moved to virtual platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. This was a game changer and gave people some of what they craved.
No matter how virtual we have become, we still have a great need for the three-dimensional depth that face-to-face interaction brings. Can we get that depth in a virtual environment? Yes. Is it easy? No, it takes work that we are not used to doing. It takes the skills of really listening and asking, rather than listening and sharing which many of us struggle to master. Many people hear something, immediately apply it to themselves and then start telling their own story. They have unknowingly shifted the conversation to be about themselves. However, the art of discussion requires that when you hear something, you ask more questions to learn more about what happened, how it felt to the other person and what it meant to them. This is what builds a relationship and brings in that third dimension of depth. While this skill is important in face-to-face interactions, it is critical in virtual interactions. Even if you have all the skills necessary to thrive in the virtual environment, I have always recommended that every virtual team meet face-to-face at least once a year. As humans, we are willing to extend more trust to people that we work with if we know we will meet them in person, if we know more a
bout them and if we are confident in their capabilities.
The bottom line is that we can do anything we put our minds to. We just have to decide that we can do it. Working virtually is one of those accomplishments. Hybrid work is the next.