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By Garsen Naidu Country manager, Cisco South Africa

In the recent months we have seen a wealth of advice on social media on how to set up your home office, how to create good habits and how to work securely from home. All good and useful advice. But what do you do as a leader of a team or an entire organization if suddenly you find yourself leading from your kitchen table via video, chat and e-mails?

You can offer employees the best and newest tools in the world. But as a leader you must also have a good understanding of – and plan for – how you ensure all leadership responsibilities are taken care of without daily face to face contact with your team.

In Cisco, we are fortunate enough to have a long tradition for remote working. Over the years, we have obtained quite some experience about remote working and remote leadership. I hope this can now be of value to others.

First off, it’s important to realize that your team has pretty much the same challenges whether they work from the office or remotely. As a leader, it’s your job to uncover them. Even when you don’t bump into them at the coffee machine and have that important chat about life and whatever he or she is currently working on. It’s in these situations you often get a feeling for if the employee is thriving, going through personal changes or perhaps is a little bored in the current role and needs new challenges.

When you meet via video, there is a tendency to go through an agenda and be very efficient. That’s of course great, but as a leader you miss out on important “intelligence” about your employees. I have made it a priority to set aside time to virtually “bump into people”. I schedule coffee chats but take it a step further and make a point of also asking direct questions on how people are coping. Those questions are often answered with a summary of all the things they are up to. You must insist and ask again: “How are YOU doing?” (No Friends pun intended!)

In uncertain times
Since we have an established remote working culture, the transition has been easier for us than most other companies. But I also had to adjust my usual leadership style to match the new reality. In the current situation, my focus is even more on ensuring employees physical and mental well-being. They are my top priority. Period. When all of us emerge from this crisis, I am sure we will look back and realize that in decent shape as a business, the employees are critical.

In addition to the 1:1 leadership, it’s critically important that you are visible when working remotely to the entire organization, by virtue of not being physically visible or “present” at a moment’s notice. This can be difficult for some employees and may create a barrier in your communication. Adopting multiple channels will help you reach everybody. Video all-hands meetings, video newsletter good old-fashioned e-mail and so on.  While repetition is good, isn’t there a limit, you may ask. I believe there is, and it can be difficult to strike the right balance. The virtual coffee chats will help you asses and find the right balance.

Another valid question is whether this doesn’t take up all my time, and when do I find time to run the company? It does take up a lot of my time, but I consider that running the company. On the other hand, you should expect that remote leadership takes more time than face to face leadership does. It takes intent and planning. A different dynamic than dropping by a desk or agreeing on a strategy on your way to lunch.

For the sake of good order, I want to mention that should there still be leaders, who do not trust their employees to do a good job unless monitored from 9 to 5, then they are being proven thoroughly wrong now by their own employees. That way of thinking simply does not belong in 2020.

It’s serious, but not all bad

The current situation is serious. It is, however, encouraging to see how employees learn new things about each other and find ways to support each other in times like these. We have done online yoga together and I have met so many employees’ wonderful children, cats and dogs. In Cisco [country], we have several chat rooms for various topics. Now we also have a room for social interaction, and we get to know each other in entirely new ways.

If you as a leader adopt some of these practices to lead from your kitchen table, that’s great. But your success also relies on the level of trust you have with your team and your organization. That’s always the case, but now more than ever. As a leader you want, you need, to know what’s going on in your organization. How is the mood, the atmosphere and the enthusiasm? That’s even harder to pick up if you don’t walk around the hallways and meet people at that infamous coffee machine. If you are not there with your organization, now is a good time to start.