A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 5, 2020

How Leaders Are More Effectively Adjusting To Prolonged Remote Work

As it becomes clearer that working remotely has evolved from the expectation that this might take a few weeks, to a few months and now, maybe, to a few quarters - or more - leaders have had to adapt.

Leadership norms regarding expectations, performance, stress, finances, personal well-being and communications, among others, have had to be adjusted in order to optimized outcomes for a new managerial environment in which previous standards based on unspoken assumptions or physical cues are no longer relevant. And given that 82% of executives surveyed believe that some remote work will remain if and when the crisis abates, openness to changes in the approach to leading may prove beneficial however the future of work evolves. JL

Robert Sutton and Micah Maidenberg report in the Wall Street Journal:

Covid-19 crisis has rendered expectations about good and bad behavior in the workplace obsolete. Teams must work in different ways with different tools. There are new workday rhythms and norms of behavior that need to be recognized. Smart leaders enable people to “be experts in their own lives,” and trust them to self-direct, to decide when to work (and) let remote employees choose which tools are best for them rather than requiring uniformity. They are communicating more - or (at times) not at all. “At first, I viewed it as a sprint, then a marathon, then an ultramarathon. Now I see it as a hard way of life.”
It was mid-June, three months after the Covid-19 crisis had forced the top executives in a fast-growing tech startup to leave their offices and work from home. Executives had believed this “work from home thing” would last a few weeks, one of the company’s vice presidents told me, so they treated it like a brief emergency that required all hands on deck, all the time.
It was only when the vice president sent an email at midnight and got detailed comments from two colleagues within 15 minutes that he realized: This work from home thing wasn’t going away anytime soon, and things needed to change.

Every boss of a newly remote team whom I know admits that, like this vice president, they’ve been pushing themselves and their teams harder. A study conducted by one 350-person team at Microsoft Corp. found that in the four months after the team moved to remote work in March, employees worked an average of four more hours a week, attended more (albeit shorter) meetings, and spent about 10% more time in meetings. Fragmented “Swiss cheese” days became common as people struggled to care for and teach their children, and to meet other personal obligations. A “night shift” emerged: Employees sent 52% more instant messages between 6 p.m. and midnight. They worked more hours on weekends.
But while remote work isn’t going away anytime soon, such a crisis schedule must. Wise leaders know it is time to figure out how they and their teams can work remotely and productively over the long haul while protecting everybody from burnout. They need to acknowledge that teams must work in different ways with different tools, that there are new workday rhythms and new norms of behavior that need to be established and recognized, and that it’s important to ease the stresses on people that come with remote work.
As the CEO of a nonprofit told me: “At first, I viewed it as a sprint, then a marathon, then a 100-mile ultramarathon. Now I see it as a hard way of life.”
Here’s a closer look at how managers can run that ultramarathon without exhausting either themselves or their employees.
Out with the old norms, in with the new
The Covid-19 crisis has rendered many old expectations about good and bad behavior in the workplace obsolete or incomplete. Many of these norms are so established that most workplaces don’t give them a second thought. When should people show up at the office? How long should a meeting last? What time should you call somebody at home?
It’s a good time to put such norms under the microscope in this new remote world. Which are still useful, which are getting in the way, and which new behaviors ought to become routine? Many studies show that when co-workers understand, agree with and follow workplace norms, they work more efficiently and experience less confusion, stress and conflict about what to do and how to do it.

Flexible Future

The percentage of surveyed business leaders who say they plan to give employees the following options as workplaces reopen

Work remote some of the time
Work remote all of the time
Flex days
Flex hours
Shortened workweeks*
None of the above
*Four 10-hour days
Source: Gartner poll of more than 200 industry leaders conducted June 5
The problem is that the knowing smiles, dirty looks, body language, side conversations and cold silences that people use to communicate and enforce norms during face-to-face encounters are harder or impossible on email, Slack and Zoom, says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the coming book “Remote Work Revolution.”
Dr. Neeley urges teams that switch to virtual collaboration to make their often unspoken and subtle expectations more explicit than in the past. Members need to discuss their norms, write them down, praise members who follow them and (gently) call out those who don’t.
As part of such a relaunch, most remote teams would benefit from a charter or “prenup”—a document that group members write together to spell out expectations and boundaries. One way to develop such a prenup for an existing group is to have a facilitator first ask people to list the key (if unspoken) team norms. Next, people discuss which “shalts” and “shalt nots” ought to be kept, subtracted and added. Then they select and commit to six or seven core agreements (long lists are hard to remember and become oppressive).
For example, many companies are adopting a norm for shorter meetings. After I spoke about prenups, an engineer in my class convinced her newly virtual team to write one. They decided their old one-hour meeting norm was fueling Zoom fatigue, so they changed it to 45 minutes.
Teams also need different norms to accommodate those “Swiss cheese” schedules and other constraints on employees who now must work from home. Dr. Neeley advises teams to abandon old fixed work schedules. She finds that smart leaders and teams enable people to “be experts in their own lives,” and trust them more than ever to self-direct, to decide when to work and when to “walk the dog or teach the kids.”
Similarly, smart leaders should let remote employees choose which tools are best for them rather than requiring uniformity. For instance, Dr. Neeley says that employees who lack private workspaces at home and have limited bandwidth struggle with video meetings. But many thrive by using a blend of audio calls and tools that enable “asynchronous” collaboration such as email, instant messaging, Slack and shared documents.
Teams also ought to discuss and agree on which topics are all right to talk about openly, which can only be discussed in discreet “backstage” conversations, and when and how to raise sensitive issues.
The CEO of a big construction company recently told me he was annoyed and distracted when, during a Zoom call with his top team, the head of human resources sent him numerous private messages about a colleague who talked too much and kept interrupting others. This CEO realized that, in their old face-to-face meetings, the team had strong but unstated norms against side conversations and passing notes. Yet no parallel norms had emerged in their Zoom calls: Members constantly exchanged “snarky, entertaining, and distracting” private messages.
At the next meeting, the CEO raised this problem; the group discussed it, and agreed not to exchange private chats during meetings. And they committed to using one-on-one meetings to deal with sensitive personal issues and topics that didn’t require the entire group’s attention.
When a team writes a prenup, or talks about tweaking its norms, a new study suggests it is better to focus on what could go right rather than wrong.
Andrea Freund, a doctoral candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and her colleagues randomly assigned 348 new remote teams to different preconditions, and then measured their performance on negotiation and brainstorming tasks. Teams performed best when, after the researchers told them to imagine they had achieved their goals, they then wrote a charter (or, as I would call it, a prenup). But teams that wrote prenups after being told to imagine failing performed even worse than teams that didn’t write prenups at all. This experiment suggests that thinking about what could go right prompts prenups that encourage optimism, action and risk-taking. And thinking about what could go wrong results in oppressive norms that stifle action and punish people for mistakes.
Use rituals to reinforce change
Smart teams use rituals to communicate and reinforce new norms, routines and responsibilities. As Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan write in “Rituals for Work,” people often struggle to abandon ingrained habits. The right scripted experience can help people accept it is time to let go. The authors describe the “smashing the old ways” ritual that Zipcar used after abandoning desktop computers and adopting a mobile-first strategy. To mark the change, employees used sledgehammers to smash a couple of old desktop computers.
Remote teams can adapt other rituals described in the book to help people accept change. A Zoom call might start with a eulogy from the boss, for example, for a bygone norm that it was all right to turn off your video during meetings. Each member might then tell a story or a joke about how much they will miss answering emails and texts, shopping for groceries or reading news while “attending” meetings.
Create shared rhythms
In the sea of craziness that comes with a prolonged crisis, people—especially on remote teams—struggle to figure out when to start and stop work, and when to work alone and together.
To solve that problem, bosses need to create new rhythms for their teams.
A software developer explained to me how his team’s cadence of stand-up meetings helped them make the shift to working from home. Much as when they worked in the same room, every morning at 9 a.m., each member stands in front of their laptop, describes their goals for that day and solicits advice. At 4:30 p.m., they gather online again, stand up, show teammates what they accomplished and ask for more advice.

These daily rituals help them coordinate their work with teammates, know what to work on each day, and when their time is constrained and when it is flexible. And because each developer had a deadline every afternoon at 4:30 p.m., most stopped work for the day after they showed their work to their colleagues. ”
Other useful rituals occur on weekly, monthly or yearly rhythms. In their book, Mr. Ozenc and Ms. Hagan propose “airplane mode afternoon.” Perhaps once a week, each team member selects a solo task to focus on for an hour or two. The host goes around the (now virtual) room and asks people to turn off their Wi-Fi. Then there is no communication for the set time.
Research by Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow demonstrates the virtues of such collective silence. Dr. Perlow studied an engineering team that interrupted each other so much that members routinely had to work nights and weekends to complete projects. Dr. Perlow suggested that they set aside “quiet time” until noon three mornings a week. It worked. They launched a product on time for the first time in the division’s history.
Communicate a lot, or not at all
Shared rhythms help people get work done and avoid exhaustion because they know when to collaborate and when to work alone. This lesson is reinforced by an experiment by Christoph Riedl of Northeastern University and Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers randomly assigned 260 software workers from 50 countries to 52 virtual teams to create an algorithm. Cash prizes didn’t improve performance. But “bursty” communication did. The best teams exchanged lots of messages for short periods and then returned to solo work for long periods. The worst teams communicated constantly but with slower response times.
Weaker teams also tried to cover more topics in their messages, rather than focusing on one at a time in a particular message.
The implication is that, as Drs. Riedl and Woolley say, smart bosses make clear when it’s time for “rapid bursts of back-and-forth exchange, in which ideas are discussed and blocks to productivity are removed.” And they make explicit when to end each burst.
Dr. Neeley observes that people in remote teams benefit even more from such stretches of solo work than people in face-to-face teams. In particular, employees who worked in open offices, with little protection from interruptions and distractions, report being more productive than ever since they began working from home—because it is so much easier to concentrate.
Take care of yourself, so you can take care of others
Unfortunately, it has been tough for many teams to develop a cadence during the Covid-19 pandemic given the onslaught of ugly surprises. And people often can’t resist the temptation to monitor their gizmos and communicate at all hours of the day and night, and to treat every little thing as something that must be dealt with right now. In other words, people new to remote work often have no idea when to stop. The risk of exhaustion, despair and burnout is high.
Leaders can lower such risks by putting their own physical and mental health first. And by not treating life as one long emergency. Doing so equips them with the stamina to navigate the long road ahead—and provides the right role model for others.
My friend Lenny Mendonca provides a cautionary tale for beleaguered bosses. After decades as a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., Mr. Mendonca became the chief economic and business adviser to California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom and director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. He threw himself into this demanding job. And when the Covid-19 crisis hit in March, he cranked up the pace. As Mr. Mendonca wrote in Calmatters: “At the time, I told myself and my team that we all have to operate at 120%. For me, this meant 80-hour workweeks and barely sleeping.”
It was too much. Mr. Mendonca says he “felt like a 350-pound lineman had slammed me to the ground.” He was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. His doctor told him if didn’t hit the reset button, he wouldn’t live to see his grandchildren grow up. He resigned on April 10.
After a hospital stay, therapy, much support from his family and a lot of exercise, he is on the road to recovery. Mr. Mendonca is now urging leaders to slow down and take care of themselves and others, and to “speak up about their own anxiety and depression and prioritize tangible mental health care support for employees and staff.”
So, dear bosses, please don’t be like the old Lenny Mendonca. Don’t burn yourself out and be a lousy role model as this long crisis persists. Listen to the wiser, new Lenny. You will live longer. The people you lead will be healthier and do better work. And the people in your life who love you will appreciate it most.
Business executives say they are getting a better grip on what a world transformed by the coronavirus looks like, giving them more confidence to lay out strategies that account for the new reality.
Corporate leaders are changing company operations and resetting assumptions, after having absorbed months of fresh information about how customers act with everyday life often marked by working and staying home, traveling less and social distancing. In response to the emerging environment, businesses are retooling pricing, store designs and production—for the immediate and long-term future.
“It’s time for us to get back on the front foot,” McDonald’s Corp. Chief Executive Chris Kempczinskitold investors Tuesday. He said the hamburger chain initially had to work through the shock of the pandemic but is ready to ramp up marketing. It moved to a limited menu in the quarter, helping to simplify operations.
Earnings ScorecardThe best- and worst-performing S&P 500sectors by earnings growth in the secondquarter of 2020Change from a year earlier.*Source: FactSet*Based on companies that have reported as of Fridayas well as the estimates of companies that have yetto report
UtilitiesHealth careInformationtechnologyConsumerdiscretionaryIndustrialsEnergyS&P 500-150%-125-100-75-50-25025
Chevron Corp., meanwhile, is preparing for oil prices to remain depressed. “Things are definitely better than they were in the second quarter, in particular in that April, May time frame. But we’ve got to plan for lower for longer,” said Pierre Breber, Chevron’s chief financial officer.
Equity Residential, which has a portfolio of about 78,000 apartments across the U.S., reduced rents for the latest quarter, as executives said some renters don’t want to live in various dense urban areas right now. Church & Dwight Co., the consumer-product company behind the Arm & Hammer brand, added manufacturing capacity in the second quarter—including the installation of a new liquid-laundry detergent line at one factory—to accommodate increased demand. Snack maker Mondelez International Inc. is removing a quarter of product types it produces to better focus on its most important brands.
Revenue ScorecardThe best- and worst-performing S&P 500sectors by revenue growth in the secondquarter of 2020Change from a year earlier*Source: FactSet*Based on companies that have reported as of Fridayas well as the estimates of companies that have yetto report.
InformationtechnologyHealth careFinancialsConsumerdiscretionaryIndustrialsEnergyS&P 500-50%-40-30-20-10010
In April, executives at Shake Shack Inc. started to think seriously about accelerating some new ordering options. Like other restaurant chains, the company had closed down locations.
The burger chain, for example, began exploring adding drive-up windows for orders placed ahead, similar to what Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has done in a growing number of stores. Shake Shack also now plans to open a restaurant with a traditional drive-through next year.
“It went from crisis mode, and what was happening around us, to doing the work every day,” said Andrew McCaughan, Shake Shack’s chief development officer. “Come April, you had to pivot.”
Like many companies, Shake Shack swung to a loss for the recently completed quarter after reporting a profit a year ago. Overall, earnings for those companies in the S&P 500 are on track to fall 36% year-over-year for the quarter, based on actual results and estimates for those companies yet to report, FactSet said, and that decline would be the largest such drop since declining 69% in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Revenue is set to decrease 9.6% year-over-year, also based on actual results and estimates for those companies yet to report, FactSet said. This coming week, another 129 S&P 500 companies are expected to provide their quarterly updates, FactSet said; so far, 63% of the index have reported.
With the coronavirus spreading in parts of the U.S. and other markets, many companies continue to take a cautious approach toward planning.
Caterpillar Inc. on Friday offered commentary about the third quarter, but not the full year. The company has been cutting costs as demand from final customers dropped more than 20% in the latest quarter.
Still, other companies, including Philip Morris International Inc., have started to offer up outlooks on their financial results again, which many jettisoned earlier in the year as economies globally shut down.
Emmanuel Babeau, finance chief at the cigarette maker, said the company struggled in April and May to get a read on its markets amid coronavirus-inspired disruptions to millions of people’s daily life. In June, the re-emergence of street life, with stores and restaurants getting back open, better crystallized what the company could expect.

“We started to endure what we would call as the new normal if you want, which is probably what you’re going to live and experience for the coming months and maybe quarters,” he said in an interview. The company’s new outlook assumes there won’t be any national lockdowns in key markets during the rest of the year.
Pentair PLC—the manufacturer of pumps, filtration systems, cleaners and other products, many of them used in home swimming pools—also reissued an outlook, in part after gleaning insights into how consumers stuck at home were using their pools. Many people were opening them earlier and demand for equipment grew, Chief Executive John Stauch told investors.
Wes Bricker, a vice chairman focused on the U.S. and Mexico at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, said executives had to work to stabilize their businesses and figure out how to operate during the pandemic. “They’re beginning to communicate to stakeholders what the businesses will look like going forward,” he said.
Kimberly-Clark Corp., the company behind Kleenex, Huggies diapers and other personal-care products, now expects comparable sales growth of at least 4% for 2020, Chief Executive Michael Hsu told investors in July. That rate would be double a prior forecast.
“Our visibility is improving,” he said.


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