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Managing People in a Distributed Workforce

Executive Summary

The advisor to companies including Publicis Groupe on business strategy knows the impossible situation businesses can get in. When processes are disrupted, he says to leverage technology to amplify professional relationships.

  • Working from home can easily create holes where teams who interacted daily in the office were once airtight.
  • Managing people in the remote environment are enabled by modern-day technologies, but utilized to connect by people.
  • A manager in this position is not just responsible for equipping employees to touch base with coworkers, but to also facilitate the discussions that elicit the personal connections we expect from our workplaces.

An underlying thesis of my book “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” is that even as the world has become more silicon based, data driven and digital we are deluding ourselves if we do not remember that people are carbon based, feeling driven and highly analog beings.

In a connected age of hyperlinks, networks and algorithms the true connection always will be that of people and stories and not just machines and spreadsheets.

While we were living in a connected age, it was not the technology that connects.

Technology and software whether it be Slack, Skype, Zoom or Google docs enable.

People connect.

And then Covid 19 happened.

Benefits of Working Remotely

There are many benefits of remote work including

  • increased inclusiveness by ensuring more people can be tapped for their skills regardless of where they are,
  • greater flexibility for young parents or those looking after elders,
  • lower costs for companies and,
  • time savings as one does not need to commute.

In addition, working with modern computing and telecommunication allowed for greater access to data and an ability to communicate with better visuals and multi-media.

However these advantages came at a cost including...

  • the lack of focus as we grappled with other things on the screen we were looking at that were vying for our attention in addition to pets, significant others and kids,
  • diminished communication as we multi-tasked and,
  • weakened relationships since important signals that one got when one was physically with others from side-bar conversations, glances, and human connection would be lost.

5 Ways to Work from Home Without Sacrificing Relationships

Studying best practices of remote work as well as my own experience in managing distributed global teams here are five ways to leverage the benefits of modern work from home or anywhere technology while minimizing the loss of focus, communication and relationships.

  1. Be Human and acknowledge that all of us are grappling with anxiety, fear and uncertainty: We are anxious about our health and those of our loved ones and team members. We are fearful about the future of our finances, our jobs and our society. We are gripped with uncertainty since every day brings new changes and challenges and uncharted territory and unclear timelines.

These emotions have made all the downsides of remote working particularly acute. We have trouble focusing when the headlines warn of doom and our kids are not at school. It is harder to communicate about business when while it is critical it seems so secondary to the challenges we face and with no in-person contact relationships can weaken.

  1. Communicate constantly with at least one weekly scheduled interaction that people can count on happening in these uncertain times: Make sure you connect with your teams and organizations at least once a week if not more often. People fill vacuum with speculation and in these difficult times silence is chilling. At Publicis the CEO addresses all 80,000 people every weekend that is both realistic and inspiring. Ensure there are many channels and ways for people to not feel isolated
  2. Augment business meetings with personal conversations: Whether you have a team meeting, or a one on one meeting take time when the business discussions end to move to conversation or schedule time to have a non-work conversation.

The simple best way to do this is to reach out to every one of your immediate reports and colleagues with a simple question. How can I help?

These interactions which we would have over lunch or in the hallway or just hanging out are critically important to both the conduct of business and our souls. Please make time for them.

  1. Focus on the five key traits of leadership in every conversation and communication: My research and four decades of experience have indicated that the best leaders display five traits one of which is capability and the other four (integrity, empathy, vulnerability and inspiration) are emotional.

Capability: This is when you breathe deeply and become the leader, team member and employee you are. This is the foundry, furnace and fulcrum that you will be forged in! All your talk of working under pressure, the values and purpose of the company etc. will be tested now.

Integrity: Make sure that you be truthful including that you do not know the answer and cannot predict outcomes for the business or people’s roles and jobs.

Empathy: Recognize that each person you are interacting with has their own special challenges.

Vulnerability: share your own worries and concerns as Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Satya Nadella of Microsoft did with their organizations this weekend.

Inspiration: Try to as much as possible at the end of every conversation during these difficult times to leave people with energy, belief and hope. This too will pass even though it will not be easy. If you read the Microsoft and Amazon notes it will leave you inspired.

  1. Leverage Art and Storytelling: The French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that we choose with our hearts and use numbers to justify what we just did. Joan Didion the essayist has written that we tell stories in order to live. Like never before is art and storytelling important. This is true for all of us in the media and adtech space who may be more comfortable with data and facts. We need to share heroic stories of our doctors and critical workers who are risking everything and of companies and leaders who are rising to the occasion. We should use humor and You Tube videos to help us tell stories. Art has helped inspire, heal, frame and connect us to ourselves and each other. Read books. Watch great movies and not just CNN.

Our current challenges will be overcome.

Till then stay safe and be human.

Bring It Home

As a leader and a manger, it's a tricky line to walk between professional and personal behavior. In critical times where everyone feels like their backs are against the wall, leaders must push professionalism to the side and become attuned to the feelings their followers are experiencing so that they can best address them from all angles. How do you open up as a leader or manager and communicate your way through ambiguity?

Rishad Tobaccowala

Rishad Tobaccowala is an author and speaker. He is also an advisor to many companies including the Publicis Groupe where he spent nearly four decades most recently as its Chief Growth Officer and Chief Strategist.

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