How is leadership affected when you’re working remotely?

May 4th, 2020

This week my team sent me a gift and a video to let me know how much they appreciate everything I’m doing right now. Needless to say; I was overwhelmed. The level of thought and care there, especially at a time like this, hit hard.

The latter was most eye-opening. The team we’ve built since I moved to New York is a rare thing; bound by a desire to do great work and a real sense of care for one another.  That this special group of people would do something like this is no real surprise to me, but it was what they said that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

What did they highlight the most in this video? Not having the answer. Not absolute clarity, not even constant communication. But just being accessible.

This for me was the greatest reminder of how remote working is affecting leadership right now. It’s not that being available was ever unimportant; but in this bizarre environment, we’ve completely lost access to real-world sounding boards. For us as a creative group, the removal of the ability to see and point at work, to riff on ideas, building and editing as we go, is tough. It’s the very nature of how so much of our work is built. But I’m seeing the same thing happen to other types of teams as well. Office culture naturally creates ‘water-cooler’ moments to bounce ideas off one another. Without that sanity check; you have nobody to validate or give feedback on an idea. Even for the most confident of person, this creates self-doubt. The echo chamber in your head is often deafening, and if it starts with a negative thought, the impact can be incredibly negative.


So what’s the answer? Availability. And flexible availability at that. Scheduling meetings is still a necessary evil (for me at least) because of the above. Everyone from the management team down wants more time to check-in and just talk, so days are getting booked up on the regular. But there’s a need to build on this with a ‘just call me’ approach. An IM ping to ask for five minutes on a video, or a quick WhatsApp chat, all need to be listened to. Because right now, there’s no way of knowing when something’s genuinely important or not. In an office, you’ve got body language to gauge – now, someone asking for help could relate to a quick work problem you solve in 2 minutes, or it could be a genuine cry for help.

And it’s not just about being available; it’s also about the way in which you talk something out. I love to problem solve, but right now with everything changing so much – so fast – it’s not always about locking down a definitive path forward. It’s just as important to test and experiment. That’s a big learning for me personally.

I’ve always had an ‘ok to fail’ approach to things, but I like to be clear with my point of view. Nowadays, spitballing potential routes forward on the fly is part of our new normal. And that’s ok, we were *always* going to have false starts and fail at some things, even before lockdown.  Things are just a little hazier than they were before and showing that that’s ok as long as we stay focused on our goals and look out for each other, is all we can do.

My hope is that as we go through this; spending more time with your thoughts and feeling the fear of self-doubt makes us more confident in our own decision making. That won’t be the case for everyone, and there will be a period of recovery for many. But even those that come out of this having had their confidence knocked; we have to remember how tough this has been. And they will have survived that period of isolation, coming out of it stronger. It’ll be my job when we’re in the office to remind them all of that. And it’ll be a while before we’re back to the velocity we saw six months ago, but if there’s one thing I know I can be clear on – we will get it back.

Vikki Chowney, Global Head of Content and Publishing, H+K Strategies.