The year of 2020 must be the closest I will ever get to living in the twilight zone. My children cannot go to school. They have school in our home in their pajamas. My staff and I do not report to the office daily. We go to the office about once a week and get the items we need for the following week. The front door of the office is always locked. After unlocking the door, we are no longer greeted by dear Ms. Mabel the receptionist, we check our temperatures, and log it. We must always wear a mask unless we are alone in our offices. The masks make us feel we have shortness of breath, which then makes one worry they may have COVID-19. It is a strange time we live in. A time no one ever imagined and if they did, we would have never believed them.
In these strange times, we find ourselves constantly adapting to change. A new way of learning, seeing extended family and friends virtually, eating out at every other table, and waiting in long lines outside the store to get the three wick candles on sale at Bath & Body Works. We also find a new way of supervising our virtual workforce. As the Executive Director of a nonprofit, I have asked my management team to lean into a place of trust and accountability. Trust that your adult staff will do what is best for the company and hold them accountable when they do not. Then I ask myself, the Executive Director, and what does that look like Dr. Smarty Pants? So let’s lean further into what trust and accountability looks like in the virtual workplace in 2020.
Trust is a two-way street in any relationship and that continues to hold true in the virtual work environment. The leader must trust his/her employees and vice versa. It is the leader’s responsibility to build trust among the team if it does not exist. Trust must also be present among coworkers. When leaders experience trust declining, and it will from time-to-time, it is the leader’s job to pull everyone back into the circle.
To build and maintain trust, we must be reliable. Leaders must trust that direct reports will conduct the outcomes of their job. Direct reports must be able to depend on their supervisors and coworkers to carry out their job functions as well. Dependability is key to building trust in a virtual work environment.
Transparency is also vital in building trust in the virtual work environment. It is ok to say you do not have a master plan in these challenging times and if you do, share it. In the nonprofit I oversee, we brainstorm and create plans together. I do not pretend that I have all the correct answers. Effective communication on a regular basis is key in the virtual work environment.
One should also be accessible during work hours. Do not sleep until noon or turn off your cell phone during business hours for a quick nap, if you are expected to “be” working. Ensure you are accessible to employees during work hours. It is ok to wash a load of laundry during work hours, but it is not acceptable to ignore your coworkers and spend all day watching reality television. If you need to take time away from work, communicate that. No one expects you to work every business day in 2020, even though it is the twilight zone.
Next is accountability in the virtual work environment. It is important to have regular team meetings. I prefer weekly meetings; however, some virtual work environments may need daily, bi-weekly, and/or daily office hours. Regardless of the schedule, create one that works for the team. Effective communication is key.
It is also important to set clear expectations and goals. These can be created together as a team or organizational wide. The key is to have ground rules, realistic goals, and expectations, and enforce them. While also understanding, that some level of flexibility will still be needed during these difficult times.
Finally, get to know your employees. Make time to check in with them. Social isolation is a challenge for virtual employees. Last, be flexible; what works well today may not be feasible next week. Accept this is new territory for all of us and we will get through this together.
By Jessica Lowery Clark, PhD