For almost two months now, we’ve been facing an unprecedented crisis that has led us all to work remotely, being locked at home and be worried about something – either the physical health of our loved ones, financial uncertainty, or simply the lack of knowledge of what will come next. We haven’t faced a similar situation in almost a century, which means that none of us in their lifetime experienced it. It was clear to me that I would be facing my biggest career challenge as a leader.
Despite this context, we’ve observed a significant rise in the team’s engagement in the last few weeks. We reached a peak in the participation on our weekly survey at 87% and an engagement never seen since I have been managing the team for the last 3.5 years. Over the 10 dimensions measured, the relationship with managers is at its highest. We also recently received the results of our quarterly Customer Satisfaction survey. As a company, we also received the highest results in the last 10 years. This demonstrates that we not only succeeded in maintaining the quality of the work that we deliver, but also improved it.
How did my team get there? Here are my three learnings.
Before People Listen to Your Business Needs, Listen to Their Basic Needs
Since I didn’t have any benchmark, I decided to start with what I would do in any other situation: by addressing the right priorities. While I was obviously concerned about the business, I needed to first ensure the safety and health of my team. Following Maslow’s pyramid, it is difficult for anybody to focus and be effective at work if he/she doesn’t feel safe in their environment. Before people listen to your business needs, you need to listen to their basic needs.
The COVID-19 crisis has put my team and organization, like many others, under high stress. Uncertainty, being locked at home for weeks, broken routines, no support from the outside, young kids who don’t respect office working hours – it would be an understatement to say that the first days were painful, and the psychological impact in the long run should not be neglected. With 200 people on my team I had to understand that each person handles this situation differently, going to one’s individual harbor.
The last thing that I needed was to add additional stress to the existing ones to all of us. Providing support, acting with empathy, understanding that there might be some hiccups at the beginning, offering flexibility and creating the right environment (even if remote) were the keys to keeping the team engaged, and this high engagement kept the team performing at high standards.
Leading by Example, Authenticity, and Vulnerability
At Lingaro, working from home is part of the day to day reality for each of us. However, there is a significant difference between working remotely for 1 or 2 days per week, when your kids are at school and your partner is at work, versus when you both have to work from home and homeschool your kids. No house has enough space to accommodate this challenge.
For many people this is not the set up in which they are their most professional and productive selves. It definitely was not for me – a father of two boys aged 3 years and 8 months, every 10 minutes I feared I would have a famous “BBC moment”. So, I decided to embrace it – accepting the situation minimized my stress and the one of my family, giving me space to be better for my team. I ended up doing multiple calls with my baby sleeping on my chest or my older son insisting on introducing himself to the group. Was it convenient or ideal? No. But neither me nor my kids chose this situation. I could however choose how to deal with it.
Indeed, my approach initiated a positive reaction from my colleagues – it was unexpected, but more importantly relatable. Even if not all of us have small kids, we were all put in this situation of discomfort. It created an important feeling: “I’m not different from you and I’m not pretending anything in front of you”. As a leader, I believe that nobody should feel embarrassed or ashamed to be a caregiver to a family member, especially in the inclusive work culture that we have at Lingaro. I decided to focus on what I have control of: managing my work responsibilities while being a dad and a husband and expected the same from my team.
It was also an opportunity for me to learn more about the people I work with, get to know them better. It created a very positive dynamic and a space of confidence where we can trust each other. Suddenly, reaching out online to see how they were didn’t seem weird or forced – it was just as if we were still at the office.
Crisis Tests Your Leadership Values
Being challenged as a leader, I found my compass in the values of our organization and acted accordingly. Inclusion, collaboration, autonomy, trust, and respect were especially relevant for me in this context. At Lingaro, people are used to be empowered, encouraged to take initiative, be innovative, support each other on a daily basis, and we already acknowledged that people have a personal life.
All I had to do was to adapt acting on these values to the new reality – I didn’t have to create new ones for these difficult times. People were proactively sharing their best practices on remote work, as well as their personal experiences and difficulties, and spontaneous groups were created to continue to support work projects.
Leading with respect meant to me to be transparent. While discussing the situation of our company or department, I provided updates and answers to specific questions related to the health of our business. I also admitted that there were a lot of questions for which I didn’t have answers yet. I learned that calmness and honesty work miracles – people are less panicked and more willing to work towards a common goal. You can only trust those who tell the truth, and this helps a lot to get better acceptance when tough decisions need to be made.
As I was looking into the secret roots of this spike in engagement, I was surprised to see that the reasons people gave were very simple and deeply human. They were more engaged because they felt listened to, taken care of, and well informed. It also strengthened my belief on how critical it is for leaders to have the right set of values in place to take care of people first. Those role values emerged for true guidance during this time of crisis.