Preparing teams for the work-from-home environment requires a re-evaluation of traditional management practices and policies. How can leaders ensure psychological safety, connection and productivity in a distributed team? Speaking to Bonolo Nkosi on Radio Pulpit Radiokansel, dY/dX partner, Templar Wales addresses some of the concerns that employers may have and discusses how leaders can build effective, collaborative and efficient remote teams.

Bonolo Nkosi

The new work environment has created a need for entrepreneurs to rethink how they manage their teams. With remote working there is still a need to manage productivity and instil company culture to promote effective team work. Doing this in an environment that has been radically transformed is challenging.

It certainly requires new leadership styles, as well as new thinking and skills for both entrepreneurs and employees. Templar Wales is a partner at digital transformation consultancy, dY/dX and joins us to provide insight into this subject. Are entrepreneurs prepared for this sudden transition of working from home?

Templar Wales

Yes and no. Some people more than others. Typically entrepreneurs are open to embracing changes and new ideas and new ways of working. So in that sense, yes, they are already embracing the future of work. Some of them already allow employees to work from home 3 days a week or they themselves work remotely. It’s very different working at home every Thursday or a couple of days per month than it is working from home all the time. When you work at home for a day, you might just focus on one type of work, but that doesn’t prepare you to do all the different types of work and tasks that you usually do in the office, at home.

Also, at work, you’ll find that people may have two screens or a special keyboard or dongle, for example, which they might not have at home. Now, if you’re working at home all the time, sitting on a chair which is not an ergonomic office chair behind your small laptop screen… That could prevent you from being as productive as you perhaps could be. Not everybody has the right tools or set-up at home. Entrepreneurs very often lead with personality, vision and energy and if you’re not having people come into the office, are you prepared to still share that energy and inspire and motivate people like you would at the office?

Bonolo Nkosi

So what can entrepreneurs do? How can they prepare and support their employees to maximise the digital and online environment?

Templar Wales

What people normally do, depending on whether they have HR or not, is that they will build a team culture and team behaviour around what their vision and purpose is. I think it’s important to do that and bring the team together. Don’t dictate to them and say, “This is how we work.” Our approach is, treat people like adults, bring them together and see what works best for the team. The days of dictating to people how to behave are gone.

We use a thing called the Culture Canvas, which we developed with the Dutch government. It’s a great way to kick off any project in any team environment. That gets everyone onto the same page. We agree on certain behaviours like: do we use Whatsapp or email? How do we communicate? What is our purpose? It sets down a whole lot of norms that the team agrees to and buys into as opposed to being told how they should behave. So that’s the one thing. The second thing is to look at what tools the team needs. What systems and tools do they need to get the necessary tasks done?

Hand-in-hand with that goes upskilling – making sure that people have the skills, both hard and soft skills – that ensure they know how to use the tools and use them properly. So many people know how to use spreadsheets and slides, but do they really know how to maximise it? People think they are collaborating just because they’re on a Zoom call but are they actually sharing online documents that they can all access or online whiteboard tools that the whole team can be on at the same time and actually collaborate in real time, as if they were sitting in the same room with sticky notes and whiteboard markers? Coping is different from thriving – you need to make sure you’re taking full advantage of the tools that are available.

From a psychological perspective people are uncertain and you’re not able to see the body language or non-verbal cues that you’d usually see at work, so it’s important to check in with people and make sure that they are feeling safe and motivated.

Bonolo Nkosi

Are there some best practices in leading teams and employees during this time?

Templar Wales

Reach out to your team members and make sure that they’re comfortable. They might have concerns and worries that you’re not aware of and especially during this time, people may have friends or family members that are getting sick. We need to understand what people are going through and then communicate outwardly regularly and clearly without micromanaging or interfering. Don’t micromanage and watch what people are doing every hour of the day. Make sure that you are managing output and giving people time for deep work – work without interruptions. Let people structure their own day. Make sure you’re driving their delivery but not micromanaging what they are doing with their time. Make sure people feel your gratitude and support.

Bonolo Nkosi

Seeing as this may become part of a new working landscape, what should people who are not accustomed to remote work do to get psychologically ready for it? Especially because there are so many things vying for our attention, particularly if you have children at home.

Templar Wales

I think that psychological side of it is also what makes the huge difference between working at home every Thursday versus working from home all the time. Psychological safety is something that often comes up. Part of that is that people must structure their day. When you go into the office, you may have underestimated the impact of having structure – you arrive at work at 8, you have your coffee, you have a chat with so-and-so as you go into your early morning meeting and then stop at lunch for a break… That structure gives people security and safety and the benefit of the fact that they know what’s going to happen in their day.

Now there’s a health threat, job threat, income threat…On top of that, you have taken away their structure. Help people structure their day – have a check-in in the morning, let them know when you’re going to meet and discuss feedback. That gives people a sense of security and structure. You can also help them with their environment – not everyone has everything that they need and not everybody thinks about what they may need. Where are you going to work? When are you going to get up? How are you going to prepare for your day? Dress in a way that makes you feel ready for work. Make sure that if you have people at home that you mustn’t be disturbed between 10 and 12. It’s about communicating those boundaries, both to your family and your team. People do have other demands now – they’re homeschooling or helping their kids learn from home, for example. Be straightforward about what you need.

As a leader you need to make sure that you are encouraging people to be honest with you and are open to making agreements around those things. Help them carve out time to be with their kids so that when they are working, you know they can get things done. Transparency and drawing boundaries is vital.

This is stuff that we’ve been doing for five years. We call this the future of work because we believe that this is what people are moving towards. The COVID-19 situation has accelerated us into the future.

Bonolo Nkosi

What’s the first thing leaders can do to help their employees get ready to work from home? Are there any other main focus areas that people need to be aware of?

Templar Wales

As I mentioned before, the culture canvas is a great way to kick off a project. It’s a quick workshop and we’ve got an online document that you can download at culturecanvas.biz – it’s free and you can do it yourself. Otherwise we can host experiential sessions, which we find often help people to actually make the change and shift their behaviour. That entails bringing people into the same page around when and how to communicate and what their shared purpose is. It also allows people to share “start, stop, continue” ideas as well. What should we start, stop and continue with? It gives people a sense of safety and provides the environment to say what they feel. It’s proven through a lot of research that that’s what creates an effective team – it’s not about just having a team of really smart people. A team that works well together, understands each other, respects each other and delivers to each other will create trust and is far more effective than having the brightest minds in the room.

The second thing is around tools. Do they have the systems that they need? Do they have the access that they need? Sometimes that includes upskilling to make sure the tools are being used effectively. Then the third thing is about soft skills – providing emotional support. Assuming that you do care about your people, it’s about making sure that that is coming across. Sometimes upskilling falls into that as well. If someone is a good worker and a good team player, you want to hang on to them. Perhaps their role is not as important as it used to be but you can give them new opportunities within the business by cross-training them. Upskilling motivates people and reassures them that they have a future. Sometimes it prepares them to take on a broader or different role.