Four leaders provide insights on how they manage their companies/teams in these challenging times
How do you manage a team when everyone is banned from their workplace? Four executives, all of them alumni of the WU Executive Academy, share their experience and tips for successful leadership from home as we are weathering the COVID-19 outbreak.
Overnight, remote work has become mandatory across many business sectors. Tens of thousands of employees of large and medium-sized enterprises in Austria have found themselves working from their homes. In Germany, half of the working population is working remotely now, according to a Bitcom survey. This is a challenge not only for employees but also and particularly for managers – even more so if digital tools and online communication have, so far, not played a substantial role in their leadership style.
How are executives dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak? And how are they managing their teams? We asked an entrepreneur, a reporting expert, a business developer in the field of medical technologies, and a digitization specialist, who has used online collaboration as her standard mode of work for many years, for advice on effectively leading their companies/teams remotely.
Harald Trautsch, who is the managing director of several companies and a graduate of the Global Executive MBA, believes in straight-forward and clear communication with his employees. He has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak in several ways. At the moment, he is busy coordinating, delegating, and troubleshooting – often up to 20 hours a day. The entire staff of his software company Dolphin Technologies is now doing remote work.
Thanks to communication using ticketing systems, messaging, and video calls, it is working surprisingly well. We have even increased our output in the first two weeks since the start of the lockdown. Some employees have already worked from home even before corona; so the current situation is nothing new to them.
In the early phase of the outbreak, many clients of his digital agency Blue Monkeys, particularly those working in B2C business, paused campaigns and delayed projects. By now, they have come to realize, however, that they have to make up for the missing personal contact with customers using digital means. So following an initial slump, business is now picking up again. His CrossFit studio experienced a hard cut: “We closed the gym already several days before we were ordered to do so by the government to protect our members and staff. We are using short-time schemes for both part-time and full-time employees but have decided to pay marginally employed staff, among them many students, in full,” says Trautsch. He emphasizes that direct communication has never been as important as now: “I am putting even more efforts into communication,” he says. At night, he writes mail after mail to keep everybody up to speed and recap the work day. “I have always valued transparency in dealing with my employees and in the current situation it has turned into a must for effective leadership. And this also applies to sensitive topics such as having to use short-time schemes.” A swift response to the crisis is just as important: “We have been going at full speed from day one to adapt to the new situation. As a result, our teams felt motivated and reassured that we have a plan.” In addition to sending out daily updates, new customers were acquired and novel business models developed. The company, for instance, entered into a collaboration with a major Austrian newspaper to offer fitness videos online. The serial entrepreneur has also acted as the project leader of a team which collaborated online and developed Novid20 in a matter of days. The app for tracking the coronavirus outbreak has already been put to use by the government in Georgia. Many industries and companies will be hit hard by the current crisis, but Harald Trautsch emphasizes one thing: “Giving up is not an option! Setbacks can also turn out to be great opportunities to develop new business models. And at the very least, the environment gets a break.”
Johanna Hofmann, a graduate of the Professional MBA Finance, is head of HSSE Performance Monitoring at OMV, an international, integrated oil and gas company headquartered in Vienna. Like so many others, she currently manages her team of seven employees from her home. “In the past, working from home was the exception and only allowed from time to time,” she remembers. While she sometimes took home documents to review, her work routines did not include virtual collaboration. “We only did that from the office when we worked with international teams.”
Hofmann’s team in Vienna is in charge of reporting systems and monitoring health and environmental protection. At the moment, she works closely together with the IT department, which is implementing a new system. Johanna Hofmann underlines that in the current situation, people in leadership positions must make sure to review their responsibilities in light of the changed circumstances: “Of course, our assignments continue to be important, but priorities have shifted; we have to, for instance, make sure that the SAP system works for everybody who needs it.” At the same time, she finds that she has to provide moral support to her team: “My team members are very conscientious and always deliver their work in time. But some tasks are hard to handle from home. In these cases, I reassure them that this is okay and make sure that we set the right priorities for this exceptional situation.”
Regarding virtual communication, Hofmann reports that she has been “surprised, in a positive way.” “Meetings via Skype and phone are much more focused compared to those in the office. Everybody is well prepared and on time. We also don’t get sidetracked as much because there are no ‘by-the-way’ questions that are asked in passing.” Regular team meetings that used to take place once a week are now held twice a week. What is more, the nature of communication as aspects of leadership have changed: “It is important that, as an executive, you are there for your employees also for personal concerns and do not solely focus on business matters. Some staff members have kids, and some need more support than others. I consider it part of my job to listen to my team members and give them the opportunity to talk to somebody who is not family.” The members of Johanna Hofmann’s team all live in Vienna, but some of them come from other countries such as Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and the UK. For this reason, she shares updates on the coronavirus outbreak in Austria in English, regarding the accessibility of information part of her responsibilities as a manager.
Any other meetings with colleagues and contractors, she currently conducts via video or phone calls as well. She has also reorganized trainings so that they can be conducted online. “I prefer interacting with my audience on site to get direct feedback,” Hofmann says. Four-hour training sessions using Skype, in which keeping eye contact with participants is all but impossible, can get extremely tiring.
You always run the risk that people lose focus when they turn off their cameras. However, in groups of up to 15 participants, this is necessary to maintain the quality of data transfer. All in all, participants tend to actively take part in trainings. In the end, the loss of visual feedback in this setting is something a trainer can get used to.
Johanna Hofmann is convinced that the current situation will shape leadership and the way companies will work post-corona: “I hope that we will work in a more flexible way and that there will be more online collaboration, also among global teams. Many people come up with creative ideas now because the current situation has freed up resources.”
Hofmann reports about a new employee with a toddler whom she had to tell “that it is okay to go outside with her child in the afternoons. We simply do not work from nine to five at the moment.” Hofmann also sees the personal benefits that come with flexible work hours. “If I have a call with New Zealand in the evening, I take some time off in the afternoon to rest.”
Kristijan Kesinovic usually spends a lot of time on the plane. The Senior Business Development Manager is responsible for market entries and the expansion of the medical equipment company Dentsply Sirona. He heads a team of seven members, most of whom are located in Gothenburg in Sweden, and he travels a lot for projects related to market entries. At the moment, he only communicates via video calls. Team meetings are held once a week to discuss and assign tasks. “It is a curious situation because at the moment, I use virtual collaboration not only with my colleagues but also to communicate with external business partners I have never met before,” he comments. Not being able to meet in person makes business development more difficult: “Normally, you would have dinner together, particularly where more experienced managers are concerned,” he explains.
Calls with his team work flawlessly. At the same time, it is necessary to make a more conscious effort to structure daily routines. “Digital tools such as MS Teams are very helpful to clearly structure a project.” This realization took him by surprise: “I put a crash course on the use of this tool on my to-do list: this excellent tool offers numerous functionalities that really help us out at the moment. For example, in addition to weekly meetings, we only have to check the digital post-it board for a clear overview of all tasks.” Even though the amount of internal communication required varies from sector to sector, one thing holds true for all managers in leadership positions in times of uncertainty: “Empathy is what’s most needed right now,” Kesinovic says. Considering the individual situation of each employee and taking the time to listen to their personal concerns is important to maintain team spirit in these times when the future seems so uncertain. He mentions that, on the plus side, the acceptance of online meetings will continue to rise, also with external partners, reducing the number of meetings that need to be conducted in person.
Nevertheless: We are social beings. Naturally, this will differ across industries, but I am convinced that a personal meeting will remain the most effective way to build a solid foundation for sustainable, successful business relationships. The way a person interacts with others and the ability to look each other in the eye will continue to be significant in business life. At the same time, I have no doubt that we will keep using some of the advantages of digital collaboration also after corona.
Since 2013, remote work has been the standard setting for Sandra Bichl, CEO of Career Angels, a career consulting company with a focus on executives and managers, and her 20+ team members working from various locations across Europe. This way she has been able to call various countries her home, among them Poland, Germany, and Ecuador. She became a career partner of the WU Executive Academy in 2014 and regularly hosts workshops and webinars on topics such as executive career management, international job search, personal branding, or LinkedIn. Of the past three years, she spent almost a whole year traveling. Six weeks ago, she finally settled down in Lisbon. She has clear rules for communicating with her team, following a hierarchy of communication channels organized according to urgency. There is also a plan B and plan C for the event that technology fails. The team members have agreed on rules for when to write an email, when to chat, and when to talk on Skype. Phone calls are reserved for emergencies, which, Sandra Bichl reports, occur once or twice a year. Support staff work based on a ticketing system and have clearly defined tasks. Career consultants share a calendar in which they enter appointments, meetings, and so-called focus time for working without being interrupted. “This keeps the number of distractions down,” Sandra Bichl says.
The boss follows the same rules as her staff: when Sandra Bichl needs to discuss something with a team member, she asks via chat whether the person is free to talk.
They are encouraged to say no when they are busy and propose a different time for a call.
She works particularly closely with two staff members: “We add topics to the calendar before the meeting in which they are dealt with,” Bichl explains. She provides clear rules on communication already during the onboarding phase of new staff members. They receive a booklet containing relevant information and a glossary of abbreviations used within the organization, which saves a lot of time when writing emails. “CA stands for Career Angel, and FIM is short for first introduction meeting,” she explains. Her tip for people working from home for the first time: “Work on developing self-discipline, which is often underrated. It is crucial to plan the day ahead.” Many managers have to resort to crisis communication at the moment. But still: “It is also important to stress that you don’t need to make small talk in every phone call or chat. In companies where several calls have to be made every day, this is just an enormous waste of time.” She sees unprofessional conduct also among some of the executives she is currently advising: “A member of the board joined a conference call of the regional team with their hair still wet and had breakfast while on the call. This is never a good idea, at least in hierarchically organized enterprises,” she says. She also recommends checking your background: so far she has spotted dirty pots in a kitchen and lingerie on drying racks, to name just a few no-gos.
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