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AUGUST 27, 2020 //     

Leading a Virtual Workforce Through 2020: What Matters Most

San Francisco Team Zoom Meeting

By: Meghan Curtis

Leadership in the time of COVID-19, a monumental social justice movement, a divisive election year, an economic downturn and all while remote from my 45 team members in San Francisco and 500 colleagues around the globe?

I’m sure I’m not the first to say that these past months will give the Harvard Business Review enough new leadership content for years to come. And that executive leadership course I’d been pondering? I think 2020 has given me enough case studies, new skillsets and growth opportunities that I can hold off on that (for now).  

In all seriousness, this moment in time does afford us an opportunity to reflect on leadership in new ways and examine what our teams need most from those who lead now and in the future. As I recently put aside the daily to-dos and pondered my leadership journey of late, I had so many thoughts. Too many thoughts, in fact, as this is a topic I think about every single day and night. How do I best support and lead the San Francisco office, my colleagues and my clients? Like many leaders before me, I decided to seek input to help crystalize my thoughts, speaking to fellow leaders in and out of Allison+Partners, along with a number of my teammates whom I manage day-to-day.

How does one lead a virtual workforce during a pandemic that has no immediate end in sight? Here are four critical characteristics I’ve landed on, with a little help from some friends:

  1. Vulnerability – This one just recently cracked open for me, as well as for many of the leaders I spoke with. When we closed our offices in mid-March and began to weather this storm while working remotely, it felt empowering to stay strong and do my part nearly around-the-clock to keep things afloat and morale up. And that we did! But some 165 days later, it serves no one, especially yourself, if you can’t acknowledge vulnerabilities and truly open up with those you lead. No longer do I start every meeting over Microsoft Teams by getting straight to work. We ask about each other’s kids, partners and pets. We talk about how we feel and really listen when someone shares what they did over the weekend. We open up about our insecurities, like sending kids back to school. I see each of my colleagues and clients for who they really are, in and out of work. They too have gotten a side of me that isn’t afraid to share if I’m trying to solve a unique client challenge or in need of creative ideation support for our twice-weekly office huddles to keep them fresh. I’m certain we’re all better professionals, and people, due to this newfound vulnerability. It’s not only strengthened our relationships, we do our best work because of it.
  2. Transparency – My colleague Courtney Newman wrote about the importance of being transparent to strengthen company culture in late April. Three months later, I’d argue this is more important now than it was then, because we don’t entirely know what next month will bring and it’s OK to acknowledge that. I have spoken with countless colleagues who say they implicitly trust our senior leadership, and ultimately the company, due to our ongoing transparency about the business today and our plans for tomorrow, next month and years to come. This is brought to life with “Ask Anything” questions during a monthly all-agency video call, numerous internal communications forums, our twice-annual Town Hall meetings, the CEO advisory council and my personal “no BS” policy during one-on-one check-ins with team members. This honesty, even when challenging, opens us up to reimagined collective problem solving and has fostered a trust like none I’ve seen in a corporate culture. Our team is deeply invested and supportive of each other – from top to bottom. Further, this transparency carries over to how we work with and treat our clients, the lifeblood to our business.
  3. Availability – A+P has always prioritized access and a direct open line of communication to leadership. Our open door policy has been far more than a talking point used in recruiting – it’s the backbone to our engaged workforce and how we’ve developed countless company initiatives. It’s also something I take incredible personal pride in. It’s more critical with a virtual team to be available to them when in need and to commit to consistent weekly check-ins, even with team members I don’t directly work with every day. Or to proactively reach out to someone in the office just to let them know I’m thinking about them and there if they want to talk. Sometimes this means we connect once my kids are in bed or while I take a walk before sitting down at my laptop for the day. Don’t worry, our colleagues also acknowledge we all have lives outside of work too and do not Teams and text me at all hours. But they know if there is a need, I’ll make the time without hesitation. And while leaders need to be available more than ever to their teams, the oxygen mask metaphor (i.e., you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others) is incredibly relevant for those in leadership right now. I’m endlessly appreciative to work with a leadership team that is quickly there when I too need an ear.
  4. Flexibility – By now, you’ve likely read endless content on the importance of flexibility during the pandemic. As our home and work lives have converged, this newfound flexibility starts at the very top and is modeled by senior leadership so all team members know it’s truly OK for them to set up a work schedule that works for them, their teammates and clients. In March, I heard first-hand from teammates that shutting down the laptop for lunch, an afternoon work-out for “Work Out Wednesday” or at the end of the day was a challenge. And so, I’ve looked to constantly reinforce that every single person is dealing with something unique these days (and it’s not just us working parents) and flexibility is non-negotiable. By taking calls on the way to preschool, while making dinner for my family or joining group work-outs over Zoom during the work day, I hope to empower our team to do the same. Of course, with this flexibility comes a need to often overcommunicate schedules and sometimes “catch up” at odd hours. But I’m incredibly gratified to see my colleagues take advantage of this new flexible work environment while continuing to deliver best-in-class work for our clients and each other.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the simple importance of leading with positivity. While being a transparent and vulnerable confidant, it’s equally important to be buoyant for your teams. I think a sign at my daughter’s school says it best: “When you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine!”

I’d love to hear – what is most important to you in leadership these days? And if you are in a leadership position, how have you changed your ways in 2020?

Meghan manages operations for Allison+Partners’ headquarters office in San Francisco. While fostering a collaborative and entrepreneurial environment for staff to thrive, she also oversees strategic public relations campaigns for several consumer brands in travel + tourism, consumer technology, food + beverage and healthcare industries.

 

 

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