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We’re a year into the pandemic, and a lot of leaders still have questions about how to lead distributed teams effectively.

Not only that, but with office openings on the horizon, yet many workers no longer interested in working onsite full-time, leaders face new questions. How can you run teams when some people are in an office and some aren’t? What works? What’s fair? In times of turbulence like this, there are tremendous opportunities for strong managers and team leads to strengthen team cohesion and fairness. 

Even better, distributed work – whether it’s fully remote teams or hybrids with some people in an office sometimes – offers particularly good chances to make a difference. For more than two decades, I’ve led mostly distributed teams. I’ve consistently found that the more clearly a team understands itself as one that rarely works in person, the more likely it is to be high-performing. Leaders are a key piece of that equation and can build team muscles today for new modes of distributed work tomorrow.

Why is this an opportunity at all? 

One of the fortunes that the massive shift to distributed work gives us, especially as workplace leaders, is a chance to ask about the purpose of existing norms and whether they still serve us. Think of it like this: much of the way we behave in offices is habitual and longstanding, and as a result, the tradeoffs in our behaviors tend to be nearly invisible. For example, it’s obvious that many executives need offices. They’re in lots of meetings, and at least some of what they’re talking about isn’t appropriate for everyone to hear. But what do they lose – in receiving or sharing information, in being relatively inaccessible, or in being visibly more accessible only to some coworkers – when they’re walled off? What does it mean when they’re now working from home and what people see has changed drastically? What new patterns can we establish to take advantage of this situation?  

We have a historic window in which to surface the reasons and tradeoffs behind our office behaviors and rethink them to better serve our teams and customers. C-level folks can consider these questions company-wide. But individual leaders can absolutely do this successfully with their own teams – and can often make a big impact with thoughtful, relatively minor adjustments.

Trust is widely recognized as the most important factor in team happiness and effectiveness; the very act of questioning norms and experimenting with new approaches together builds trust in teams. Guiding a team to take advantage of these dynamics is, simply, good leadership.

When you create an environment that encourages these conversations, you also release team members from the stress and responsibility of making individual decisions about what’s appropriate in a new workplace setting – and you create a more equitable environment. ‘Should I skip this important call because there’s a chance my kid will interrupt it?’ is very different from, ‘What did we agree to try when it comes to kids’ showing up in client meetings?’ 

But people don’t like change

During an era in which our lives are being upended, asking your team members to investigate and change their behaviors can feel like burdening them.. But, on the contrary, when many people feel they’ve lost control in their daily lives, giving them a chance to shape their experiences can be a boon. This isn’t change that’s happening to them; it’s change you’re making together.

To ensure that changes are collaborative, treat each of them as a discussion, and then test the ideas. That is, explore and agree on a new way of working, and then say that you'll try it for three weeks, or three months, or whatever cadence is appropriate. Put a date in the calendar (actually do this!) and then check in to see if it's working for everyone or if you need to adjust. This may sound like a lot of work. But the conversations can be short. And committing to each other and then tinkering with norms to meet each other’s needs tends to build team trust. Plus, if you’re careful, changes can improve equity on teams where fairness is not evenly distributed, since the status quo usually benefits people who already have power. 

Once your team knows how to talk about and test ideas, you’ll be poised to roll with the inevitable changes when offices reopen.

Let’s look at an example

Let’s say you’re a leader trying to figure out how to handle lunch during video meetings. In the Before Times, meetings tended to be either in person with breaks for lunch, or over conference calls, which made it easier to eat unobtrusively. But with the pandemic, meetings are always on video and often scheduled over lunch. With back-to-back meetings, team members don’t have a chance to simply eat early or late, and they’re anxious about what to do. Keep video on and appear distracted or feel self-conscious while eating? Keep video off and appear not to be present? You can easily imagine that the senior people in the group might feel more comfortable eating on-screen or turning off their cameras, but the junior members hesitate because they’re concerned about being taken seriously either way. 

On an internal-facing team, you can talk through ideas and try out some things. Agree that it’s ok to eat on-screen – no apologies needed; or rotate the time of a regular meeting so that it’s not over the same people’s lunch all the time; or spend two weeks with cameras on and two weeks with cameras off, and then talk about what worked best; or see what it’s like to have people who are eating keep the camera on but sit farther away from it. Discuss ideas and try them. Make sure everyone has a chance to raise concerns and contribute. Then, book a meeting in the future to review how it’s going and what needs to change. 

If you’re in a service business, you learn early on that eating in client meetings in person is basically verboten (even eating in the presence of a client can be bad form, unless you're at a meal together). But why is that? Maybe eating signals that you didn't manage your time well, or it might suggest that you aren't paying full attention to the client, etc. But in a pandemic, with kids in the room for many people and schedules otherwise thoroughly disrupted – and more people working in different time zones on the same call because they can’t travel to be together – clients' expectations may have changed. In fact, they may be struggling with a set of questions that overlaps yours. 

If you run a client-facing team where it might be risky to discuss this together, come up with a few options with your team. Then, as a leader, have a call with one of the client leaders to talk over the problem and possible solutions. Pulling aside the client to talk about it can potentially build trust and demonstrate leadership in creating a generative and respectful work environment – which is especially appropriate if you work in a business that’s about designing experiences. You might even find unexpected benefits in your agreement. For example, eating during meetings might help you bond over a discussion of leftovers or over a sense that we're in a different kind of world, one where we maintain fewer pretenses about our work personas. Either way, you’ll build an in-group understanding that can be the foundation of greater trust.

When we're working on the autopilot that we tend to fall into in offices, we don’t get many chances to rethink the subtle dynamics that affect all our interactions. But the profound changes that our workplaces are going through give us an opportunity for leadership – and a chance, counterintuitively, to improve team performance and satisfaction.