Manager of an Empty Office: Working From Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

When our entire team had to start working from home four weeks ago, I reassured myself: we are well-prepared; there will be no problems. But I have learned my lesson. Managing an empty office is much more challenging than I thought!
|Written by Sabine Mueller

Future of Work

empty dhl consulting office due to working from home

Over the past two years, we have come a long way banning paper and digitalizing our processes to facilitate flexible work. The outbreak of the Coronavirus has, however, presented us with a unique challenge: now we are all working from home for an extended period of time. Managing an empty office has taught me a few key lessons I want to share with you – even if we are just at the beginning of our learning curve.

Leading From Home: What I Have Learned So Far

With the corporate world shifting to work from home, we are forced to quickly find new ways of collaborating in the virtual space. These first four weeks have been experimental and, for me, boil down to four key lessons:

1. Rethink How You Communicate

Every person responds differently to the sudden move to remote work. And each of us has their own challenges to deal with at home – whether this is combining work with child care or homeschooling, or making sure that you (and your partner) can work effectively at your house. It’s a stretch to make everything work as usual when the circumstances are different. As leaders, we need to take much more time to acknowledge and address the worries our teams experience.

In week one, I immediately learned that communication works differently when everyone is at home. I did not communicate properly with one of my teams causing them to get frustrated. Due to the new virtual setting, the team was hesitant to give me direct feedback on this and I did not check in with them often enough. The result was that I only found out on day two what was going on – something I would have typically been able to pinpoint immediately by walking by and reading people’s body language. My conclusion:

We need to communicate differently, and more importantly, transfer our feedback habits to remote work.

Through experimentation we are exploring how to do this. I see that to get your message across, combining various channels can be helpful. To complement daily check-ins and regular team meetings, I introduced a weekly email update which goes out to the entire team. To make up for moments of spontaneous alignment at the office, I now purposefully start meetings with some small talk and a short temperature/mood check (there are good tools out there for this). Additionally, I reserve time in my calendar to call people in order to maintain personal bonds and get a feel for how they are doing. We are now having more frequent one-on-ones to exchange feedback on what works and what doesn’t for our remote collaboration.

Remote work demands that we rethink how we interact. And getting it right requires experimentation.

I encourage all leaders to embrace a trial and error approach. I am in week five now and continue to experiment and adapt.
2. Align Around a Positive Vision
We will come out of this crisis in an even better shape than when we went into it.

Many of us currently experience that it is easy to get distracted or feel paralyzed by uncertainties and day-to-day issues. As leaders, we need to set clear priorities, define deliverables, but more importantly share a positive vision for the future.

At a project level, ensuring a strong understanding of the deliverables and how to get there is essential to keep motivation and productivity up. More frequent one-on-ones or daily team huddles are a great way to guide as well as inspire on a day-to-day basis. These touchpoints also help to check whether the work is distributed in the right way.

At an organizational level, business leaders must focus on the future. We have digitalized many of our processes, but I believe we can do more. As such, we have started to work on DHL Consulting 3.0: an accelerated virtual client, project management and employee experience which also enables virtual recruiting, training, and social interaction.

3. Use Digital Tools

There is a myriad of tools available to facilitate remote collaboration. The key is to find out which tools work best for your organization without overcomplicating things. Working together virtually is an entirely different ball game. I, therefore, push for more video use. Being able to see each other and collaborate in real-time makes for much more effective meetings. Moreover, through video it is easier to maintain team spirit and a sense of community.

4. Stay Healthy and Social

As we continue to work from home, I find that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is more difficult, but ever so vital. While we are all very conscious of our physical health right now, our mental health deserves just as much attention. We need to make sure to switch off from work to rest and restore, and keep our spirits up in these unusual circumstances. Find a structure in your day that works for you and leaves time for things like jogging, walking the dog, or cooking.

Staying social is important for our well-being. With virtual quiz and scrabble nights, lunches, and after-work drinks we continue to stay connected and have fun together. Moreover, we introduced so-called virtual villages, where members share how they are doing and can tackle challenges they are facing together.

One thing I am sure about: We will use this opportunity to reach another s-curve in our digitalization journey, leaving us with a more virtual work place after Corona.

Managing an Empty Office: Is Remote Work the Future of Work?

The current exceptional situation shows us how important it is to be a digital first-mover. We are still at the beginning of our remote work journey, but I am confident that we will be able to harness our learnings for our digital transformation.

We are actually presented with a huge opportunity to disrupt and reinvent the way we work.

We should all use this momentum to effectively manage that empty office and make truly flexible work arrangements a reality. This will ultimately enable us to tap into a much larger talent pool.

Is your company also working from home? What has the experience taught you so far? I am looking forward to exchanging learnings with you in the comments below or on my LinkedIn account.

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