Business Leadership During COVID: Lessons in Trust and Control

October 30, 2020

Case categories include: Culture   Founder’s Insights   Leadership   

Business Leadership During COVID: Lessons in Trust and Control

By Paul Witkay, Founder & CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

The global pandemic has caused an enormous shift in how businesses work. New protocols and day-to-day safety accommodations have become necessary to keep physical workplaces open and employees in the office. For those of us who have transitioned to remote work, even more dramatic changes have become the norm. New work locations, time schedules and tech resources have fundamentally altered the way we connect and collaborate. This gives rise to perhaps the greatest business leadership challenge during COVID: how will these changes affect employee productivity over time?

To me, the answer lies in reevaluating the employer/employee relationship and the trust that binds these two parties together. Simply put, if business leaders cannot trust their employees, remote work is not viable. There has to be mutual respect and confidence that, even if left unintended, everyone will continue working toward the goals of the organization. But how is this trust developed, and how can leaders stay in control when traditional supervision is no longer possible?

In my conversations with Alliance of CEO members, these questions have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the pandemic. While there are no universal answers, here is how I’ve seen leaders successfully navigate the balance between trust and control, bringing stability during a time of change and uncertainty.

Mixing Synchronous and Asynchronous Tasks

The move from working onsite to working remotely has been made possible largely through technological advancements. Platforms like Zoom and Slack have experienced huge growth this year as companies integrate these communication tools into their daily activities and routines. These technologies are invaluable resources for facilitating collaboration between distanced coworkers.

However, many of these platforms are best suited for synchronous work—the tasks that all members are working on in real time. In today’s business workflow, a significant amount of work is asynchronous; tasks are interrupted by pressing matters, unscheduled discussions arise, and job responsibilities often require workers to stay flexible throughout the day. For many organizations, the ability to observe employees in the office brought assurance that synchronous work was being accomplished on schedule. With close proximity rendered impossible, how do we find this assurance?

It all revolves around communication, setting employees up with the right tools for success and creating a company culture that inspires everyone to do their best work. Successful business leadership during COVID requires that employers be involved in, yet not in control of, the actions of their employees.

Balancing Trust and Control In A New Business Environment

In a remote office setting, being able to trust your employees to work without constant supervision is an absolute necessity. Although there are technologies that can allow you to track employee activity in-depth, inspiring employees to do their best is a more effective approach than constant monitoring. After all, with micro-management often comes feelings of distrust and a lack of confidence.

To create strong bonds between management and employees, it is wise to focus on these three factors:

1. Clearly Communicate Expectations

Remote work should revolve around set agendas and protocols to be successful. Employees need to know their day-to-day responsibilities, how to collaborate on projects, when to attend meetings, and who they can reach out to for help. As a leader, making sure that workers understand these elements rests on you. These steps can help you avoid confusion and boost productivity:

  • Establish expectations early on. Today’s work roles are often multifaceted and complex. Clearly laying out daily and long-term goals and responsibilities will help employees understand how they contribute to the success of the company and serve customers effectively.

  • Educate your employees on how their efforts impact overall company goals. Letting employees know how their work is benefiting others – teams, departments, customers – will inspire them to do their best.

  • Demonstrate proactive communication through the right channels. Fostering consistent communication will prevent isolation, streamline collaboration, and open up paths for employees to find solutions when they experience challenges.

  • Create training resources. Working remotely is built on the back of digital platforms and tools. Providing training materials and sessions can help to ensure employees are proficient in these technologies.

With these actions, you can ensure your employees have what they need to work effectively.  

2. Create an Inclusive Company Culture

If you want to trust your employees to do their best work, they need to feel comfortable sharing their opinions, suggestions, concerns and questions. If employees feel that they aren’t able to honestly voice their opinions, you won’t be able to evaluate their needs, or take the steps necessary to help them achieve their goals.

Leaders need to understand that their teams look to them for examples of how to act within the company—even in remote work environments where interactions are digital. Set yourself up for success by encouraging participation in regular meetings and by asking for employee feedback. When a problem arises, ask your team members how they would approach it. Ultimately, these decisions may still be left to you, but by asking for recommendations, you demonstrate that you trust and respect your employees. That goes a long way toward creating a culture of inclusivity.

3. Measure Productivity Effectively

With remote work, measuring productivity often happens differently than it does in traditional settings. Time management goals often become less about what can be accomplished in a specific 8-hour period and are more focused on what can be delivered on a day-to-day, week-by-week or month-by-month basis. Of course, deliverables vary from business to business, with some projects requiring well-defined deadlines, while others are less structured.

Accordingly, each organization needs to develop its own way of measuring the productivity of its employees in an effective manner. For some, this means surveying customer experiences, examining customer success KPIs, and tracking increased/decreased sales. Others may consider less tangible variables, like how an individual works in a team setting or how satisfied they are in their role. Productivity indicators will vary for each organization, and it’s important to consider which elements matter most to you.

Successful Business Leadership During COVID and Beyond Requires Employee Trust

Working in a remote setting has underscored just how important the employer/employee relationship is. As we move toward 2021, the possibility of a return to the worksite is becoming a realistic option for many who have been operating remotely for months. But regardless of whether you’re comfortable with remote work or itching to get back to the office, continuing to reflect on how to best create a culture of trust will help you find the right path forward.

At the Alliance, conversations on how to build trusting bonds are ongoing. From both these discussions and my own experiences, I’ve realized that strong work relationships don’t always require face-to-face interaction—respect, communication and understanding can take place anywhere.

For more lessons in trust and control for business leaders during COVID, contact the Alliance of CEOs today.