Where should a leader focus their attention?

This podcast explores the challenges that leaders face of where to focus their attention. In a crisis situation, leadership time is required to make fundamental day to day decisions, that generally would be taken elsewhere. Finding a balance between getting stuck in and keeping the wider view is one all leaders and managers face.

Rob and Rich suggest that time needs be split between Growing, Running and Protecting the business, and how the need to protect (in the current COVID Crisis) and run (with key staff on furlough) may cause leaders to lose focus on moving their business forward.

This podcast was recorded while we are in the middle of lockdown. Like most people, we are working from home, making do and still looking to answer the questions that are getting in the way.

How to Combat Loneliness when Working Remotely

For all its perceived advantages, like, for example, not having to commute and working when you want to, remote working also has its challenges. Loneliness is a primary risk and will have a very real impact for the thousands of UK workers who now suddenly find that remote working is going to have to be the ‘new normal’ for an unspecified amount of time due to the spread of the coronavirus.

At Thinking Focus, we have worked remotely for years, so it is so much our ‘normal’ that we would probably initially struggle to adjust to working in a central place of work and fit into a structure of regulated office time, physical meetings, commuting to and from work and working shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues. We’ve learned a few things over the years and would like to share some of that with you.

A real focus for your own well-being – let alone remaining effective when you have to work remotely – is making sure that you never feel isolated or alone. Here’s how to stay connected as a remote worker, including as an employee and as a person, during any time of uncertainty.

Set up regular remote meetings

Getting regular, consistent feedback is an important part of productive remote working. If you’re the manager of a remote worker, or a remote worker yourself, consider implementing some of these strategies for staying in touch:

  1. A daily check-in: It’s always good to make sure that everyone’s on the same page and that everyone knows which daily tasks to prioritise.
    A weekly team meeting: When you’re working remotely team, it is important to hear about what other people are working on—even if it’s outside of the scope of your focus. It helps to keep you connected.
  2. Video is more personal than a conference call—and can help bond a team together, setting the groundwork for collaboration (even at a distance). After all, much of communication is non-verbal. faces need to be seen & expressions interpreted.
  3. Regular person-to-person meetings: Regular video calls with other remote teammates is important. Plan days to work together. You can use the time to share business updates, individual successes and failures, even social, non-work related chat for a time. The point is to feel more connected to each other.


Designate an in-office contact for remote workers

Now that you are practically away from your normal place of work, it can be easy to feel out of the loop—or worse, like your concerns or questions aren’t being addressed. One way to combat this issue is to designate an in-office contact. This person can be a manager, or they can be on the same level as the rest of the team. Part of their responsibility would be to make sure that team conference calls run smoothly by letting remote workers have equal air-time and making sure that issues are heard. In some cases, you’ll need a manager or an HR professional to help set up this designated role.

Find a remote working buddy

Friends and colleagues will be immensely important right now. People with a work buddy typically feel more engaged with their work than those without one. Try to find someone that you can regularly check-in with who can help keep you motivated when working alone. Don’t wait until you feel loneliness taking hold.

Use a remote working office platform

Communication is clearly the key to successful remote working. Find an effective office platform where team workflow can be monitored and important documents shared. This will provide a transparent way for everyone to monitor each other’s progress, as well as their own.

Communicate about more than your remote work

Keep in touch with your co-workers about more than just your daily tasks. If you can, try to stay up to date with people’s birthdays and what’s going on in their lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to other people about things that aren’t specifically about work – relationship building and maintenance is critical right now.

Set up a helpful remote work routine

Feeling more connected is not all to do with the office. Remember to keep connected to the rest of the world. Don’t get caught up in being or feeling isolated.

The workday should have room for enjoyment. Whether that means creating a light-hearted connection channel with friends online or simply giving a friend or family member a phone call when you complete a difficult task, don’t hesitate to take breaks and reward yourself for putting in the time and doing good work. Having fun is also part of the productive rhythm of a workday.

Stand up and walk around whilst on the phone. Remember to stop and have a meal – physically set the time aside. Build in time for exercise and fresh air.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Why are some teams more engaged in what they do?

Some teams just get it, they immerse themselves in the work or activities of the team to deliver amazing results. What is it that they have, that other teams don’t?
In this podcast, Paul proposes that this is down to a connection to the higher purpose, and along with Graham they explore what that means.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.

Keep communication clear while working remotely

In these ambiguous times, keeping clear communication channels open between you and your team is critical. You may not realise it, but when you are in the office you are always communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. You can usually tell how team members are doing not just from what they say, but how they are acting. These small cues of non-verbal communication provide most of the information that we require to know what is going on.

Now most of us are working remotely, we’re blocked from receiving the very information we relied on to know if everything is OK or not. Unless you formalise online how you will communicate with your team informally offline, you’ll be shut off from understanding how your team is doing.  This risks you missing important issues before the they become problems, or alternatively, imagining that things are going wrong when everything is just fine, just because you are not getting the feedback you are used to (and need).

Your people will be feeling the same: without clear direction from you they’re at risk of becoming incredibly lonely and de-energised, or putting lots of work into a task that doesn’t contribute to the team’s purpose. They may have increased anxiety about their work, just because they don’t have the small informal bits of feedback that let them know they are on the right lines.  That surly ‘u-ha’, nod or half smile that you used to take for granted turn out to be important communication touch points; you were letting them know that you know that they had got this, without having to do hugs and party poppers!

The question is, then, how do you formalise the informal day-to-day interactions we’re all so used to? The answer is, on paper at least, fairly simple: by making a regular, rhythmic schedule for team communication.

First, have daily check-ins with the group on the same call. Use this time, around 15 minutes (keep it short), to align the team and ensure that everybody’s on the same page. Whether this call is in the morning or afternoon depends on your business, but schedule it for the same time each day. This starts a regular routine for everyone and is an important time in which plans can be shared to keep everyone on track. 

Also, decide on one day each week in which you’ll replace the daily check-in with a weekly organising call. If in each daily check-in you decide what you want done by the next call, then here you decide what’ll be done in the next week. This is really helpful in making sure everybody in the team is working on something in line with the team purpose: following this meeting, the tasks decided on in the daily ones have an end goal at which people can aim.

Turning from group meetings to one-to-ones, as a manager you have a responsibility to each person under you, to help them adjust to working from home. Hold individual meetings with each team member every two or three days to address their issues and concerns, and also to share their successes. You may find that when you first start doing these you are getting some moans and groans as people get used to the sudden change in working style.  While this might feel personal at times, remember, this is not about you, you are just the only person in the company that they get to let off steam to. Learn to let it go.

These are conversations you would be having regularly with them in the office anyway, so scheduling what would have been impromptu chats helps bring some normality back to the new remote workspace. Do remember you can bring these forward too if you sense something is not quite right in the daily check-in: as everyone adjusts to home working, some will struggle more than others, and will need extra support.

Finally, at least once a week hold a team social, where there is no agenda whatsoever. Let your team drive the conversation on anything, primarily as a means to unwind with other people (a rare opportunity in our current lockdown!), but also as a way for you to pick up on possible problem areas you may need to discuss separately later on.  There are many ideas on-line for how to do this, from eating lunch together, to Friday night drinks.  You don’t need to do anything special, but it is important to allow everyone a chance to speak, and to stop people turning it into yet another project meeting.

As we get used to the pressures of remote working, make good communication a priority for your team. Keep communication channels open to assist at all times and make a clear schedule for check-ins and catch-ups, to formalise the informal conversations that are so common in the office.


Photo by Marko Pekić on Unsplash

Tracking performance from home

Think about how you track your team’s performance in the office: if everyone’s hard at work at their desks from nine to five, and you can see (almost feel) that everything’s getting done, then that’s a success, right?

If you’ve already started working from home in the last couple of weeks, I’m sure it’s become clear that keeping track of your team like that is impossible when working remotely. The issue is that most managers are unconsciously accustomed to tracking their teams’ inputs. That is, so long as they can see time and effort being put into the job, meetings are happening and people are staying behind to finish up things, then they’re not too concerned with what comes out the other end.  

That might feel a little shocking, but ask yourself, when was the last time you really checked that the work you and your team were doing was really the greatest contribution you could make?

In the world of remote working, most of the methods you had of tracking inputs have gone. As a manager, you’re isolated from your staff and can’t tell if they’re really at their desks during regular office hours, or if they’re off having a nap, or catching up on Netflix.

Here’s what you need to realise: that doesn’t matter!

It’s time to reassess your measures of success, so you focus on the quality of what is being achieved (the outputs), not the way the work is done (the inputs). That way you won’t find yourself doubting your team unnecessarily. Either the work is being done, or it isn’t. There are some roles that still require specific tasks in a certain order. However these days most things can be achieved in a multitude of different ways, and your way, even if it is the best for you, may not be the best for everyone else (especially now that most of are working in unfamiliar ways and places)

Instead of hounding your employees several times a day to make sure everyone’s at their computer, take stock of the work that’s being produced. Is everything being completed on schedule, and to the same quality as you’d expect in the office (or near enough, as people need time to adapt to remote working)? Are your clients or key stakeholders happy with how everything is being handled? Are they getting what they need, when they need it?

If yes, then your team is still working well, despite being at home. They don’t always need to be at their desks at the same times as they would in the office, because we all adapt to remote work in different ways, best suited to our own personal situations. What matters is that their performance hasn’t dipped. The more control they feel about how they can organise their time, and make it work with the other pressures in their life, the more focused, engaged and resilient they will be.

When you find yourself saying no to these questions, that’s when you go back and look at the inputs. Make sure that there is a clear understanding of what is expected, and that they have the belief that this is still possible now that their working conditions have changed.  You may need to spend some time rebuilding clarity and belief, as the current situation and changes in how we work can easily create wobbles.  I

It is worth remembering though, that in the short term at least, it is likely that the change to remote working might be the only factor causing the dip, which can only be resolved through support (probably a mix of psychological, managerial and technological!) and allowing employees the time to adjust.

The key to tracking performance remotely is to redefine what ‘success’ means to you and your team. Previously, unconsciously, you might have related it to inputs and how long your people spend on tasks. Be wary of this, as it can lead to (very ineffectual) presenteeism, where the only focus for your team is putting enough face time in with you to appear busy.

Define success in terms of output-driven KPIs, that connect the work your team do with your team’s purpose. The purpose of a team or business unit is not measured in numbers of meetings,  reports delivered on time, or how many calls made; these are just inputs designed to help you hit your goal. 

By defining measures around what you want to achieve and not how you think it needs to be done, you can allow the team to find their own way. So, no matter when, where, or how your team chooses to work, you can be confident that they’ll perform as well outside the office as in it.

The right mindset for remote managing

I get it: remote working and managing are scary things, and no more so than in times like this. There’s an overarching feeling of uncertainty about the world – it feels as if your work situation changes as often as the news headlines do!

When you’re so used to having direct access to information about how everyone is doing, losing that can give you a sense of being out of control that’s hard to come back from. You can no longer mobilise people into instant meetings, have mini one-on-ones over a coffee, or even catch up at the water cooler.

Despite this, as a manager, it’s important to make sure you have the right mindset for working at home, for the sake of leading your team effectively. You need to be comfortable with the uncertainty around you (or at least appear like you are) as, for the most part, you can’t change that. However, what you can do is create certainty, as much as possible, within the team.

Think to yourself, “What can I control in this situation?” and you’ll find it comes down to two main things: what you need to achieve in the immediate future, and how best you can support the team.

Reduce the usual timeframes you workaround. While three months may have been a reasonable length of time to look ahead previously, we can hardly predict what will be happening in three days now. If you limit your plans to the next day or so, you can have a much more decisive say in how it will turn out, which helps keep your staff focused on getting their jobs done. Focusing on the time frame that you can control will help the team members regain their sense that they are in control of the situation.

One thing to note, though: be prepared to balance the control you have over your team’s work, and the control they have. It’s great to give tasks out, as that helps focus the team and provide direction for the day. But you’ve got to let individuals have a say in what they do and, particularly for remote workers, how they do it. Every time you take control of something that you did not need to, you weaken their sense of control; and that risks increasing their feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Everybody’s going to have a different schedule when working from home, and having an overbearing boss demanding they send the finished product to his or her inbox every hour is going to cause unnecessary stress. Trust in your team to get the job done, to help them create their own sense of control.

Take on a mindset that assumes the best of your people. When things go wrong, understand that it is because everybody is feeling a little stressed right now, and this was just a mistake. Do not personalise mistakes, or assume that they are happening because people are not as focused as they would have been in the office. Just because you cannot see the work being done anymore does not mean that they are not working. Let’s face it, the team has managed to carry on working when you were in a meeting or popped to the loo; they will also be working even though they are not at their usual desk.

Be curious about your team. Use this time to get to know them a little better, so that if things do go wrong or off-schedule, you can identify if they’re struggling with working remotely. Previously they will have relied on close colleagues for support, so now’s the time to reach out for yourself. There’s probably something you could be doing to make their lives and work easier! Even if there isn’t, they will appreciate knowing that you care.

Having the right the mindset about how we work together is an essential key for success as a remote manager. If you can bring control back to your immediate surroundings, and make a conscious effort to see the best in your people, you’ll be one step closer to nailing working from home.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

How do I know my team aren’t watching Netflix?

If you’re a manager whose team just started working remotely recently, at one point or another you’re bound to wonder to yourself: “My team could all just be bingeing Netflix right now, and I’d have no idea!”.  This is natural: people understand the world through small triggers and tiny interactions, which disappear when you’re not together.

Of course, it’s going to feel strange at first to not be able to see your team putting in the work you expect from them. But, this is exactly why being able to trust your team, and be trusted by your team, is so key when managing remotely.

Unconsciously, a lot of managers are used to managing inputs: that is, they assess their team’s performance on how much time and effort they see is being put into producing the outputs (the results of the work). However, this style of management encourages forms of presenteeism, which really exhausts your staff without any added results to show for it.

What people should be managing (at all times really, but in particular when you’re not in position to measure the input), are the outputs. Put simply, if your team is still performing at the levels they were back in the office, then you can rest easy!  In fact, pat yourself on the back; us mere mortals will be slowing down a bit as we get used to this new way of working.

Reaching the stage where you are comfortable will take time and effort. This is where you need to rebuild trust with the team, accepting that they’re putting in the requisite work to reach the desired outcome, and ensuring that they know you’ll support them in achieving this.

The disappearance of interpersonal interactions with the team can leave managers feeling as if something is wrong. If it starts to feel like this, however, before you jump to any conclusions look for evidence to back up that feeling, or else you’ll be chasing up employees for nothing, and risking the trust that you have in the team relationships.

How do you get this evidence? By being communicative with your team. Have regular group meetings.  One way is to use the techniques developed by agile software developers, where at each regular review meeting each team member is asked to talk about

  1. What they’ve completed since the last meeting,
  2. What they’re going to do next,
  3. What help they might need in achieving that.

When you and your team are open like this, you can start to build an idea of what to expect from everyone and identify who’s struggling to adjust to remote working and needs some help.

Make sure to balance out the information you build up here with empathy – everyone’s going to adjust differently to working from home and the difference in individual workers’ openness can affect how much you trust them to work. Be conscious that some employees are going to stay out of your way, while others might over-communicate, which will imbalance how you perceive the work they’re putting in. This is a great time to check that perception against their outputs, to see if in fact, they are both producing equally great outputs.

Building trust while managing workers remotely, then, is a matter of building regular, structured communication, while remaining aware that different people work differently. If you can appreciate what’s coming out, instead of being hung up over what you know is going in, your team will be able to operate as efficiently as if they were still in office.

Clarity is key

Are you clear about your team’s purpose and objectives? Is your team clear about them? My experience studying and challenging workplace behaviour suggests that most teams don’t have clarity about their purpose, or how their purpose relates to the big picture: in this new world of remote working, that’s a real issue for managers.

The proportion of clarity that we gain from daily interpersonal interactions should not be underestimated. These small moments that happen in passing through the day, at the start of meetings, or in corridor conversations underpin how we understand the world. In the office, even if you have rigorous project plans in place, staff will get more actionable information about what’s needed in their day-to-day work during informal conversations by the coffee machine, than from the formalised communication channels.

As you start — or increase the amount of — remote working, have regular sessions with everybody, to make sure everyone’s comfortable asking for guidance when necessary. Otherwise, you won’t really be managing a team, but a group of individuals who can only hope they’re doing the right thing. To start, meet more frequently than you think you need, then back off as the team becomes comfortable with the new ways of working.

After a few days of remote work, stop and think to yourself: “How am I finding all of this? What questions might my team have about our situation?” Use that reflection as a platform to get in line with your people — identify issues they might be having and offer solutions from the get-go, instead of putting them on the spot (where they may feel they have to respond with “Doing great, thanks!”).

Organise online social time for everyone to catch up on personal matters. Give time in work-related calls for people to have a relaxed chat (a perfect time to show off your pet or favourite mug).

What experience shows me, time and time again, is that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate when teams start working remotely. Don’t just assume that something like a WhatsApp group will totally solve the issue. Chat groups and emails hide emotion and anxiety, making it harder to know when you need to intervene as a manager. Video calls are a great way of maintaining clarity in your team, especially while you can’t meet in person, as you can still pick up on physical clues such as body language. Even conference calls will give you a sense of how people are coping since during the call you can gauge not just what is said, but how things are being said by different team members.

As we move forward into uncertain times for the shape of the workplace, put extra effort into maintaining clarity when managing remote workers. Give your team discrete and clear guidance of what’s required from them and keep them up-to-date with what’s happening in the rest of the team and the company. By doing so, you can significantly ease the challenges of managing remotely.

What is psychological safety and why is it important?

Psychological Saftey has become popular in business thinking, but what is it and is it just another fad, or something that adds real value to teams and businesses?
Ricky asks Paul to explain it and they dig into why psychological safety has such a big impact on performance.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.

What is the power of a goal?

Business coaches and trainers recommend goals, but why? What special power does a goal have that makes it worth taking time and effort to define.

Ricky asks Rob to explain why goals are powerful and how they impact our attention when done correctly.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.