How do we reset targets for this year?

2020 is probably not working out quite as you had planned, that is certainly the case for us at Thinking Focus. If we carry on with our plans as if nothing has happened, then risk running out of steam chasing impossible targets.

When things go off track, you need to reset the targets and expectations, moving the focus to achievable yet ambitious goals that start moving back in the right direction.

Richard and Ricky explore how you can quickly reset the goals, help the people around you let go of the past and embrace the new challenges in front of you.

What if my team don’t come back from holiday raring to go?

This year the summer break could not come quick enough, work has been hard this year and most of us needed a break. We hope that the people in our teams can take some time to recharge and come back ‘raring to go’.

But what if they don’t? What if, this year, teams find themselves heading into the last quarter drained and apathetic?

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Is the pandemic an excuse to put things off?

The pandemic makes working life really difficult for many people, making even the simplest of decisions far more complex. However, it is also an easy excuse to put off the things that we don’t want to tackle. It enables us to create an argument that these things need to be parked until we return to normal, but that could be a long way off; can these issues really wait.

Ricky gets Paul to explain why we do this, and what strategies can support us to take action now, even if it does make us feel uncomfortable.

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

How can I get back out of the detail?

The vast amount of change that has been thrust upon us with COVID-19 has caused most leaders to have to grab control of the day to day to make sure that the business can ride the storm.

In this podcast, Ricky talks to Paul about the dangers of getting stuck in this detail for too long, and how you can recognise and do something about that when it happens to you.

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.

What is all this uncertainty doing to my team?

We are dealing with high levels of uncertainty right now, possibly the most uncertainty that most of us have or will ever experience. What impact is that having on our lives, and particularly our working lives?

In this podcast, Richard talks to Paul about how we react to uncertainty, and some of the things we can do to help us work through these times of rapid change, both for ourselves and the people that we manage or lead.

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.

What makes clarity so important when managing remotely?

Remote working might be part of the new normal going forward, but if you are not co-located with the people you work with, it is easy to get out of step with the team and the priorities.

Rob gets Ricky to explain why the work you do as a manager to create clarity takes is more significant when the team is remote.

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.

Working from home is, for some, a great adventure, for others an absolute hell. Either way it looks like it is going to be our future.

Why do we all respond so differently?

There has been a lot of material over the last few months providing tips on working from home, you have probably already read some of them.  Mostly the advice is practical, sensible, and heavily grounded in the tricks and techniques that many people who are already home workers are well versed in, but it misses the point.  A lot of the people currently having to work from home are not the kind of people who would typically work from home.  For some of us this ‘best practice’ might be useful and a healthy approach, but the assumption that there is a right way of doing things can be the very thing that is causing stress.  I have worked from home on and off for most of my working career.  I don’t do half the things that are being advised, they are just not me.  However, I am no longer the only home worker in my house, and this has allowed me to see the areas where the right answer for each of us is very different.

To maintain the best mental health when working from home, the golden rule is ‘do what works for you’.  If the suggestions help, then go for it, if they don’t, feel free to let them go.  The thing is, we are all different and we all think, work and react differently.  Trying to force your working style into the routine that someone else believes in the correct one will at best be hard work, but it could easily be chipping away at your resilience, mood and overall mental wellbeing.  Regardless of how you work, you will always be more productive by being you than spending energy conforming to so-called ‘best practice’. 

This is also something that we need to consider as managers.  Recognising that the way we want to work will not be the best way for some of our team, so we need to decide if we are interested in getting the best out of people, or making them conform.  This will mean letting go of some of the beliefs that you may hold about work.  For instance, does it matter if a member of your team starts early in the morning, but takes an extended lunch break just to get out of the house for a while?  There are two questions I find myself asking; “is the work getting done?” and “are the team OK?”.  The priority as a manager is to find a balance between these two, which means that if getting the work done requires more flexibility in working style to maintain the team wellbeing, then that is something I need to promote and support.

One of the ways that psychologists think about how we are different is by using the model known as the big five personality traits.  It offers an interesting way to think about the range of individual differences, and how we will each be impacted differently as we settle in to working from home. These are explored below.

Openness to experience – Some of us are very open to new things and will see working from home as a bit of an adventure.  If you are working with someone with a high in openness to experience you can expect them to be finding new ways that you can work together; this might come across as a stream of websites,  software or tools that they want to try with the team.  In moderation this can be really useful as they will find solutions to the challenges of working in a different way.  However, you may need to slow them down, as those who are much lower on the openness scale will find the volume of change created by home-working challenging enough without these additional new ideas.

Conscientiousness – Some people like the world to be formalised and ordered, others like the world to be flexible and spontaneous.  For those who are high in conscientiousness, the moving of deadlines and changes in targets that might be necessary to facilitate home working will need to be carefully communicated, and if possible locked down quickly, while those low in conscientiousness will look to keep things more open, creating as much flexibility as possible, just in case things change even more.  The key will be to find a balance between creating a new routine, yet not locking things down so tightly that your team cannot respond as the world changes around us.  One of the classic bits of advice often given to home workers is always dress smartly for work.  If you are high in conscientiousness you might find this really helpful, formalising the work part of the day, if you are low (like me) then remember nobody needs to know you are wearing shorts on a video conference – although do wear something, just in case you have to stand up to fetch something!

Extraversion – So, you don’t need to study psychology to work out that some people in the team are loud and outgoing while others are much more quiet and reserved.  The extraversion scale is looking at this difference in how we relate to the world, with extraverts looking to the outside world for their energy, while introverts look inside themself to recharge.  Homeworking can be really draining for extraverts, who are not getting the ‘fix’ of people to ‘top-up’ the batteries.  Even video calls are going to be like a slow charger compared to what they are used to.  This can cause the extraverts to become drained very quickly when working on challenging things as they cannot recharge quickly.  Introverts need time and space to recharge.  It is not that they don’t like spending time with people, just the time needs to be more intimate, and they prefer group sizes to be smaller.  While homeworking might suit introverts as they are being left alone to get on with their work, there is a risk here too.  Some introverts will so enjoy the working style that they withdraw too far from the group, not really joining in with group calls, or working on other things when the conversation seems like banter.  They can easily find themselves left behind by the rest of the team as the world rapidly changes. 

Agreeableness – Agreeableness is a measure of your preference for social harmony, people who are high in agreeableness like it when people are getting along, whereas those who are low on this scale will place their own self-interest over that of the group.  Having to communicate by video call makes it much harder than usual to have difficult conversations, without them becoming arguments.  If you are highly agreeable, this may be causing you to maintain social cohesion at your own expense, which may generate some resentfulness and frustration.  Low agreeableness might cause you not to see where you need to concede to allow the group to move forward, damaging working relationships unnecessarily.  Watch out for situations where you push forward too quickly in the desire to get things done, when others just needed a little more time to get their heads around it.

Neuroticism – Some people are more emotionally stable than others.  While everyone will react emotionally to things that happen, some of us process these events much more negatively, and this is what the neuroticism personality measure is looking at.  People who are high in neuroticism may find that they are unsettled at the moment, worrying about the future, their security or their family.  They may take work things more personally than they used to, and the lack of interaction with the team may mean that it takes a lot longer for misunderstandings to get resolved.  This may also play out in other areas of their life, so lockdown frustrations at home may spill over into work, and work into home, particularly as the boundaries between these is so blurred.  People who are low in neuroticism are probably less concerned about what is happening, which may also mean they are less stressed, which is good.  That said, while worrying all the time is a bad thing, small amounts of anxiety can be a great warning signal that we need to focus on an upcoming threat, which means that low neuroticism may cause people to be complacent during times of rapid change, like now.

Of course, these personality traits are not simple binary choices, they are spectrums, and very few of us sit at either end of the spectrum, most are somewhere in the middle.  The key is recognising that we are all slightly different, and therefore need to find a balance that works for us in new situations (such as remote working).   If you are in the position that many of us right now find ourselves in, finding it difficult to separate out work and home life as the boundaries blur into one, then think about your personality and what you need to do to make it work for you.  This might be breaking up your schedule from the usual work 9-5, or creating better work and home boundaries, such as designating a space for work, or dressing for work and then getting changed at the end of the day.  Mostly though, accept that right now things are different, and you probably won’t get it entirely right all of the time. Be kind to yourself, and those that you work with, as we all try to find a balance for this new way of working. It would also be nice if our acceptance of each other’s different styles became part of the new normal.


Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash

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

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