Like most companies, ours has moved to a work-from-home model. It was the right thing to do. For our employees and their families, for our customers who rely on us, and for the communities in which we live and work. But, as much as the prospect of 100% remote work felt like a moral no-brainer, the prospect of this new operating reality carried uncertainty for many leaders. Me included.
Thoughts that ran through my mind:
At a time like this, my team needs to be closer than ever, not further apart.
We need to be creative – especially right now. How’s that going to work?
I need to be there for my team, and instead I’m going to be completely isolated.
So many of our great ideas come from casual conversation. Is this gone now?
Collaboration is more important than ever. Isn’t distance going to create siloes?
Like many leaders, the prospect of pivoting to remote work, in the middle of a health crisis when creativity and collaboration and communication are critical, weighed on me. Sure, we’ve had a flexible work culture for many years now. Our company was certainly more prepared than most. But still, the idea of moving entirely virtual, in a moment where our teams and customers need leadership and creative thinking, concerned me.
What I discovered this past week – what so many leaders discovered – was that the exact opposite is true. Not only did the distance not dampen creativity and closeness and collaboration, it heightened them.
As a leader, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as close to a team as I have this week. And as a team, we rallied and innovated and communicated. Not worse than before, but better.
Here’s what I experienced:
A deeper sharing of life and work with my team. We learned more about each other as humans. We learned and laughed about our collective quirks. Furniture and artwork choices were a hot topic. It didn’t feel intrusive or stressful, it felt invigorating and therapeutic.
Stronger empathy through deeper understanding. The lives and families of team members ceased to be abstract concepts. Children, partners and pets were right there on screen, a lot of the time. It wasn’t disruptive or embarrassing, it was wonderful and fun. And there has been a deeper level of personal connection. Team members are asking, “how are you feeling?” and “how is your family?” We’re taking the time to check in on each other in a way too easily forgotten in the past. My hope is this will persist long after this crisis is over.
The absence of formality. Amidst all the stress and pressure of the week, there was also levity. Seeing our team members in ball caps and hoodies, sitting on sofas and stationary bikes, was uplifting. It was disarming. It allowed creativity to flow, barriers to fall, hierarchies to flatten.
A broader spectrum of ideation. With everyone working remotely, the nature of our meetings changed. Operating in a virtual capacity inspires a certain creative democracy. I saw ideas coming from unlikely sources, debate happening across levels and functions and locations. A broader base for our creativity.
Engagement with new people and groups. I probably engaged with more new people this past week than I have in years. No appointments needed. Just lots of pings, messages and texts, from all kinds of people across the company and around the world. My perspective expanded and my experience was enriched.
Like most leaders, I’ve been intensely focused on supporting my team and our customers through these unprecedented circumstances. And at a time when our creativity and collaboration and communication were needed most, I worried that distance could hurt us. What I’ve discovered, in a matter of days, is there is power to be found in this distance. It doesn’t have to be another unwanted headwind – it can help. It can unlock creativity. It can break down boundaries, flatten hierarchies, strengthen relationships, and engage a broader group of voices. And for as long as this crisis continues, and after it’s long over, I’ll continue to look for ways to harness the power of distance.