SOLITARY GRIND: Recent studies show that telework can expose employees to psychosocial risks such as feelings of isolation, lack of support, stress and overwork. (Getty Images)
U.S. Army telework is here to stay, which means supervisors need to update leadership skills.
by Timothy James Keilty and John Z. “Jack” Burke
In terms of everyday life, 2020 was a transformative year for the world. How we interact, socialize, do business—no facet of life was untouched by COVID-19. The Army, and in particular the acquisition workforce, was no exception. It forced us to change the way we conducted everyday business. No longer were we permitted to come to work five days a week, conduct in person meetings and do business as usual, yet the mission never stopped. As a result, we were required to rapidly transition from the old ways to new ways, and evolve with the latest guidance and best business practices.
Before March 2020, if you heard the word “zoom,” you just assumed a nearby child was playing with a toy racecar—now, when you hear it, you’re ready for work. Whether you’re in favor of telework, entirely against it or still on the fence, it’s difficult to argue against the benefits of it. Equally, telework brings inherent challenges in communication, leadership, accountability and organizational culture. One thing is clear, telework is here to stay—and there are best practices that leaders can take into account to efficiently lead in a remote environment.
Like many other organizations, DOD did not have the luxury of hiring a change consultant to observe, formulate and recommend a change plan over time. Instead, it was thrown into the fire by the pandemic.
Creating organizational change is a process that can take months, if not years. There is no short supply of change models, but one of the most well-known models is Kotter’s Eight-Step Change Model, seen in Figure 1. Kotter designed a systematic plan to change an organization over time—not overnight. The pandemic handled Step One—create a sense of urgency. However, DOD did not have time to complete Steps Two through Four—forming a powerful coalition, creating a vision for change and communicating that vision. Instead, DOD jumped from Step One to Steps Five and Six: Remove obstacles and create short-term wins.
Initial challenges were easy to identify—network connection, not enough equipment and lack of meeting space were all part of the initial problem set. These hurdles the Army was able to overcome relatively quickly (once we had Microsoft Teams) and acquire the requisite hardware. Other challenges have been cultural acceptance and leader adaptation. These challenges include how people communicate effectively and lead and build a team in a virtual environment—and were not so easily overcome. To be honest, we’re still working on it and probably will be for some time. (Learn more about Kotter’s theory in “Change Agent” from Army AL&T’s Spring 2019 edition.)
COMMUNICATION IN TELEWORK
There is an argument that the most fruitful conversations happen before and after a scheduled meeting—the so-called “meeting before the meeting.” We’ve all been there; everyone gets to the conference room 15 to 20 minutes early before the boss walks in, and that’s when the real conversation (meeting) occurs. Then the meeting happens, and then the “meeting after the meeting” takes place to identify additional tasks or adjustments needed. If these pre- and post-meetings don’t happen, could an organization become inefficient and lose critical information?
Constant communication is the heartbeat of an organization. When you’re all in the office, it’s easy to poke your head into someone’s cubicle or office to chat, but when separated, the level of drop-off in communications is significant. In a telework environment, that issue can be further exacerbated. Email is stale, old and inefficient because it does not happen at the real-time speed of a conversation. One of the tools in Microsoft Teams that DOD may be underutilizing is the chat function. The chat, group chat and file-sharing functions of Microsoft Teams provide the means to keep the conversation alive in a telework environment. It is how people get real-time updates; more importantly, you keep the entire team in the conversation. It is how you poke your head into someone’s cubicle in a telework environment.
If you doubt that instant messaging is more productive than email, ask Wall Street. From the early 2000s, one of the main forms of communication was AOL Instant Messaging (AIM). Yes, the same platform that teenagers used to communicate in the late 1990s was how a large part of the financial sector of America communicated. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, it was the primary form of communication for the financial center until the AIM platform shut down in 2017.
LEADERSHIP IN TELEWORK
How does a leader lead in a telework environment? This is a valid question that supervisors have been trying to answer since March 2020. There is no one-size-fits-all option, but rather it is situational.
Peter Northouse’s situational leadership theory is composed of both directive and supportive dimensions of leadership. Leaders must appropriately judge a situation on how to lead their team. There are four leadership styles within situational leadership theory: delegating, supporting, coaching and directing. Leaders need to assess what their organizational goals are, understand their team members’ personalities and skill sets, and then choose the most effective leadership style. For example, a competent engineer who has been on the team for 10 years may receive a delegating style of leadership and can telework five days a week. Conversely, an eager entry-level member just out of college trying to prove themselves may receive a directing or coaching style of leadership, and should only telework two days a week.
Equally as important as choosing the right leadership style during telework, leaders must continue to support their team. One undesirable aspect brought to light during the telework era has been the increase of mental health issues in the workforce. Many are naturally social beings who enjoy interaction and communication. Recent studies show that telework can expose employees to psychosocial risks such as feelings of isolation, lack of support, stress and overwork. These reasons underscore the importance for supervisors of routinely checking in with their team. This will vary from team to team and must be continually reassessed.
Leaders should review these five tips for effectively leading a team in a remote environment from CompuVision, an IT management support services and consulting firm:
- Video conference—ensure cameras are turned on.
- Connect often—check in with team members and allow for quick interactions to review key tasks or milestones.
- Chat first, email second—chats are quick and effective, and don’t experience the same delays as email.
- Listen—use one-on-one time with employees to understand their unique situation. Check in and ask questions.
- Profile pictures—employees should maintain professional profile pictures to help other recognize them when they have to meet in person.
The world we live in has changed and we must adapt. Telework benefits organizations and individuals, but it does not come without challenges. Now, more than ever, leaders must be effective communicators using new technology platforms like Microsoft Teams. Leaders need to understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all telework policy. Knowing their team members provides invaluable feedback on how they should exercise situational leadership. Telework is here to stay; let us learn how to do it well.
MAJ. TIM KEILTY is currently an assistant product manager within Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. He holds a B.S. from The United States Military Academy and a Masters of Arts in organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.
MAJ. JOHN Z. “JACK” BURKE is currently an assistant product manager within Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He holds a B.A. in political science and a Master of Business Administration, both from California State University San Marcos.