The Martini Diaries – Episode 15

March 25 – June 15 2020.

Welcome back to the Martini Diaries – as we enter the 12th week of lock-down in the UK I am beginning my plans to return to my office in London later this month. I felt it was time for a short period of reflection before we begin to share together the continuation of my life and travels as a CEO of a global non-profit organisation.

What have I learnt about leadership over these 11 weeks of being confined to barracks away from my team?

With my team of 10 dispersed back to their London homes or, like me, out into the wider country, we had to quickly adapt to a new order of operating. We had recently invested before the lock-down in Go-To-Meeting as a platform for our work, but it would be fair to say hardly anyone had used it, as remote working was not something we considered as essential (apart from the occasional ‘Work From Day – WFH). As we locked the office door and dispersed, the Team also decided to set up a WhatsApp group for routine discussions and quick problem solving.

Overall, the WFH has been a success. The team adapted very quickly, very few mistakes have been made, but we have all had to accept that WFH remoteness does lead to slower decisions, and a drop in collective creativity.

From my perspective now as the CEO, looking back at my many notes, the following is a short list of leadership activities which, I believe, have been helpful over this period:

1. Set Clear Expectations

Everyone has a different idea of what doing something efficiently, effectively or well means. Not being able to quickly see someone in the office to set out expectations meant more time was needed online/virtually to make sure I had set clear expectations from the team working remotely online.

2. Give Access to Everyone

My wonderful Executive Assistant suggested we continue to have her organise all the appointments in my diary. This enabled us to give the team as much access to me as possible through her management of the diary and my time – she set up the Go-To-Meeting or the telephone calls. I found it difficult in the first few weeks to accept/understand that I would not be seeing the team in the corridors, eating with them at lunch, or having them stop by my office, etc. where we solved so many problems and kept in touch. The ability to communicate through telephone calls, emails, WhatsApp, text, video conference made all the difference.

3. Engage Regularly

Quite early on the use of video conference lost its appeal. Several people, my self included, felt it was an invasion of our homes. The use of multiple channels to communicate then became important – as well as instilling some sense of variety. We planned regular scheduled face-to-face video and telephone meetings as a Team, small groups, and as one-to-one. We also used a virtual coffee-break once a week – a video conference where no work was discussed – quizzes became very popular, especially as our ability to share screens on video conferencing improved. This continual interaction and engagement helped cohesion.

4. Be Honest

After a few weeks of lockdown, just after Easter, I felt I needed a break. I have though to disagree with the general advice for WFH is to find a place in your home and declare it as ‘your office’. When you are at that designated place you are at work – effectively suggesting you can switch on and off just by moving from a particular table or desk. I personally found being in the same place every day drove me mad – I needed variety.

As such, after 3 weeks of WFH I needed a break from endlessly staring at the screen, at the same wall, and being on video conferences 4 to 6 hours a day. I therefore took a week off – I couldn’t travel anywhere, so used the time at home to read, exercise, tidy up, think. I confessed to the team the following week upon my return how I had ‘hit the wall’ and needed a break. I felt much better for the break, the creative buzz came back. Many of the team followed suit in the weeks that followed. Best to be honest about the challenges.

The ‘office’

5. Stay Focused On Objectives

It is important to manage expectations and stay focused on objectives when in a remote working situation. I found I needed to stop worrying as much about what was being done. Instead, I focused on what was being achieved. The inability to personally supervise a situation required a new level of trust to evolve – it became about accomplishment, not activity.

6. Record the Context

In the office setting there are a lot of informal meetings and office discussions that take place where information is exchanged – being remote to each other meant the context of what had happened or why a decision was made was often lost. My decision was to document everything. Out came the Journal and fountain pen to record all thoughts and to capture updates at the beginning and end of each day. Emails became a little more expansive. Transcripts from Video Conferences were circulated where required.

On a more personal level I have enjoyed waves of enthusiasm for reading, and have consumed many books ranging from classic fiction (Ian Fleming’s James Bond), through comedy (P.G. Wodehouse), history, biographies, spy thrillers from the Spanish Civil War and the fascinating ‘Men and Style’ by the talented writer David Coggins.

My ‘box set’ consumption has included Killing Eve, Cheers, Queer Eye, Lord Peter Wimsey, 39 Days, Brideshead Revisited, all the classic Bond films, Churchill: The Wilderness Years and of course hours of Jeeves and Wooster.

Locked away in the country, closely following the social distancing guidance, I miss the constant movement, such a feature of my life, with the trains, taxis, airports, aeroplanes, restaurants, bars, pubs, my London Club, hotels all providing a vital stimulus to creativity and reflective thought. Above all I miss the personal interaction, the inherent social part of us that craves human contact. The opposite though is I have been able to spend every day for 12 weeks with my wonderful wife – such an experience has not happened to us for at least 6 years!

Hopefully it will soon be over, a sense of proportion will return, and managing risk will be remembered as the traditional way we lived our lives!

If I may be allowed to paraphrase Timothy Findley writing in ‘Famous Last Words’, ‘A lockdown is just a place where we have been in exile from our better dreams’.

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