One of 2020’s Greatest Challenges to Executive Teams? Isolation.

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Despite the tremendous challenges of 2020, many corporations and their executive teams have managed to perform well as remote workforces. This shows the resilience, creativity and commitment of so many leaders who have figured out how to navigate the challenges of working in new ways.

However, after more than eight months of working virtually, some executive teams are starting to show frayed edges and fatigue. It’s hard enough to achieve high performance consistently in normal conditions, and the isolation that senior teams face during the pandemic creates a particularly intense set of challenges:

  1. Isolation from each other. Part of what normally makes executive teams “gel” is their informal social time together. Casual banter and real-time conversations build trust more organically and can strengthen the team’s ability to collaborate, plan and make decisions. It’s also easier to deal with differing opinions when interacting face-to-face, so conflict avoidance is now a bigger risk in remote settings. As executive teams rely on communicating through the more limited means of phone and video, trust can be degraded by the lack of interpersonal interaction. It’s technically and emotionally more challenging when we work together yet apart for sustained periods of time.
  2. Isolation from their own teams. Executives also are dealing with fewer means of interacting with their own teams, unable to use their personal presence to inspire and align their own direct reports and the employees who work for them. Recent research from ADP on resilience shows that employees’ resilience is largely impacted by their trust in their team leader and trust in the senior executives. Without the ability to leverage personal interactions such as all-hands meetings and small group chats, executives have to work that much harder to build and maintain trust with their teams. Executives who are out of sight might also risk being out of mind.
  3. Isolation from stability. Uncertainty has become one of the primary challenges executive teams face in this hyper-dynamic year of 2020. Drastic fluctuations in business conditions and priorities, along with significant societal shifts, have dramatically disrupted the workplace in 2020. Dealing with this heightened uncertainty, remote executive teams are being tested in ways they’ve never been tested before.

How are the most resilient and effective executive teams navigating this tough set of isolation challenges? We see the top teams using these methods:

The CEO as superglue. The best CEOs are going above and beyond to build collaboration and connection. Creative CEOs are finding new ways to bind together their top teams into tight decision-making units, despite the physical separation and swirling conditions around them. For example, leading CEOs are over-indexing on expressing appreciation for their leaders’ tenacity, leaning in with leaders of struggling business units and communicating far more often with both their teams and with their workforces. One health care organization CEO has pivoted from a quarterly workforce email message pre-Covid to sending one daily. The positive response has been tremendous. The Chief Administrative Officer says, “Our employees rely more on our CEO updates than they do on the daily news. He’s brought us together in a way we’ve never been before.”

Innovation to battle isolation. There are numerous examples of ways executive teams are countering the challenges of remote work to fuel the team. One example is an ad agency working on a campaign for a new pizza delivery company. Just before a team meeting, the lead executive arranged for the client’s pizzas to be delivered to every team member’s home. While on Zoom to create the ad campaign, each team member enjoyed a personal pizza while working together. “We felt like a more bonded group, together experiencing the product while we worked on how to promote it,” one team member stated. They used a physical touchpoint to counterbalance the isolation of a virtual interactions.

Revising team norms for the new normal. High performing executive teams have always been good at calling out and agreeing to how they’ll work together to achieve success. For example, how are decisions made? Is constructive debate encouraged? What is appropriate if a contrary point of view arises in the group? How to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future? Now the question is how to maintain an open and strategic discussion when collaborating remotely. Teams who’ve adapted to the shifts in 2020 have been intentional about defining new norms. For example, some executive teams now have a weekly walking meeting: each executive dials in while walking in their own place of preference. “Our levels of innovative thinking go way up when we walk and talk,” one executive shared. “We remove the confines of Zoom and get people out into a natural setting.” Others are moving to more frequent and shorter meetings to better match the rhythms of remote work.

Follow Churchill’s advice. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” was one of Winston Churchill’s famous pearls of wisdom. Similarly, top senior teams are looking for ways to capitalize on the current situation, either to learn, to strengthen, or to find new market opportunities. Look no further than retail companies who have ramped up their digital strategies in creative and dramatic ways in order to thrive in current conditions. There are countless examples of companies that have successfully adapted and pivoted to thrive in the dramatically different conditions of 2020.

It’s clear that we still have significant time ahead of us in which executive teams need to operate virtually. The best senior teams are finding ways to collaborate, innovate and thrive in these conditions, even while acknowledging that they look forward to more in-person time as the situation permits. But rather than waiting for things to return to “normal,” executive teams that directly address the challenges of isolation and virtual work are developing the resiliency to effectively operate in whatever conditions may arise.