At the office, many people can fade into the furniture. Even though they may be hungry to learn, they can end up being carried by other employees. In many ways, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to your team members; it is an invitation to rise to the occasion. Working from home is a unique opportunity to grow as both an employee and as a leader.
I am sure many of us know what it is like to have an overbearing boss.
We all remember our first. We were nervy young adults, desperate to impress. They were older, always a little bit angry and drunk on their perceived authority. In retrospect, it seems amazing that we were able to learn anything at all! How could we have been expected to develop as employees when we were being micromanaged by someone more concerned with exercising their power than improving the business?
Many of us have crafted our leadership personalities to be the antithesis of the horrible managers and executives we have come across throughout our careers. We ensure that we are open and generous towards our team members, always willing to contribute where they request our assistance.
However, sometimes our desire to be helpful leaders can have an insidious, detrimental effect. How many times have you started out with the intention to help a team member, only for you to end up doing the work for that person? You give them such a big leg up that they do not need to perform any of the substantial work themselves.
A 2018 survey from Leadership IQ illustrates the extent of this issue. Only 42% of employees who responded said they are frequently learning on the job. Another 39% say they never learn. Clearly, executives are allowing too many employees to slip into the background of our offices. They never need to learn because the imperative is not there; their leaders and colleagues are so helpful that they can get away with having gaps in their knowledge.
While we must acknowledge that this points to a healthy, collegial workplace culture, leaders should be concerned that a whole generation of employees are drifting through their organisation without cultivating the necessary abilities to take on positions of seniority as they get older.
If there is one benefit we can draw from the Coronavirus crisis, it is that it poses an opportunity to empower these team members.
Aaron De Smet, Caitlin Hewes and Leigh Weiss, writing for McKinsey, note that “stepping outside of the safety provided by the ‘cover’ of an accountable manager is challenging for employees.” In other words, people develop and learn when they feel that they do not have a manager to fall back on if they fail to perform.
Working from home during COVID-19 creates an independent environment that is conducive to employee empowerment. The tasks you delegate must be performed by the employees who receive the order because there is no one else around them to assist. Naturally, we make less contact with our colleagues when we are working from home. When employees run into problems, or gaps in their knowledge, they will have to draw on their own problem-solving capacities to remedy the issue. It is this process of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being shown’ that sparks the learning process.
When you are teaching someone how to do their times tables, you do not give them a calculator; otherwise, the learning outcome you are attempting to achieve is undermined. Isolating your employees, in a way, means removing their workplace calculators.
Despite this, executives be warned: empowering employees does not mean completely removing workplace safety nets and support networks. As noted in the McKinsey article mentioned above, “genuine empowerment requires leaders to be involved… to coach and mentor, to guide [and] to inspire.”
During the COVID-19 isolation period, executives must resolve on a balance between distance and delegation. By this, I mean that they need to trust their employees to learn new things on the job while facilitating highly involved interactions so that they do not feel alienated. This will establish an ideal learning environment; employees will be able to face their obligations head on while still feeling supported by their superiors.
A leader does more than picking up the slack. They are selected for their position with a view to mentoring the next generation of employees. It is time to take off the training wheels. Learning requires independence. If there is one positive to come out of Coronavirus, it is that employees finally have a chance to forge capacities that they can avoid while working at the office.
In this sense, remote leadership is conducive to employee empowerment.