Leadership: How to Navigate New Work Environments

Marilyn Zakhour-CEO of Cosmic Centaurs

The impact of COVID 19 on the way we work.

Marilyn Zakhour, Founder and CEO of newly founded establishment in Dubai, Cosmic Centaurs, explains her tips and tricks on how leaders can navigate remote work forces and continue to motivate their teams with little to no physical presence.

Is remote working the future? Read Zakhour’s insider take below.

About Cosmic Centaurs

Cosmic Centaurs a company that helps leaders and organizations adapt to the new ways of work in the emerging post-pandemic world. For executives who are looking for thinking partners, companies permanently shifting to flexible work models, and teams adjusting to remote-friendly ways of working, Cosmic Centaurs offers consulting, training, insights, and technology recommendations to enable collaboration, resilience, and innovation.

1. How did you get into the business of training executives?

Having both been an executive and supported seasoned executives, I knew that dreaming up the future of work and helping organizations build it would have to start by shaping the mindsets of leaders.

From running a global digital agency to working for the Chairman of EMAAR, to becoming the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, to teaching Business Strategy and Design Thinking at universities in Lebanon, I have worn (and still wear) many hats. But if I had to say there was one constant throughout it all, it is that I have always been passionate about bringing people together to help them execute on a shared vision.

Last March the Dubai Opera suspended its operations and as the CEO, I was too expensive to keep around as the world went into lockdowns. So, I decided to make the part of work that I was most passionate about my full-time job: helping teams collaborate, create, and innovate.

While I believe that delivering on the mission of the company is everyone’s job, there is no denying that the beating of the drum starts with the leadership. They are the ones who determine and live out the “why” of organizations and no meaningful change can occur if executives aren’t willing to sponsor it.

2. How has your business been affected by the pandemic?

It might sound crazy, but I actually founded Cosmic Centaurs in April 2020 in the early days of the global pandemic. According to the Kaufman Foundation, 50% of Fortune 500 companies were created during economic downturns. This data point keeps us optimistic, but it is our growth and the feedback from clients that keeps us going. Today, we’re fortunate to be able to help leaders and organizations globally adapt to flexible work models. The pandemic has left many executives and managers questioning how they will make distributed work a more permanent policy within their organization. It’s a very interesting time to be doing what we are doing.

3. It is unavoidable that the effects of the pandemic will be felt for many years; how can companies adapt to ever changing working habits?

To be resilient is to be prepared to navigate change; the only constant of our world (other than death and taxes) is that it is in constant motion. Flexible work models (including flexible supply chains) are one way organizations can become more resilient, allowing units, teams, and individuals to add value from wherever they are.

We are experiencing a prolonged crisis and it is a unique time for companies to think about how they can better prepare themselves for whatever might come next.

On the business side it means keeping an ear out to the changes in their industry (consumers, innovation, competition, legal context, etc.) and funding projects and initiatives that can take advantage of these changes. I recently watched a documentary about a company called General Magic. Now that’s a name! General Magic was an Apple subsidiary that was founded by John Sculley when he was CEO (after Steve Jobs had been ousted and before he was begged to come back). General Magic employed the smartest Apple engineers, and they were working on what you would now identify as an iPhone: touch screens, apps, emojis, all the works. They were funded by Sony, Motorola, Matsushita, Philips, and AT&T Corporation. Some of their employees went on to be the creator of the iPod, the founder of eBay, the creator of Android, the CTO of Twitter, and the list goes on. The team was so internally focused, prioritizing building their product using a private network to satisfy their investors that they missed the internet. THE INTERNET! Don’t be that company.

On the organizational side it means taking the time to think about what flexibility means for your industry, specific context, and unique culture. Don’t be satisfied with copying the models that have been announced by some of the larger organizations and tech firms. They don’t know any more than you do about how the world will look in two years. Reconnect with the reason your company exists and rebuild your work model from the ground up. And if you need help you can always call us!

4. Do you think that working from home is a temporary trend or is it here to stay even after the pandemic is over? Which companies are implanting successful work from home policies?

I don’t think distributed work is or has been a ‘trend.’ It is a work model that has existed for decades and has become increasingly prevalent as a result of advances in technology, a globalized world and the need to access the right talent. Distributed work has now been accelerated by the global pandemic and recently, Gartner found that 82% of company leaders say their organizations plan to permit employees to work remotely at least part of the time even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, the early adopters of remote-only models such as GitLab or Atlassian have been doing it for years. While it’s true, more and more companies are following suit, we are seeing how each organization integrates flexible work models based on their work and their culture. Recently Spotify announced its work from anywhere policy’ and regionally Careem announced it would be ‘remote-first’ late last year. We don’t yet know what the outcomes of those decisions will be. The devil -as always- is in the details. Does working remotely mean working from anywhere? What kind of support will distributed team members receive? Will they still be positive about their setup 6 months or a year later? Will they continue to feel valued compared to the colleagues that go back to the office?  Will productivity increase? Will new talent be on boarded as easily? The list goes on.

What is important is for leaders to evaluate how their company can learn from organizations that have adopted more flexible work models rather than copying those models. Use these case studies to create a laundry list of everything you should consider, from benefits to organizational design, then look at how those areas should be revisited in your own organization.

Man working on laptop

"While I believe that delivering on the mission of the company is everyone’s job, there is no denying that the beating of the drum starts with the leadership."

5. If people are working from home, how can managers ensure that they still have a motivated workforce?

Ask them. Most humans are actually quite terrible at getting a real sense of their environment without data. There is no better way to measure your team’s motivation and come up with ways to re-energize them than to have a simple conversation with the team, as individuals or as a group about what is getting in their way. A 2020 study by Enboarder shows that 68% of employees said their manager hadn’t asked how they were feeling during COVID-19 – despite 75% of managers who felt confident they understood how their teams feel. It’s an alarming data point with a relatively easy solution: Simply put, managers should ask their teams: “How are you feeling and how can I help?”

6. How can managers keep employees accountable if they are not in the office environment?

Trust. Managers who trust their teams to get the work done will not question the need to physically ‘see’ their employees. In distributed teams, we go from “seeing the face” to “seeing the work” which requires new ways of dividing and integrating work, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. Set clear expectations, share your own goals with the team in a transparent manner, review and adjust your collective goals often, and let the team hold themselves and each other accountable for the outcomes. On a more practical level, daily stand-ups, shared documentation, and great task management tools allow for transparent accountability and information-sharing.

7. How can employees avoid “overworking” themselves trying to prove their efforts from afar? Tips for healthy strategies?  

A 2020 study demonstrated that most employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic have been overworking. US workers are working an extra three hours a day on average, and employees in France, the UK and Canada an additional two.

As with every disease, you first need to diagnose the underlying cause.

Individuals ‘panic working’ for fear that they may lose their jobs can be the result of team or company culture. Leaders and organizations should strive to create a sense of psychological safety, which is achieved when teams know they can take risks, make mistakes, speak openly or suggest new ideas without being afraid of the repercussions. This type of environment creates mutual trust between employees and their leaders, reducing the likelihood of these employees overworking to try and ‘prove themselves’. If you’re in an environment where you constantly find yourself panic working, the best advice I can give you is to find a new job. It’s likely that the team you are in already had these problems before the pandemic, and that these issues were magnified by the switch to distributed work.

On the other hand, if you are overworking because of a combination of fewer breaks, commute-less working hours, and lack of self-discipline, then more self-awareness and discipline is what is needed. It helps to try and recreate the workday as much as possible. Be disciplined about when you start and end your day, what you wear to work vs. what you wear to relax. Clarify the limits of your professional space with the other members of your household as much as possible. We have a free worksheet to help you do this which you can download here.

Lastly, if the problem comes from being part of a team that hasn’t adapted the way you work for a distributed context, you might find yourself stuck in a lot of zoom calls with no time to get your work done except during after-hours. In this case, it’s important that the whole team reconsiders how you are collaborating. This is so often the problem that we developed the Cosmic Centaurs Remote Work Manifesto. This resource captures the values, direction, and vision for effective flexible, remote or virtual teamwork. We believe that it really boils down to the mindset changes that need to happen for remote teams to thrive and maximize the advantage of this work model.

8. What communication platforms would you recommend teams use for the occasional office chatter? 

It really depends on the nature of the team. At Cosmic Centaurs, our team is distributed so we use Slack. We have enhanced it with a plug-in called ‘The Watercooler’ which pairs up team members and suggests a topic for them to discuss. The prompts are lighthearted like ‘what is one place you want to travel to next?’ or ‘who would you want as a dinner guest, given the choice of anyone in the world?’. We recommend a dedicated channel to banter if you are using a messaging tool.

We also organize working sessions, where we all join a zoom call but work on our own tasks. It helps to recreate the sense of a “shared space,”albeit virtual.

 9. Lastly, what are the training tips that you can provide to managers for training a remote workforce?

In a 2019 LinkedIn study, 94% of employees said they would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn. In co-located work settings, traditional L&D programs usually focus on in-person workshops and training sessions.  The pandemic forced teams into distributed work models making it no longer feasible to put 30 employees in a room for an 8-hour training.  So now it is time to embrace and experiment with new ways of developing employees’ skill sets and knowledge.

Do build learning plans: This sounds obvious, but many managers have been so focused on keeping the business afloat that they might have deprioritized building learning plans for their staff. It’s time to refocus on upskilling your team. Ask your team members what they would like to learn, map out the skills they need to acquire and help them get access to the right resources.

Don’t underestimate the need to learn the basics: There can be a lot of shame around admitting that one does not in fact know how to use Teams or Google Drive. Don’t assume that everyone is proficient, just because they don’t bring these things up. Make basic training available.

 Don’t try to recreate the in-person experience: Use this moment for an opportunity to reinvent how you deliver content (schools and universities certainly did) via more asynchronous approaches and virtual immersive experiences. There are many gamified platforms like Teooh or Mibo, or even platforms like Wonder that facilitate more natural ways of engaging than a Zoom video call. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Do provide diverse learning options: This means allowing employees to find the best way to learn whether its varying formats, lengths, delivery models, or topics. Some prefer structured, individual learning, others prefer group formats that offer social experiences (such as a lunch and learn). The good news is that there are plenty of available content and online learning platforms to choose from.

Do create deliberate opportunities for team members to apply their newfound skills or knowledge:  Give your team members opportunities to implement their new knowledge and skills. Whether it is asking someone to take on a new project beyond their scope or to train another team member. Allowing employees to practically apply their learnings is a great way to ensure that they use what they learn.

 Do embrace the power of rituals: Team rituals can be created to train teams, inspire learning, and create opportunities for creativity and innovation. Rituals can also create a space for teams to learn from one another, find new areas of shared interest and help to nurture a culture that promotes learning. For example, let’s say you had a ‘Findings from failure’ ritual where teams came together once a quarter to list their biggest ‘fails’ and what they learned from them. This is just one example but if you’re looking for inspiration, we have a ritual bank with a ton of ideas.

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