Thursday, November 19, 2020

Gauging an Employee’s Emotional Well-Being in a Virtual World: Warning Signs and Ways to Help

Guest post by Guy Casablanca:

Much has been written lately about how leaders can gauge productivity and performance in a virtual world. Beyond these two metrics, we have asked the question, “How can a leader tell when an employee is struggling emotionally in a virtual world?”

In a short span, a lot has changed in the world, and how we work, socialize, and lead. The impact of COVID-19 has altered the very nature of every human interaction. In the work environment, Zoom sessions have replaced conference room meetings, and email exchanges have replaced in-person interactions. In our personal lives, concerts have become podcasts, and even funerals are now webcast and have become virtual gatherings for the grieving. Replacing our familiar interpersonal experiences and sense of connection, all this virtual-based interaction has left us feeling detached, isolated, and despondent.

It can be challenging for a leader to keep contact levels high when all communication must happen via the web. It is even harder to interpret the reality of someone’s well-being when we only have an email or an image on a screen with which to interact. Body language is limited. Technology obscures the subtleties that we detect in a person.

So how do we know when an associate is struggling with grief in a virtual world? What is a compassionate and concerned leader to do?

Here are some warning signs that may help you recognize employees who are dealing with the effects of emotional trauma or grief in a virtual environment:

Tardiness: Emotionally traumatized people often fall into a state of distraction. They operate in a fog, unable to focus or concentrate. Deadlines come and go without them noticing. Procrastinating is common. A typically prompt person who begins to run late habitually could be an early warning sign of trouble.

Lack of Participation: It is hard to keep attendees of a virtual meeting interested. I know that when I am attending a virtual meeting, I make a deliberate effort to type a comment or response now and then, just so my boss knows I’m fully engaged. Even a mere on-camera “thumbs up” sends the signal that my attention is undivided. Lack of participation may indicate despondence more than disinterest, especially if the lack of involvement is unusual for this team member. An emotionally distracted or depressed person will find it difficult to concentrate and participate.

Fidgeting, Stepping Off Camera: Someone who is emotionally distracted, overwhelmed, grieving, or aggravated by having to be “seen right now” may exhibit signs of the “fight or flight response.” Squirming, constant movement, and stepping out of the shot may indicate someone’s patience is reaching a breaking point, and they just want to get away! Maybe they just need a bathroom break, but it may be a sign of something deeper going on in the person’s life. Be sensitive to the signs of those who obviously want the session to end.

Emotional Outbursts or Fits of Anger: Those struggling with emotional trauma or grief are subject to emotional outbursts. When the cause of their distress gets overwhelming, the person begins to question why things like work even matter. These feelings can lead to a lower than usual emotional boiling point.

Absenteeism: A person experiencing emotional trauma rarely wants to expose their psychological state to others. Even more so than in real life, “virtual absence” can be a red flag for emotional duress. Not wanting to go into work is one thing, but an inability to make the commute from the bed to the laptop in the living room is a whole new level of emotional incapacitation.

Camera off” moments: My 4th-grade son, while experiencing technical glitches during his on-line schooling, was quickly falling behind the rest of the live class. In a panic, he began to cry out of frustration. To avoid being seen in tears by his classmates, he went “camera off” and muted his audio. This threw his teacher into a panic because she could not tell if he was safe or not. Little did she know what he was experiencing was a grief-induced breakdown that he didn’t want others to witness. “Camera off” moments can be an indicator that someone is struggling emotionally.

Now that we have an idea of what grief and emotional stress looks like virtually, how should leaders adapt? Here are three important action steps:

Be aware: This is harder than it sounds. The virtual world masks many of the queues a good leader will be sensitive to “in the room.” The virtual world requires even more focus on the part of the leader.

Engage and communicate: When a leader suspects there may be a deeper issue behind the behaviors they are witnessing, they should engage and communicate as early as possible. This engagement should take place privately and as in-person as possible. Never by email.

Be vulnerable and listen: That may sound counterintuitive, but if the leader does not acknowledge the struggles they are having, neither will their people. A person silently suffering through emotional trauma or grief needs a compassionate leader who is willing to listen and be supportive. The only way the person will respond is if the leader is vulnerable enough to demonstrate they genuinely care.

The office environment has changed. The subtle points of contact leaders usually have at their disposal have diminished. It takes a deliberate and concentrated effort to compensate for the lack of interpersonal opportunities to connect with your people. You won’t pass that grieving person in the hall to give them a pat on the back. You won’t see them sighing their way through their tasks. You won’t witness them skipping lunch to cry in their car. As their leader, you must be the consummate communicator, and in a virtual world, you must be constructive, creative, and consistent.

Guy Casablanca and Anthony Casablanca are the cofounders of GriefLeaders, a training and consulting organization devoted to educating leaders on how to help grieving employees excel at work. Guy is a dually licensed funeral director and mortician, highly experienced at facilitating healthy grieving processes, who has owned two businesses, consulted for corporations, and led teams of managers. He currently manages a funeral home in Loveland, Colorado. Anthony is a senior executive with 30-plus years of experience and a proven track record of purpose-driven leadership. He has held several leadership roles with Batesville Casket Company, the world’s largest funeral service products provider, and was named the 2009 Human Resource Executive of the Year for Indiana. Brothers, Guy and Anthony Casablanca are the coauthors of The Dying Art of Leadership: How Leaders Can Help Grieving Employees Excel at Work. Learn more at  

Thursday, November 12, 2020

How the Best Place of Work Became A State of Mind

Guest post from Jonas Altman:

Matt Mullenweg’s company had a plush office at Pier 38 in San Francisco’s Embarcadero. It was only a five-minute walk from his apartment, but his preference, like many in the company, was to work from home.

More than three years ago they shut their office and the company continues to flourish. If ever there was living that giving workers flexibility and control over their life works - it’s Wordpress. Mullenweg the founder of Automattic (the parent company) explains, ‘In the future, [companies] will either be distributed or be taken over by companies that are - because the smartest people in the world are going to want to work this way.’    

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles to getting great work done may still be the physical office. Many of these dire places rob inhabitants of their focus (and soul for that matter), through a constant stream of distractions. In some ways, COVID waved a magic wand, enabling many employees to change their work environments overnight.

A Far-Out Vision

When it comes to engagement, creativity, and productivity - there’s an intricate tango to strike between people and place. A far-out vision for achieving this harmony in work is that of architecture professor David Dewane. His Eudaimonia Machine has the lofty goal of helping workers reach their full potential.

Featuring a series of five distinct rooms, each is dedicated to a specific mode of work: the gallery for inspiration, the salon for conversation, the library for research, the office for light work, and my personal favorite, the chamber for deep work. There are no hallways so you move through each room, sequentially edging towards your most concentrated work. All that’s missing, it seems, is a dedicated space to recharge, which may just entail decamping from the office altogether for some fresh air.

Some companies hire architects, interior designers, workplace strategists, psychologists, and even mathematicians to design the perfect office for their particular needs. But for many, work is something you feel empowered to do, not necessarily somewhere you need to be.

The precise destination of work tomorrow, whether geographic or virtual, will be an arbitrary concern. Because great work can, and will, continue to happen anywhere. It happens in those temporal places that cater best to the technological, creative, and intellectual needs of the individual and team.

The Magic Number

One reason why midsize family businesses have flourished throughout history is because they’re nimble, with typically less than 150 employees. There are strong bonds and good communication between workers. It’s these businesses that account for a whopping 60% of global employment. Military units are often capped at this magic number of 150 because when lives are on the line, it’s helpful if everyone knows each other’s name.

That’s not to say that you can’t grow bigger and still maintain a great culture. Squarespace, a technology company with nearly 1,000 employees, has been voted New York’s best place to work countless times.

While their Manhattan office may be static, how they work is anything but. They live their values by respecting, inspiring, and challenging workers and encouraging them to be their most creative–wherever that may happen to be. Many workers make the journey to the office because they say it’s a place where they love to work and ‘hang out.’

A State of Mind

That special something businesses are looking for–fostering the right energy–comes from people. And since humans, like businesses, evolve over time, the healthiest work environments change in concert with their occupants and the general state of the world.

‘There are companies that are finding new ways to work, that allow people to set their own hours, have more flexibility, live wherever they want in the world and they’re going to attract the best people,’ declares Mullenweg. He should know, the unassuming billionaire’s company has less than1,200 employees yet astonishingly powers 37% of all sites on the web.          

For way too many, there’s a disconnect between the company culture that managers first set then strive to realize, and the culture they experience every day when they come into work. Creating a great place to work means truly understanding the ongoing interplay of worker bees within a complex system. When there isn’t a clear goal or a shared language, it’s near impossible for a culture to gel. And when workers don’t have the tools and support they need, eventually they’ll up and leave.

We can view work for what it’s becoming; an experimental practice to evolve. It now occupies a psychological space as much as a physical one. Turns out, the best place to work isn’t a place after all; it’s a state of mind.

JONAS ALTMAN is the author SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future (Wiley, Sept 2020). He is a speaker, writer, and entrepreneur on a mission to make the world of work more human. As the founder of award-winning design practice Social Fabric, he creates learning experiences to elevate and grow leaders at the world’s boldest organizations.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

How to Solve Your Most Difficult Leadership and Talent Challenges

Guest post from Stephen Shapiro:

To find better solutions to your most difficult business problems, paradoxically, you don’t want o focus on solutions.

Instead you want to make sure you are asking the right questions. Changing the question changes the range of possible solutions.

Changing Just One Word Can Change Your Solutions

If your challenge is, “How can we hire the right talent?”, you might put your energies into time-consuming campus outreach programs, complicated recruitment campaigns, or expensive technology.

But changing the question to, “How can we retain the right talent?” may shift your focus to internal motivation and performance management strategies.

Simply changing one word yields a completely different set of answers.

You could change it again to, “How can we develop the right talent?” Now we are looking at leadership opportunities that might not have been previously considered.

Before investing in developing solutions and strategies to your problems, first make sure you are moving in the right direction.

Be More Specific to Reduce Waste

When problem-solving, it is common to start off with an opportunity that is too broad. When we ask broad questions, we invite a lot of wasted energy. When asking the question, “How can I improve the business?”, (the default question associated with most suggestion boxes), you could get literally hundreds or thousands of possible answers.

In fact, over 99% of the ideas submitted to most suggestion boxes are low value and are not implemented. This wastes the time of those who submit the ideas and those who have to evaluate the duds.

But if you make the problem statement more specific, you focus people on what matters most. 

Going back to the original statement: “How can we hire the right talent?” What does “right” mean? Maybe the question could be, “How can we hire for unique skills that make our products differentiating?”

This now focuses your efforts on a specific skillset. Of course, it might lead you to ask the question, “What differentiates our products from the competition?” Answering this gives you deeper insights into your business and the people that are required to support it.

Sometimes Being More Abstract Can Increase Creativity

Although we often start with broad problem statements, there are times when we are too specific. Either our focus is so specific that it limits our ability to find solutions. Or in some cases our questions are really just solutions masquerading as questions.

I remember a client who was focused on, “How can we use 360-degree feedback to improve performance?”

Their myopic focus on this one tool limited their ability to “see” other leadership development solutions.

The broader question might be, “How can we improve performance?” 360-degree feedback was too specific.

This then forced them to ask, “What is the performance issue we need to solve?” After some analysis, they determined that the issue was a silo mentality within the company. When they shifted the question to, “How can we break down silos in our organization?”, they found a wider range of solutions. As it turns out, 360-degree feedback was not part of the approach.

Our Best Solutions are Often Invisible

The questions we ask impact the solutions that are visible. Subtle changes to the problem statement can reveal solutions that were previously hidden.

Or to paraphrase a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” From my experience, most organizations are spending 60 minutes solving problems that are unimportant or irrelevant.

When everyone in your organization learns how to powerfully reframe business problems, you will get better results, faster, with lower risk. It’s the simplest tool you have to find the best solutions that will grow your business.

For over 20 years, Stephen Shapiro has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm Accenture, he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He is the author of six books, including his latest: Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His Personality Poker® system has been used around the world to create high-performing innovation teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.