Working virtually during COVID-19 is like driving in the fog on a winding road. Technology and the context created a flatness for which we were not ready at a time of extremely low visibility.

Popular wisdom has it that COVID-19 is merely accelerating trends. The death of management by hierarchy is one of them. It is really hard these days to manage teams and drive projects. Even flat organizations are having challenges when reactiveness is high and pathways to getting things done are disrupted.

Lots of elements have shifted. Recent catastrophes such as the mismanagement of COVID-19 by leaders and experts, the blast in Beirut and the challenge of confronting social justice have called into question the competency and authority of experts, shattered the respect of institutions and showed the limits of data. This further complicates the managerial mandate, especially for those new to managing from home.

There is no head of the table on Zoom.

We cannot command the respect from our positions as prior generations of leaders once could. Managing without power is not new-but the dramatic drop in respect of and confidence in power is new. Then our proverbial cats and dramatic tweens walk into the screens demanding their due — which is very adorable but does not reinforce authority nor control models. It is equalizing but confusing. What remains is content and conversation-trappings of power are gone. At the same time professional conversations are tackling difficult topics — fear, anxiety, mental health, race, uncertainty, inequality, etc.

In our online meetings the tiles are all the same size and they move around all the time. It is a lot harder to dominate physically and sartorially. Group meetings are no longer constrained by room size-we can expand circles and bring in different voices, which can be immensely powerful when properly prepared and managed. Awkward and cacophonic at best and counter-productive at worst.

Circles and connections are also morphing organically. Points of access have changed-vertically and horizontally. To gain shared understanding across the organization you need even more points of contact and to reach deeper into the firm. It is good because it promotes contact and enables more and different voices to be heard. This also makes it a lot easier for bosses to reach out directly to subordinates several levels down in an organization. Leapfrog leadership can speed up decision making but also disrupt processes for vetting and buy-in.

It is also easier for individuals in different work groups to reach out to each other in a faster, more congruent way. This can improve connection and coordination but also can hijack discovery and enquiry. On project teams we see messages circulating horizontally faster across coalitions than they probably would have in an entirely physical world. When we say “we see,” we literally mean it. Because everyone’s expression is right there on Zoom-it is easier to tell the spontaneous from the rehearsed, the reflective from the scripted.

Managers need to re-imagine the necessity of scaffolding a message in Zoomland. What can we learn from the operational leadership taught in the U.S. military?

In a way management in the time of COVID-19 is very much back to basics. The focus is on the essentials. Rethinking our go-to formulas. Leaders and managers must engage their teams with the end in mind and craft their intent in an accessible way. A fundamental requirement of leadership is taking care of people. This current environment has shed light on the reality that managers can no longer purely direct team members and manage tasks.

In our low-touch world, leadership is a “contact sport” and requires high-touch engagement by leaders to ensure they are aware of how their team members are doing in a way that might be foreign as it goes beyond revenue generation and productivity calculations. These key activities along with acknowledging openly what behaviors are being adopted is a step towards what we refer to as operational leadership. At a high-level operational leadership is where people, processes, and technology intersect. Leaders must gain efficiency in organizational processes and might leverage innovative technology to do this. However, leadership at its core is a people centric activity.

Leaders must always keep people training and development at the forefront, because the people must engage the technology that then gains the efficiencies and drives productivity that increases revenue. The current and future environment will not allow for the people, processes, and technology components to be decoupled. The speed of innovation and our interconnectedness will make these three components even more tightly intertwined.

1. LISTEN and EXPLAIN : A leader must develop teams through mutual trust. Developing trusting, cohesive teams capable of operating effectively together can be a significant leadership challenge. To survive COVID-19, businesses had to reimagine their business models. This had a huge impact on their workforce. The way in which they engaged theirs teams did one of two things. Some increased deposits in the “trust bank;” others made massive withdrawals from the “trust bank” in the form of a lack of transparency. During a crisis, the key to developing trust is for leaders to not only listen but to explain how they are thinking and not be concerned with how they are perceived.

2. MANAGE RISK and don’t suffer from paralysis by analysis, ANALYZE and ACT : Making reasonable estimates and intentionally accepting prudent risk. Leaders must continually conduct risk assessments to determine risks and implement solutions to mitigate them. The leader cannot eliminate all risks, and accepting prudent risk may be required. Prudent risk is the deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the leader judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the cost. Taking actions through data driven-decisions is observed in the early decision to close schools across the state and require the expanded capacity in hospitals but keeping public transit open.

3. COMMUNICATE with purpose, key task, and end-state: The commander’s (leader’s) intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the team, and helps direct reports and supporting leaders act to achieve the leader’s desired results without further orders/directives, even when the initiative does not unfold as planned.

4. REMAIN HUMBLE. We all think that we are smarter than our bosses. And when given a chance we might actually fall into acting on that illusion. But there is an incubation period to become a leader: we may indeed be smarter than our boss but until we are kicked in the face or slip on a rock we might not appreciate what it takes — and we might storm over a mountain into the enemy’s hands instead of inching our way up go get needed visibility.

Operating in different terrains can be stimulating — forces us to tap skills we might have let atrophy. It is also much riskier than the familiar. But it is also the time others need us most.

Please send your feedback and ideas and tips to us.

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He received his M.S. in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School, a Masters in Operations from the Air Command and Staff College, and a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School.

He is a career military officer who holds the rank of Colonel and is a master-aviator who has been awarded the Bronze Star medal. He has led large and small teams globally, most recently as a Battalion Commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development. He has also work with midsize and large transportation and distribution organizations, retailers, finance, energy, and tech-startups on operational issues and pathways to better leverage their human capital in more effective ways maximizing the intersection of Technology, People, and Processes.

Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group, and has written more than 200 case studies on organizations around the world. At night she thinks about how to make their challenging lives better. This lead to a research and publications in the area of mental health in the workplace and an interest in human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.

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Passionate about encouraging human sustainability and equal access at work. Collector and connector of people and ideas.