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Amidst the current COVID-19 global pandemic, workers from across sectors and industries are finding themselves telecommuting from their homes. While “working from home (WFH)” has been a rising trend among “knowledge workers” and self-employed “gig workers” in tech-centered industries, for many this is a first in their career. Organizations large and small are trying to grasp the new challenges this creates as we are all forced to disperse and hunker down.

Below are a few essentials to keep in mind as we all try to navigate WFM during this moment:

Keep (or build) a routine. With everyone’s fears and anxieties rising about unknowns in the present and future, it’s more important than ever to keep consistency as a way of finding comfort and familiarity in ever changing circumstances. WFH may feel liberating at first. For many it means saving time from that long commute or space away from difficult colleagues or a flurry of distractions in the office. However, if we do not stick to and master the basics, we can quickly begin to feel like everything is spinning out of control.

That extra time that you find in your morning from not having to commute does not have to be dedicated to sleeping in. Just because this newfound freedom and flexibility allows you to “roll” from your bed to the first conference call of the day, does not mean it is sustainable for your mental wellness or performance. Also, no one wants to see you in your pajamas on the Zoom meeting.

If you were a hard-charging, early riser with a solid exercise regimen and personal development rituals, then stick to it and refine it for new circumstances! If you have struggled to build a consistent routine, now is the perfect time to use that savings in the morning and afternoons to invest in yourself. Start with small, achievable goals and incrementally build your way towards them. Use this time to build long-lasting habits.

Create a space for success! Part of keeping a sense of normalcy is ensuring that you have a workspace at home that enables you to succeed. You do not want to find yourself slinking down on the couch every morning with your smartphone while your spouse or roommate streams Netflix in front of you.

If you do not already have a functional home office or library, try to find another space in your home that is private, quiet, well-lit, and allows you to stay organized. Try to avoid (if possible) places like the dining room table or bedroom that are dedicated for relaxation. You do not want your unfinished work staring at you over dinner or wake-up first thing to it! Ideally, you want a space that at the end of the workday you can shut down, unplug, and close the door to.

If your living quarters are limited in space or if you have multiple persons competing for quiet space to work, get creative. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs or create temporary dividers. Anything that enables you to focus and separates your work from your personal life.

Communication. Right now, everyone is feeling the pressure. Many homes have more than one adult and possibly school-aged children under one roof, all trying to get things done. It’s very important that everyone is open and honest about their needs are and aware that there are competing priorities all around us. Members of the same household should try regular meetings to deconflict schedules and priorities. Through this dialogue, a couple might decide that one spouse should watch the children, while the other works for a set period of time and then trade off. Whatever you work out, prepare to be flexible as circumstances rapidly shift.

As a member of a team at your place of employment, you should also be regularly communicating the challenges you are facing from home and your proposed solutions. This could mean everyone working on a staggered schedule or taking a longer lunch break to go for a walk with family. In order for that to work, everyone needs to be clear what the goals and priorities are for the organization as a whole.

If you are a leader in the organization, be conscious of everyone’s collective anxiety, especially with an uncertain public health and economic forecast. Be prepared to constantly communicate and reinforce your intent to others. Try to set reasonable goals for the team to meet. Old metrics for productivity may not be possible to measure right now. Instead of looking at things from a “9 to 5” hours-worked perspective, take a 360 view of the organization and what needs to happen to weather this storm. Try to measure success by tasks complete, not time in chairs or constant emailing. Instead of routine assignments, use this time to invest in professional development or long-term projects that are often deprioritized during regular periods such as finding new markets and product lines or implementing new technology for process improvement.

A few great reads for learning how to lead teams through complex circumstances is Team of Teams by Stanley McCrystal and One Mission by Chris Fussell. Emphasized in both books is the importance of leaders communicating their intent throughout their organization including to geographically dispersed teams. Both provide excellent case studies and tested tools to implement within your organization.

The challenge in today’s workplace is to be increasingly more efficient, effective, and above all creative in our work. To rise to this challenge, we must be able to focus our attention and devote our time to the tasks that matter most, whether that be preparing for a sales presentation or writing a report for stakeholders.

In our hyper-connected world, this means not only escaping from interruptions in the physical world, but the endless barrage of alerts coming from our computers and mobile devices. Setting up boundaries, both physical and digital, leaves open the necessary mental bandwidth and the freedom to pursue our creative endeavors.

Below are a few tips for setting boundaries in the workplace and creating the space to focus on the most important tasks in front of you:

  1. Make it known when you need to focus with no distractions:
    • Announce it at a staff meeting in advance
    • Block out time on your public calendar (“unavailable”)
    • Use a “do not disturb” sign on your office door or cubicle
    • Ask colleagues to hold phone calls and visitors
    • Turn-off alerts and mute all devices
  1. If a colleague or visitor “drops in” for an unexpected, off-topic conversation, greet them politely, as you do not want to discourage “face-to-face” interactions, “open door” policies, or the free flow and exchange of ideas. However, it is imperative that you are direct and upfront that in the moment, you must focus your energy on something else. Invite them to return or schedule time on the calendar for that chat.
  2. The office can be a never-ending flurry of activity. Collective anxiety can rise in periods of tight deadlines, budgeting periods, or tumultuous current events. Our colleagues, both peers and supervisors, will find ample opportunity to infringe on our time and attention. All of this can take away our focus and drain our creative energy.
    If you find this describes your workplace, you may want to find an alternative space, that provides you a needed escape and relief from the daily “busy-ness” around the office. This could include:
    • Unused meeting, conference, or breakout room
    • Library
    • Cafeteria or offsite coffee shop
    • Work from home

Whatever space you use should conform to established organization polices and be most conducive to how you work. Some people like absolute silence, while others thrive in a busy space full of white noise. Working from home has its own set of benefits and challenges for getting things done. Be thoughtful with whatever you chose.

  1. Be strategic and intentional with your calendar. It is said that “time is a finite resource that we will never get back.”
    Do not overbook yourself and make sure that your calendar is being used most effectively to support your goals. This includes how you spend your lunch time, scheduled breaks, or those precious free moments. Sometimes the most “efficient” or expedient ways to spend our time are not the most fruitful. Quite often, we fail to leave critical space for reflection or informal engagements with others.Former Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General, Jim Mattis, in his new book Call Sign Chaos, offers a kernel of wisdom on this subject from his 40 plus year career in national defense:

    … lack of time to reflect is the single biggest deficiency in senior decision-makers. If there was one area where I consistently fell short, that was it. Try as I would, I failed to put aside hours for sequestering myself outside the daily routine to think more broadly: What weren’t we doing that needed to be done? Where was our strategy lacking? What lay over the horizon? … a leader must try to see the overarching pattern, fitting details into the larger situation.

  2. Find a personal “battle rhythm” that allows you to get things done creatively, separate from the needs and priorities of others and away from endless distractions.
    Some of us work best in the early morning hours, while others prefer to work late into the night. Sometimes arriving just 15 minutes early, before everyone else filters in, can help us set our priorities and jump into a creative flow. Whatever it is that works best for you, find and stick to it!
    Knowing that we all work differently, managers and leaders in organizations may want to examine workplace policies to make allowances for flexible working hours and locations, even if just temporary to help a team get through a project or trying period.

This article is the first in a series on how to most effectively manage our time and attention for the work that matters most. Subsequent articles will look at technology and how we interact together in organizations. Check back next week for more!

Opportunities & Challenges

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the largest and most complex major projects being undertaken today. Nine partner nations and multiple American military and industry partners work together in a high VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment to produce a product upon which the lives of service men and women around the world depend.

Effective leadership is required across the organization, and organization systems themselves must constantly be upgraded to allow for the most efficient and effective work to take place.

What we did:
In collaboration with Defense Acquisition University (DAU) and F-35 Program Office Senior Leadership, M&B co-developed the Enterprise Cohort Leadership Program (ELCP), an ongoing cohort program to support leaders across the F-35 enterprise in being and doing their best.

ELCP is a condensed program of eight weeks, comprising seven days in residence with workplace learning assignments back on the job, and a capstone project to scope an initiative that will have significant impact on the learners’ leadership development and business/mission outcomes for the enterprise.

The program is designed to maintain a consistent base of frameworks and also to evolve as needs change.

Results:
Ten cohorts have been completed with over 200 participants who now share common leadership language and frameworks with which to positively influence work across the organization. A cadre of coaches is in place to offer ongoing support to colleagues and to further the work going forward.

It can be challenging to interact with people whose perspectives and opinions differ from ours, but there are many benefits, including making us smarter. In this Washington Post entry, Gregory Rodriguez explains why this is so.