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A better way: Leadership nudges through COVID-19, and beyond

7 strategies to inspire a healthy, sustainable style that will serve you well for successful virtual leadership moving forward


Virtual and pandemic leadership is a craft that needs to be constantly honed and adapted, and we're all learning together. (moodboard/Adobe Stock)

Since the pandemic began, leaders across all levels and industries have had to change and adapt their mindsets and behaviours. Never have leaders been asked to navigate so much uncertainty, while managing themselves and their teams to deliver consistently on business goals and outcomes. 

It seems clichéd, but as leaders, we often forget to put on our own proverbial oxygen masks before we support others who depend on us professionally. 

The “always-on’’ leadership expectation is a byproduct of the pandemic that continues to blur the lines between home and work for home-office based workers. Many leaders feel they are always at home, always at work, always on their computers, and always on their phones. There is no “off button.”

When we think back to pre-pandemic times, many would go into meetings within offices without any technology to distract them. 

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Voicemails, emails, and pings were delivered and would go unanswered until the meeting was over. There were formal and informal face-to-face interactions and impromptu check-ins where body language was relatively easy to observe. 

Emotionally adept leaders would read non-verbal cues and spend extra time with those that needed it by scheduling coffee chats, meals, and team celebrations. 

Everyone would go home at the end of the day and would occasionally need to log in to complete more work, but leadership wasn’t always something that needed additional thought or attention. It was a more natural part of the flow of everyday work life.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, this is no longer the case. A significant percentage of the workforce has changed companies throughout the pandemic. Many employers have plans to work remotely for the long haul as a strategic advantage because it is viewed as an attractive option by many in the workforce and is the “future of work.” As a result, leaders have had to adapt by becoming much more intentional about leading, so that relationship and rapport building become early areas of focus. When this is done well, trust with a direct report starts to grow upon hiring and continues to blossom over time.

Leaders have needed to adjust to this new need and upskill by training and finding periodic opportunities to meet with their teams in person to keep up with the dynamic demands of leading individuals and teams effectively in a virtual environment.

As the world of work continues to evolve to these new ways of working, below are some helpful nudges to inspire a healthy, sustainable style that will serve you well for successful virtual leadership moving forward:

Find ways to switch off from the “always on” culture. Create rules of engagement for yourself. Having healthy routines around when we eat, drink, walk, and take breaks helps keep us grounded and focused on what’s a priority and what’s not. Cut off phone time. 

Involve your team to maintain a healthy virtual culture. Great leaders are not trying to do it all themselves. They’re involving others to help carry the culture and engagement at work. By involving others, you multiply the impact of your team and give others a chance to shine. If building an off-site agenda is not your strength, lean on a team member or hire someone who excels at it. Recognizing your weaknesses helps create opportunities for better organizational outcomes. 

Be purposefully human with your teams. Be open with your teams about life’s routines. Share some of your positive personal practices to inspire and encourage your team. Be vocal about when you need to step away from the screen. Humanizing yourself creates balance and structure around what’s expected of the team. Time spent now on creating new and positive mindsets and well-being-first workplace habits will help build resilience to endure future uncertainties.

Go back to basics. Focus on trust building with your team to lead effectively while being remote. Ask your direct reports how they are. Find ways to replicate in-office experiences. Daily “good morning” chats could be one way to connect and focus on what the priorities are for that day. 

Remember that people still think most about their relationship with their direct leader when considering their engagement. Be there in the moments that matter. For example, if a team member has a dependent fighting COVID-19 who needs support, be compassionate. If you have concerns about truth telling, address them. Role model taking time off. Be clear about taking breaks and vacation. Encourage informal talking time and getting to know each other. This is how virtual teams thrive.

Keep the communication flowing both ways. To effectively communicate organizational policies on return-to-office or in-person meetings, organizations should be getting and giving feedback from the bottom up and top down. Provide options where possible. The pandemic has shown that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to defining work settings. 

A July 2021 Angus Reid poll of more than 2,000 Canadians found that 44 per cent prefer to work from home and would consider searching for work if this no longer was an option. As such, it is critical to consider an agile strategy that’s open to customization. 

Find your community. There is not much infrastructure in place in most organizations for leaders to speak with other supportive leaders. The idea of starting up a peer forum is often regarded as unappealing or time-consuming. However, in the medium to long term, isolation becomes a reality for most leaders who lack a group to bounce ideas off or who do not have the ability to discuss issues in an informal setting with peers. It’s important to be intentional about staying connected to other leaders to share best practices and provide support, even when it feels like it’s just another thing to do.

Be deliberate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. While the pandemic has taken up most of our bandwidth, remember that civil unrest and social injustice are just as impactful to an organizational bottom line. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Indigenous peoples, minority groups, and people of colour — who have undergone greater hardships than others in terms of accessibility to medical care and workplace opportunities. As a leader, how are you showing up for those in your organization who represent marginalized communities? A sound COVID-19 response is intricately linked to understanding the diversity of employees’ cultures and lived experiences. 

As we move through the next phase of the pandemic, utilize these leadership nudges, but only after you have put on your own oxygen mask. Resiliency, flexibility, and self-awareness are key tools for your leadership toolkit and will differentiate great virtual leaders from mediocre ones over time.

Virtual and pandemic leadership is a craft that needs to be constantly honed and adapted, and we’re all learning together.


Aaron Laurito is Senior Lead, Talent Business Partner for Engineering and Data at Shopify in Toronto, and a member of SCNetwork’s Senior HR Leader Peer Forum. 

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