Errol Gardner: Over the past 6 months of remote work, we have solved for or adapted to many of the challenges that initially arose– technical, logistical, getting the right people connected with their clients and internally there are still some unavoidable challenges. Our younger staff may not have as much space at home to work effectively and those with young children or with home schooling, may have a harder time committing to a predictable work pattern. At this moment, we and our clients have a degree of stability when it comes to working remotely—which underscores our human resiliency and ability to work in a dynamic state. 

In a way, remote work has eased some work burdens for us. In the past, you had to find a way to physically be in the same place or be prepared to lose intimacy through a phone call. Now, the norm is to take video calls allowing us to see people’s facial expressions and respond accordingly. By doing so, you can broadly emulate what happens in most face-to-face situations, particularly if you have an existing relationship with the person and can understand their body language.

I think the biggest challenge we are facing is managing new relationships. So far, we have adapted many of our existing working relationships both internally and with clients to function virtually and many continue to thrive. However, over the next 6 to 12 months we will have new hires, new managers and managees to connect. This type of relationship building—forming trust and ultimately teaming is what will be hardest to achieve in the virtual world. When we meet in person, we spend the first few interactions getting to know each other’s personality and working style. We develop bonds and collaborate with a level of trust that will be difficult to replicate from a solely virtual starting point.  

Caprino: How can leaders overcome those challenges, and helping remote employees and teams collaborate closely and thrive?

Gardner: As social creatures, humans still crave connection and friendship, even at work. Making time for virtual games or team bonding exercises is still important when remote in order to form those connections. Various studies tell us that a large proportion of an individual’s behavior is driven by their manager, so it is important to maintain those relationships.

Moving forward, depending on government guidelines, it will be important for us to come together again and invest time in our teams to the extent that it is safe. I feel that once a month or once a quarter it’s important to make time to get everyone in the same location—perhaps outside given the challenges of the pandemic, to build a baseline that is needed to continue the momentum of working remotely.

Caprino: Talk about great leaders who are tackling the tough conversations we need to have today, about issues that are at the forefront of people’s minds. What are leaders doing well and not so well, in helping people feel heard and understood?

Gardner: The hallmark of a good leader is deep listening and transparent communication. If you look at various studies that are created its often the case that only a small percentage of employees think that the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization. So, in regards to the pandemic, those leaders that shared information across their company, prepared offices and individuals to face the challenges ahead but then also took a step back to listen to their employees’ needs were the organizations that have adapted more quickly in these challenging times. 

Now more than ever, making conversations accessible about mental health is vital. At EY, we have put a focus on investing and making sure we have the right facilities available to support people if they’re struggling with the impacts of working in this kind of environment, or if they have experienced Covid-19 first hand or through their family. 

Another conversation at the forefront globally is the racial unrest and inequity we are all grappling with. Companies who addressed the issues head on and made organizational commitments to being anti-racist are faring the best. At EY, for instance, leaders in the US and globally came together to take a stance, contributing $3M to organizations fighting social injustices and $4M to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and evaluating internal talent and business processes to further advance equity across race. Organizations need to articulate clearly what they think is right and what they cannot support.

For leaders across all organizations, it is important to host listening events to hear the lived experiences and injustices colleagues have faced. Some experiences happen within the work environment and exposing those to the highest level of leadership does allow real and genuine change to develop.

Caprino: How important is it today that leaders do what is necessary to move managers out of the organization who are toxic, narcissistic, abusive or otherwise harmful to the culture? 

Gardner: If a manager is not aligned with the values of an organization and is stifling the growth of their colleagues, it should be a quick decision to remove them. Increasingly, there is recognition among leaders that a candidate’s fit with organizational culture is as important as their skills and experience.

At EY, we always try to take our people through a process of education and enlightenment in order to increase awareness and understanding. We have found many missteps come through lack of knowledge or lack of self-awareness as very few people get up each morning wanting to upset fellow human beings. But, if that doesn’t work, it is important to send a message. We are a values-based organization, and inclusivity is at the heart of our organization. Effective leaders embrace diversity to challenge the status quo. Making it a comfortable, safe and equitable environment to get work done is of the utmost importance to us. 

Caprino: How can leaders better identify when their own behavior and communication as a leader and manager needs to change?

Gardner: Having the self-awareness to look internally at your own behavior and communication is one of the trickiest parts of being a good leader. Something I think the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates is that most leaders really didn’t recognize—and may still not be aware of—just how unjust the society is for people of color. 

By listening to colleagues of all levels in an unfiltered fashion, engaging in reverse mentoring and frankly just giving people the opportunity to share their lived experience, leaders can go on an educational journey and act as a catalyst for behavioral change. 

Leaders need to be comfortable to get uncomfortable seeing their words and actions from a different perspective. A lot of leaders have very little exposure to the prejudices societally entrenched against people of color or the LGBTQ+ community. Without exposure there is a lack of understanding and a lack of self-awareness. So as a leader, put yourself in uncomfortable situations, ask questions and take feedback graciously on an ongoing basis in order to change when needed. 

Caprino: What must leaders do differently today than ever before and how will that strengthen their leadership, communication and ability to inspire action towards a shared vision?

Gardner: We’ve talked a lot about empathy, but it is also about connecting with people. Leaders need to communicate to a certain extent and then be active listeners. Managers are used to being brought into conversations to offer advice and opinions but that means it can sometimes be easy to forget to listen to what people are saying and capture the sentiment of employees and even wider society. 

At EY, for instance, we talk a lot about keeping humans at the center of everything we do. That means our employees, our customers, our stakeholders matter most. If you don’t understand them, what is motivating them, making them happy or sad, it is really hard to move the business forward.

In an era where uncertainty and change are the norm, it’s imperative for leaders to create a compelling story framed in the future—and you can bring employees together this way. And the future is all about transformation and being comfortable with it. 

By focusing on realizing transformation from the inside out, leaders can unlock meaningful change for people, customers and other stakeholders.

Learn more about the EY transformation journey here.

To build your leadership and career strength in today’s times, read Kathy Caprino’s new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss, and subscribe to her LinkedIn newsletter The Finding Brave Circle.