COVID-19 and Managing the Work-From-Home Crush

It’s been a jarring and abrupt shift. In a few short weeks, COVID-19 pushed three-quarters of Americans (250 million people) into state-ordered “shelter-in-place” living restrictions. In other words, stay at home orders.

This means millions of American workers are now operating in make-shift home offices or WFH for short – working from home.

For many workers, WFH also means competing for space and attention with a host of other parties – such as partners in the same bind, homebound children closed off from school or even friends as well as elderly parents who are now living under the same roof.

Millions of workers are trying to make the best of it under the anxiety of COVID-19, fearful for their own well-being and that of their loved ones.

Judging from the latest estimates, these remote WFH arrangements will necessarily persist for the next few months and possibly longer.

In response, employers are scrambling for and adapting best practices that will effectively support WFH employees, maintain positive morale and keep employees engaged in productive work – all the while taking into account overcrowded home spaces and extremely limited access to services and supplies we once took for granted. (Toilet paper, anyone? Printer ink?)

In recent years, we have learned quite a bit about the upsides and downsides of teleworking.  Overall, the research points in a generally positive direction when employers take a thoughtful approach to employees working remotely.

Here are six suggested practices forward-thinking employers are experimenting with to support their WFH colleagues:

  1. Policy: Establish a consistent workplace policy framework that provides guidance to employees on how their organization will manage and support WFH realities.
  2. Openness: Make space for employees to express their stress, anxiety and fears around COVID-19 – regularly holding online video staff meetings and other check in opportunities that allow for employee openness.
  3. Communicate: Communicate, communicate, communicate to prevent the isolating effects that arise from employees working at home week after week under these anxiety-producing circumstances. Reinforce the communication mantra with managers and the importance of staying regularly in touch with their teams.
  4. Equip. Make sure all employees have the technology and other support they need to work at home with consistency and minimal obstacles. (E.g. computers and internet service that are reliable, ergonomically sound work locations, sound-canceling headphones, etc.)
  5. Goal-setting: Establish basic weekly goals and deliverables with staff so they feel focused and anchored to a structure and routine; don’t overdo it. Make room for the inevitable disruptions that arise when kids need baths, elders need blood pressure checks and the dog needs walking. That’s life right now. Make room for it so you do not further undermine the well-being of your employees.
  6. Boundaries: To help with stress and balance, support employees to set reasonable and consistent start and stop work hours. Encourage them to set and keep a regular schedule and pay attention to exercise and – wherever possible – time outside in nature.
Here are several resources to learn more about best WFH tools and practices:


We all feel it at some point. Our worlds can reach an overwhelming level of complexity at home or work. Sometimes both.

At work, we’re frequently frustrated by too many competing demands on our time. Too many projects to juggle. Too many bureaucratic layers bogging projects down. Too much daily information to scan to stay on top of things. Too many so-called crises blowing up our weeks.

So how do organizational leaders deal with what sometimes seems like uncontrollable complexity?

Not long ago, I received an email from a client whose organization had been experiencing significant growth for the past several years. She had been extremely busy adding new services, staffing, contracts, and more management layers and processes to deliver a larger volume of services.

By all measures, the organization was thriving but this executive felt swamped by the growth and how complex things had become. The organization was moving in new directions and adding new pieces. As a leader, she became concerned that her company was losing site of its core purpose, sacrificing quality in services, and overloading staff along the way.

Sound familiar?

Well, with growth comes complexity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if an organization continues to thrive.

But growth usually brings more moving parts to keep track of and more challenges around coordination, communications, and basic management.

The problems start when leaders don’t pay close enough attention to all the different work layers and processes that are getting added. The key question to ask is: do the additions make it easier or harder for employees to get work done?

When problems do emerge, the answer isn’t to just simplify. The focus should be on making the complex more manageable and keeping it at a tolerable level.

In its research, McKinsey and Company, an international consulting company, reports that effectively managing and containing complexity leads to lower organizational costs, increased employee satisfaction, and higher returns on investments.

Here are a few steps I suggest to clients and executives when they sense complexity is getting the better of them and their organizations.

  • Involve as much of your staff as appropriate to manage and keep an eye on mounting complexity. The more organizational arms involved, the better.
  • Take a hard look at what matters the most to your organization and establish a clear set of priorities.
  • With clear priorities in mind, scan your organization’s operational structures and systems to flag, modify, or eliminate any processes that don’t carry value or make it more difficult for employees to get work done.
  • Have clear roles, goals, and accountabilities around key job functions.
  • Eliminate decision-making bottlenecks, particularly at the executive and managerial levels, and give staff more autonomy to do their jobs. This takes trust and a flexible leadership temperament.
  • Collaborate/Integrate. Create an environment where employees can easily collaborate, particularly around complex tasks to lighten the load. Integrate functions where possible to work more efficiently.
  • Consistently remind staff of the organizational priorities and progress made toward important goals.
  • Keep track of how things are progressing, what’s working and what’s not. Be willing to adjust and adapt to keep the priorities moving forward. Be open to staff feedback.
  • Appreciate. Change and growth can be both challenging and rewarding. Take time to celebrate milestones. Praise and reward key contributors and teams as appropriate.

I’ll be circling back to my client to check on how she’s handling the complexity in her organization and if she has started to feel less burdened.

It’s quite common for executives to be wading into deeper and more entangled levels of complexity without realizing it.  The above recommendations can collectively safeguard against complexity getting the better of your organization.


It’s the beginning of a new year, so our minds predictably jump to making big changes. We’re all familiar with what happens with our personal New Year’s resolutions. That’s right. Most don’t stick.

The same can be said about workplace or organizational changes. Most of these well-intended efforts wither and disappear. According to Making Change Work (a worldwide survey by IBM of 1,500 executives and managers), only 41% of respondents said their change initiative fully succeeded. Other surveys put the failure rate between 50% and 70%.

Managing change is a tricky and complex business. In my client work, I continue to hear executives express their frustration at the internal resistance and other barriers that stall their favorite change projects. It seems broad employee ownership is the common missing ingredient, the one big step that many executives fail to take.

When executives describe how they began their change initiatives, they start with a small executive circle, which is fine, but they don’t expand the circle as planning progresses. This is where the seeds of organizational resistance get sown.

When employees sense that leadership is not opening up decision-making and sharing information on important organizational change, distrust, disengagement and ultimately resistance form ever more difficult barriers to overcome.

So what determines whether a change will stick or disintegrate? A recent McKinsey & Company survey of 900 companies and their executives boiled the recipe for success down to three ingredients:

Other factors contribute to successful change, including establishing a clear road map for action, consistently tracking progress against goals, and effectively pushing through unexpected bumps and wrong turns.

All these factors are important, but both the McKinsey and IBM reports place employee involvement at or near the top of the success factor list.

I hear executives lament that bringing more people into the loop adds more hoops and time to the process. That’s true. However, it also increases the likelihood of change sticking rather than landing in the pile of well-intended but failed efforts.


Recently, I was listening to a client reminisce about one of her previous companies and what a great place it was to work. For her, it boiled down to the daily trust, closeness and support she felt from her co-workers. These relationships gave her a deep sense of connection to the organization, motivation to deliver high-quality work and a strong sense of fulfillment.

In their comprehensive review of studies on workplace relationships, researchers Dutton and Ragins write that relationships “are the means by which work is done and meaning is found in organizations.”

Research continues to affirm that executives who focus on the development of positive relationships within their organizations experience higher employee engagement, job satisfaction, productivity and retention. Nevertheless, most leaders pay very little attention to building and maintaining positive relationships, which carries a serious cost.

I often see this cost in my client work. It shows up when leaders tell me how bogged down they are in personnel problems. It shows up when I hear a CEO tell me about the infighting and gossiping that are consuming her executive team members.

Gallup and other studies report that poor manager-employee relationships hammer organization morale, create high rates of employee disengagement, syphon away enormous amounts of hours from quality work time, and ultimately erode overall performance and productivity.

Negative relationships also drive away employees. A Gallup 2015 survey of 7,200 adults found that half had quit their jobs at some point in their careers to “get away from their manager.”

Exceptional leaders understand that relationships are, to paraphrase Dutton and Ragins, the means by which work gets done. The better the relationships, the better the productivity and quality of work.

Dutton and Ragins also present a broad spectrum of perspectives on what positive workplace relationships look like. The following characteristics are most prevalent:

• Mutual respect for one another
• Capacity to build and repair trust
• Space to express emotions
• Mutual generation of ideas
• Mutually energizing
• Support personal growth

More than anything, an employee, whether that person is a senior executive or administrative assistant, wants to feel seen, known and valued. These qualities rank higher on worker satisfaction surveys than salary increases.

With these characteristics in mind, here are five quick and simple steps executives can take to start creating great workplace relationships. It doesn’t take a big program, worksite campaign or massive amounts of training to get this work going. It just takes a leader’s commitment, consistent attention and a willingness to start.

  • Meet − Actually sit down and meet regularly with the people who report to you. Gallup (2014) found employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not.
  • Listen − When you meet, take the time to truly listen to what the staff person is saying to you and make sure you have a shared understanding of what is being said. To test for shared understanding, use this listening technique, “This is what I hear you saying. Is that correct?” Read my blog post, “The Overlooked Power of Listening” to learn more about authentic listening.
  • Care − Take the time to care and know about how a person’s whole life— not just the work life—is going. Executive culture has traditionally viewed a person’s sharing of personal life information as “inappropriate.” It’s not only appropriate; it’s a key practice for building trust.
  • Value − Let staff know how much you appreciate the hard work or good job she or he is doing, not only related to a specific project or duty, but just as a general compliment now and then.
  • Advance − Key in on the staff person’s professional aspirations and support their continual growth. This type of support deepens the employee’s engagement and loyalty to the organization.


How often have you been told that you’re a good listener? Do you think you’re a good listener? What is a good listener? The concept of a good listener is undervalued or at worst completely ignored in organizations. A good listener is a person who takes the time to genuinely hear and understand what another person has to say. It is listening minus the internal judgments, rebuttals or just pure random thoughts that start to creep into our minds as we listen to another person speak. We all have trouble with listening, even the Dalai Lama. Well maybe he has a little less trouble than the rest of us. Nevertheless, the ability to genuinely listen is an essential quality of an exceptional leader and exceptional leadership teams. The positive return on genuine listening in the workplace comes in many forms but the biggest benefits come down to the following:

  • Builds trust among leaders and staff.
  • Reduces conflict and misunderstanding.
  • Leads to deeper learning.
  • Increases likelihood of better decision-making and quality of work.
  • Helps build an overall work culture of positive and productive engagement.

How do you engage in good, productive listening? Peter Senge, MIT senior lecturer and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning believes that we first have to “quiet our minds” to truly hear what another person has to say. This calls on us to slow down in the moment and consciously make a commitment to genuine listening. In your next meeting with a co-worker or group, before you even enter the room, make a personal commitment to genuine listening. Before heading into or starting the meeting take a few deep breaths with the aim of clearing your mind and say to yourself, “I am going to focus on listening in this meeting.” It has to be that intentional, that purposeful or it is highly unlikely you will follow through with your commitment. A few other tactics to keep you in the genuine listening mode:

  • Ask the person talking if you can repeat what you think he or she is saying and check to see if you are on track.
  • Ask questions that seek only to clarify what a person is saying, not to refute or give your opinion on what is being said.
  • Take written notes for yourself and jot down the high points of what you think you are hearing the other person say.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I listening or going into the mode of mentally crafting my response or opinion?”
  • Ask yourself, “Am I listening with a sense of genuine curiosity and openness to learning or am I listening selectively to reinforce my own point of view?”

Genuine listening is about making sure you are seeking to understand what the other person is communicating, not lying in wait to make your counterpoint. Listening is not waiting. This is a listening trap for many of us. We listen impatiently, not to understand, but to go into debate mode, waiting for an opening to start advocating for our position. Individuals and groups that regularly practice genuine listening and its related skills report experiencing meeting discussions as much richer, more generative, productive and fun! Give it try — in your next management team meeting, in your next conversation with your spouse or teen, in your next 1-1 with a colleague – and let us know what happens.


Overloaded: It is the “normal” state of things. Overbooked calendars. Dashing from one meeting to the next. More work than one person can handle. Leaders operate under an expectation that they should be able to handle whatever comes their way, no matter how much comes their way. To do otherwise would mean they’d be viewed as an ineffective executive or as not giving it their all. As a leader, you get plenty of reminders to slow down and take on less, but that seems impossible to you. But is it?

There’s a well-constructed, longstanding image of what a strong and effective leader looks like: A dynamic figure who’s always on the job 24/7, sets the vision, has all the answers, makes the big decisions, maintains authority and control, and expects everyone else to fall in line. It’s the old “command and control” mode. In recent years, this picture has been gradually transforming to fit a changing world and workforce that are increasingly driven by information technology.

Today, emerging leadership illuminates the value of leading through strong teams and collaboration, co-creating organizational vision, delegating authority and decision-making, and investing in people to support their best talents. In this scenario, the leader also values maintaining a healthy life—which does not include working in a constant state of exhaustion. This is the expectation for the leader and all employees.

Research confirms that individuals perform best and are the most creative when they are getting plenty of rest, taking the time to disconnect from the job, and work reasonable hours. It’s understandable that some special projects or unforeseen problems will necessitate working longer hours than usual. However, when 12–16 hour workdays become the norm, you and your organization are going to suffer. Chronically working in an overload state frequently leads to poor decision-making, decreased focus, and poor communications with co-workers. Over time, overload leads to under performance.

If your goal is to operate at the most productive and creative levels, slowing down and lightening the load are your best bets for getting there. A while back, I started this conversation with a client  and he has taken this guidance to heart. Here are three things this CEO started doing immediately to break the bonds of overload.

  1. Schedule Breaks — Treat rest or disconnect time like meetings. Put these times in your calendar. Sit quietly in your office with your eyes closed. Take a short walk. Get out of your office alone for lunch. The activity or length of time doesn’t matter. Just make sure you get quiet time to yourself during the workday and don’t fill this time with work stuff. That includes not checking your phone or emails. Also, encourage your executive team and other managers to do the same.
  2. Just Say No — Start to say no to requests, whether meetings or projects, that you know are not crucial to your priorities. The request may seem interesting or your presence might be helpful, but if it’s not essential, say no. Now there’s a novel thought. The temptation will be to fill those slots with other meetings or projects. However, consider this a gift of time to yourself.
  3. Set a Stop Time – Refrain from leaving your workday open-ended. Set a stop time where you leave work at a reasonable hour—8 or 9 p.m. is not a reasonable hour, particularly if you started your day at 7 a.m. You may think that there’s always more to do and that the company can’t get by without you. But you what know? It can and will if you let it.

My client has been practicing the above steps and a few others for several months to bring a healthy balance to his day.  Guess what? It’s working.  He describes a significant shift in his stress level, sense of presence and focus at work and even in his quality of sleep — all for the better with no major work breakdowns. Imagine that!


While watching all the big changes in Washington D.C. recently, I’ve been thinking quite bit about the concept of ego—what it means to have one of the healthy or unhealthy variety. Depending on your point of view, it seems we’ve been witnessing many more public displays of unhealthy egos than healthy ones.

Frequently, the word ego hits us in a negative way. He has a swelled head; she has a superiority complex; he’s full of himself. We often use these descriptors as codes for unhealthy egos. Not to get too Freudian, unhealthy egos can be fear-driven—fear of not having control, of not getting credit or of not being viewed as competent or superior.

When these fears surface, a leader’s unhealthy ego is often not far behind. Instead of delegating responsibility, praising team members, or sharing credit, the focus turns to demonstrating one’s superiority over others or proving our importance. Unchecked, the ego can be the undoing of capable leadership. Numerous worksite surveys and studies warn about the negative impact that a leader’s inflated ego can have on employee morale, trust, performance and organizational effectiveness.

Chances are when these types of behaviors show up, our unhealthy egos are in control:

  • Not taking time to listen to or understand what others are saying
  • Talking over other people
  • Not admitting our mistakes
  • Making decisions without seeking perspectives from our colleagues or co-workers
  • Thinking we’re always right or have the best answer
  • Quickly judging and dismissing the ideas of others

The truth is we all need an ego to move through the world. At the heart of ego is our identity—our sense of self-respect and self-worth. We know our healthy egos are in the driver’s seat when our behavior is more in line with characteristics like these:

  • Patience and presence with other people
  • Openness and trust in turning over decision-making to others
  • Expression of appreciation for the contributions of others
  • Ability to openly make fun of ourselves with colleagues and co-workers
  • Ability to openly admit our mistakes
  • Care about the needs of others

Effective leaders recognize when they are moving into the world of the unhealthy ego and can recalibrate themselves to work their way back to the land of the healthy version. To gauge where your ego might be at any given point in time, take notice of how you’re behaving in meetings and discussions. Try this exercise in a few of your upcoming executive meetings.

  1. Make two columns on a sheet of paper. In one column write UNHEALTHY EGO and in the other write HEALTHY EGO.
  2. Be conscious of unhealthy ego behaviors. Each time you find yourself engaging in one, write it down in the appropriate column. When you find yourself returning to healthy ego behavior, write that behavior in its column.
  3. At the end of the meeting, review the columns and see what you’ve learned.

Head off to your other meetings. Repeat in each meeting. Which ego is mostly in the driver’s seat? If the answer is not to your liking, pick one behavior you want to change; identify the behavior you want to adopt and repeat the paper exercise for a couple of weeks to see how you progress.

Let me know how it goes! Contact me at


How often do we hear leaders openly admit their mistakes, say that they’re wrong or be honest about their shortcomings? In other words, how often do we see leaders show their humble sides? Not nearly enough. Yet research shows that leaders who engage in these humble behaviors increase employee trust, cohesion and overall engagement. Here’s a little example from one of my clients and how a CEO’s humble behavior opened up a chance to mend and strengthen a few frayed work relationships.

The story involves the CEO, two senior managers and a hot issue they needed to handle. They all met and  by all accounts, had a productive discussion. The two managers left the meeting satisfied with what the CEO was going to do next. All good – except the CEO took an action that, in the managers’ minds, ran completely counter to their discussion. When the managers heard about the CEO’s action, they were dumbfounded. What made the matter more difficult is that the CEO never took the time to loop back to them to explain his action.

It took a while for all three individuals to sit down and sort things out. In the mean time, tensions mounted as the confusion lingered.  Everyone had plenty of opportunity to stoke the blaming and resentment fires.

When the CEO and two managers finally gathered to revisit their original discussion, the CEO explained that at that point in time, contrary to what the managers believed, he hadn’t settled on a course of action and had still been weighing his options. Right here the situation could have turned nasty, but to their credit, all three individuals stayed in a place of genuine curiosity. How could two people leave the room with the same understanding and the CEO leave with something so different in mind? (Tip: Recap and clarify next steps and agreements before meeting ends.)

In the end, the real key to resolving this conflict for the better was the humble and honest way in which the CEO admitted his part in creating a very confusing and tense situation with the managers. He apologized and also shared that he had a lot of work to do at being a better listener and making sure he was communicating clearly with his co-workers.

In that moment of humbleness, the mangers were quite surprised by their CEO’s honesty and his willingness to be that vulnerable in front of them. As a result, the managers gained added respect for the CEO, and the CEO experienced a new level of trust and openness with his managers. It was an important shift for all three individuals, who have moved forward with stronger and more resilient work relationships.

To recap, three things had to happen for this shift to occur:

  1. The CEO had to acknowledge the problem and then listen to his managers without letting his ego get in the way. No excuses. No rationalizations. No finger-pointing.
  2. The CEO had to own up to his action. He had to hold himself accountable for the miscommunication and stress he created with his associates. This is where he brought true humbleness to the table.
  3. Finally, the CEO had to admit and be willing to address areas where he needed to grow as a leader, another humble act.

Humbleness.  It is one true measure of a strong leader.


A while back, a new client came to me exasperated that her workplace had fallen into nonstop gossiping and backbiting – one drama after another. All the signs were there. She saw too many spontaneous closed-door meetings, a rumor mill in overdrive and endless reports of how this co-worker was working against that co-worker. Sound familiar?

My client wondered how things had gotten to this point? What was fueling all the negativity? More importantly, what was it going to take to put an end to this seemingly never-ending drama?

I have found that even the best workplaces go through periods of drama, but if leaders are willing to be honest about the negativity in their work environments and try some focused remedies, they can greatly minimize, if not eliminate the drama.

Workplace drama flares up for a variety of reason but they usually link back to the quality of an organization’s culture – the values, norms, and practices that drive how work gets done and how people behave in the process.

One of the essential jobs of an organization’s leader is to make sure the workplace has a healthy work culture. When leaders neglect the well-being of their cultures, negative behavior creeps in and drama gets a foothold. And we all know where that leads. Too many hours diverted away from important work for closed door complaining or gossip, plummeting employee morale and ultimately, poor performance and productivity.

Here are four tips for defusing or preventing workplace drama:

  • Healthy culture – Start a focused discussion with your executive team about the organization’s values. If you have a values statement, review the statement and honestly assess how well leadership is living up to the values. If your organization does not operate by an explicit set of values, get one in place, share it broadly throughout the organization and live up to it.
  • Open environment – Rumors start to fly and drama gets its start when leadership holds important information tightly and isn’t willing to share it broadly. Being as transparent as possible, particularly with key decisions or big changes under consideration, can head off drama.
  • Productive Conflict – Drama feeds on conflict that is poorly managed. But organizational conflict can be healthy when it becomes a source of learning. Two heated, competing points of view may provide for dramatic moments around the conference table. Yet out of that tension can often come a better, more encompassing solution. Effective leaders know how to respond to conflict in a way that is healthy and moves an organization forward through learning.
  • Acknowledging the charged issue – When leadership stays silent on difficult or charged issues, expect drama to fill in the silence. At minimum, direct and open acknowledgment of the issue cuts down on employee gossip or the “parking lot” conversations to vent frustration and resentment.

As my client experienced, working to end what sometimes feels like never-ending drama takes time, patience and most importantly, maintaining a strong, healthy culture.


The executive in this article’s title is me. Former executive I should say. I spent 20 years in charge of various departments, programs, work teams and budgets. For most of that time, I believed that part of being an effective leader meant being thick-skinned. Not letting on in the workplace how I was actually feeling, particularly in difficult situations. It also meant that I was not interested in hearing other employees express their emotions. I viewed the act of sharing feelings as counterproductive to getting work done, achieving results and respecting personal boundaries. What I didn’t understand was that workplace leadership that values and encourages the sharing of emotions leads to higher employee trust, performance and results.

I remember a meeting I had with a department manager some time ago, which still affects me today. In one of our weekly supervision meetings, he said he was not happy with my management style and that he needed something more from me. He was having a hard time describing what that thing was exactly and the more he spoke, the more confused we both became. And then he just blurted out, “I need you to give me more of that chick thing.” I thought, wow, okay, what does that mean? In his own inelegant way, he was asking me to bring more feminine qualities to our relationship, namely more awareness, sensitivity and understanding to how he was feeling in his job. He wanted me to be more empathetic with him.

In all honesty, that conversation did not change my leadership style. I continued to approach this particular relationship with my thick-skinned mentality. I didn’t see how bringing what is now called “emotional intelligence” to the relationship would add anything of value. My focus was on a simple question: Are you getting the job done or not? We didn’t speak again about the issue, which was unfortunate. Doing so might have saved me some headaches down the road. I definitely experienced that manager as growing more distant after our conversation.

Much later in my career, I learned, through more hard lessons, that emotional intelligence is an essential skill for an effective leader. In short, emotions heavily influence our behavior, thoughts, decisions, actions and motivations. To ignore our own and our employees’ emotions is to ignore essential information that daily affects job performance and satisfaction.

Reflecting back on my previous executive experiences, I’ve come to appreciate that without emotional intelligence, leaders are challenged to form healthy and productive relationships with employees. Without these relationships, employees and organizations will function, even grow, but chances are they will not soar.

Just recently I spoke with a client/executive about a problem she was having with one of her managers. She had sent the manager an email asking him to look into complaints she was receiving about his department. The executive and manager had a conversation about the situation but it didn’t go well. She said the manager had very little to say about the email and only said he would look into the complaints. The executive, however, could tell that the manager was angry but she let it go. That was a mistake. She said that since the conversation, things were a little “chilly” between her and the manager. I asked the executive to follow up with the manager and specifically explore his feelings about the email, criticisms and their conversation. She did and heard how much anger and resentment the manager felt about the email and how the executive handled the entire situation.

The executive was able to listen to the manager’s feelings without judgment. In doing so, she was able to ease the tension and understand how she could have communicated more effectively with the manager.

Occasionally leaders have to be thick-skinned to handle particularly difficult problems. But based on my experience, I advise leaders not to make a career of it.