Leadership from Behind a Screen

Leadership from Behind a Screen
Seeing the human dynamic that bonds a team in a new light.

When the order for her department to begin working remotely came in early March, the news prompted a rush of anxiety, says Chevis Shannon, Dr.P.H, Director of the Surgical Outcomes Center for Kids (SOCKs) at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“In a matter of minutes, my entire research team went from ‘must work on campus’ to ‘nonessential, send them home to work remotely,’” Shannon reflected at the time, writing in a blog post for the website Edge for Scholars. “Am I the only one that has to figure out a way to actively lead my team from behind a screen?”

“Am I the only one that has to figure out a way to actively lead my team from behind a screen?”

While Shannon put her initial focus on restoring the structure and stability to her team’s daily flow – “One main theme ran throughout: ‘get to business,’” she wrote in a follow-up blog – she feels much differently today. Three months into reinventing her role as a virtual team leader, she views the experience as a source of deep insight into the “why” of working together, as well as a research interest.

The Wrong Angle on Remote Work

Most studies and assessments of virtual teams done in the days before COVID-19 have used business metrics as their measuring sticks. Questions of productivity and cost-effectiveness have driven much of the analysis of remote work.

For Shannon, this way of thinking only made sense when remote work was a speculative arrangement. Soon, she found that the structure and tools she initially prioritized were less important than finding ways to nurture human connection and spontaneity in a disconnected setting.

“[At first] we built into our week two 1-hour virtual team meetings… Over the weeks though, these have turned into 30-minute chat sessions about the weekend, updates for vacation plans, some team business, but mostly just gathering together… I [also] scheduled individual virtual meetings weekly but found all of us over-scheduled and over-screened.”

Shannon also believes her first reaction back in March reflected two common management anxieties: control and vulnerability. “I realize my perception of how to lead from behind a screen was not solely based on how to support the team, but rather on my own fear of failure as a leader.”

“I realize my perception of how to lead from behind a screen was not solely based on how to support the team, but rather on my own fear of failure as a leader.”

Human-centric Virtual Work

Shannon is interested in how good leaders can maintain the human-centric components of building and managing their teams as more work transitions to remote arrangements, even in health care.

The writing of Erica Keswin, author of Bring Your Human to Work, has been one source of insight. Keswin defines several “building blocks” of meaningful work that must be present regardless of setting. These include prioritizing and communicating the value of work in their company beyond financial profit, building professional development and holistic health into the culture, remaining open to conversations, and saying ‘thank you’ often.

Keswin also says leaders should create ample space for face-to-face interaction. In Shannon’s recent experience, that can mean many things for a virtual team beyond just endless Zoom meetings.

“As a leader, I have always maintained an open-door policy. Our current environment should be no different… Reducing the ‘scheduled’ meetings and being available when they ‘need me’ has actually allowed me to engage with each one of them more often than I did when we were on campus,” she said.

“Reducing the ‘scheduled’ meetings and being available when they ‘need me’ has actually allowed me to engage with each one of them more often than I did when we were on campus.”

“If you ask me today what it means to be a leader from behind the screen, here is what I would say: It means appreciating your team and showing value even when you don’t think they need to hear it. It means being available to actively listen and show compassion. It means, even remotely, finding time to engage personally, helping them find ways to disconnect, as well as professionally, by providing opportunities so they continue to feel challenged/successful. The rest takes care of itself!” Shannon added.