By Nate Skinner
The original plan for my first day at Oracle was to be in Chicago for the Modern Customer Experience conference on March 23. Instead, because of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place mandates, I began my new role from my home in Atlanta.
Onboarding as a new member of the marketing team under these circumstances was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my career. If things had been “normal,” I would likely have flown two or three times in my first month because our team, our customers, and our partners are located all over the world. Coming in from the outside, I needed to talk with as many people as I could in order to get a sense of what’s working well, what we should do more of, less of, etc. None of that was possible, or at least not in the way I imagined. Instead, I haven’t been on a plane since February 18.
What I realize now is that I didn’t need to do the flying part. At all.
These first 30 days at Oracle in a virtual work environment have changed, or reaffirmed, many values I’ve held as a leader for a long time—for the better. Here are three lessons I’ve learned that we thought others may find useful.
Lesson #1: Location is irrelevant
As a leader, if physical location were ever a determining factor for your team, now’s the time to put that idea to bed. Location is absolutely irrelevant.
I’ve worked from home or in a different location from my company HQ throughout much of my career, and I’ve also worked in senior-level roles that required living in a particular city. This new virtual work environment has changed the location perception for everybody, for two key reasons:
A. You can meet more people in a shorter amount of time.
Prior to the last 30 days, I’d rarely go three weeks in a row without traveling for business. I don’t think I’ll ever travel nearly so often again. Since beginning at Oracle, I’ve traveled the world without leaving my house.
At last count I had 59 one-on-one meetings in my first month. That’s a lot. Why is that possible now and it wasn’t before? It’s because virtual meetings don’t require you to fight traffic or run from an office to another, ride elevators, or find the meeting room you have never been to before. All of those things take time, and that time is lost to meeting more people. Most companies, regardless of size, struggle with meeting space and one-on-one facilities. Zoom makes that a non-issue, as Larry Ellison points out. We can go back-to-back-to-back having 30-minute discussions with people without having to run—sometimes literally—to the next meeting location. As a new hire, that increased the time I could spend getting to know everyone in my first month.
B. There are situations when face-to-face should not be replaced by virtual.
I’ve also come to recognize that there are very specific scenarios where in-person meetings are better. For example, our team is currently pulling together our fiscal year ’21 plan. In a non-virtual world, we would have brought the team together to do a full day of planning: strategy sessions and brainstorming with whiteboards and sticky notes. In this instance, getting out of the office would’ve helped recharge the metaphorical engine, as well as get our brains collectively focused on the new year in a new way. There’s something to be said for changing the venue and the scenery in order to help us think differently about the future. Something really magical happens when everyone puts on their “design thinking” hats and thinks big about what we want to accomplish over the next year. This kind of bonding and planning is ideal in person, and I’m looking forward to the day when we can do that again.
Lesson #2: Micromanagers will struggle
In the virtual work environment, everyone’s more equal. We all have the same access to each other, we’re all working from our homes, and no matter what title you hold in your company, your situation is currently the same as the CEO’s.
In a physical, face-to-face office environment, people can hide within the physical office or work area or make themselves inaccessible in other ways—and this holds true for leaders too. In a virtual environment, team members don’t have to figure out how to get to the top floor of the building or to the corner office, where a leader has the natural home court advantage. The virtual environment has leveled the playing field and made us all more accessible, regardless of location or hierarchy.
No, you don’t have to turn your camera on.
Micromanaging manifests itself in many ways, but one of those is as follows: “I want to check and see if my team is online and in front of their cameras at 6:00 pm.” That’s a terrible way to lead people ever, but especially in this virtual world.
I’ve seen tweets and LinkedIn posts that suggest everyone in this virtual environment should have their cameras on. I fundamentally disagree with this. In this environment, sometimes you want to just dial in—maybe your kids are being more vocal than usual, or your dog won’t leave you alone—and that’s life for us all. As leaders, we need to have empathy for our teammates. I let my team know early on that they don’t have to turn on their cameras if they don’t want to. It’s a matter of respect and empathy, especially when meeting team members for the first time and building trust with each other.
This is an environment in which we have to be flexible, and it’s based on a foundational belief that people who work from home are actually working. To assume that, since your team is working from home, they’ve got to show their faces on a camera—that’s the epitome of micromanagement.
However, for those who are working virtually, we all owe it to each other to communicate and send signals, even if they’re passive signals, to say, “I’m here,” or “I’m not here.” If you’re done for the day, use the technology available to send those signals. Set your out-of-office autoreply, or set your Slack status to indicate that you’re not at work, or that you can’t be disturbed right now. If anything, that’s now more important than ever—not because you’re being micromanaged, but because the usual signals, like passing one another in the hall or at lunch, are now unavailable.
Servant leaders will thrive
If you’re the type of leader who believes people are the most important thing, and you want to get to know your team and help them succeed, a virtual environment can be a huge positive as it takes some of the psychological barriers away from people. Team members Slack me, ping me, and get on Zoom meetings with me who, in a physical world, may be more reluctant to approach me.
I love it because I’m a huge fan of helping people do the best work of their lives. Leaders I worked for early in my career really let me go as far as I could go and were there to help coach me and make sure that I didn’t veer off course. They were very much servant leaders. I feel like that’s my job—to move barriers and obstacles out of the team’s way, to give actionable and specific feedback, and ultimately, to allow people to do what they think is right.
Take the time to reflect on your leadership style.
This is an opportunity to reflect on the kind of leader you want to be. Do you want to be the leader who only gets people to respond because of your title and where you sit in the hierarchy of the organization, or do you want people to feel like they want to be part of what you’re doing? Now’s the time to think through that, and change accordingly.
A leader’s job is not to micromanage, it’s to allow people to do the best work they can, to coach them, to be there to give them constructive and actionable feedback, and to hold them accountable. The last thing you want to do as a leader, especially during uncertain times, is to undermine your team’s energy and enthusiasm for doing their job.
Lesson #3: It’s time to get back to marketing basics: sharing solutions to problems
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you’re a marketer and you’re not thinking, “How is my work helping right now?” then you’re not doing it right, and you’re doing a disservice to your customers and your brand.
In this environment, I learned that we have the opportunity to bring marketing back to its fundamental mission, which is to help someone who has a problem find a solution to that problem.
For example, many government or public-sector organizations are currently facing unprecedented challenges. At Oracle, we wanted to make sure that, as they’re searching for solutions to some of those challenges, they can find us and understand how we can help them. For example, Shawna on our team shared an idea for updating our public sector website to be more specific and clear regarding how Oracle technology can help customers in the public sector respond to constituent needs.
A simple yet effective concept, it wasn’t about marketing in the COVID-19 environment. It was about making sure people could find the right information. That’s how we approached that update, not: “Let’s get this marketing out the door and promote it through social posts.” It was a mindset shift to: “Let’s ensure that those who need help can find it.”
How managers set up and lead their teams right now will have an impact for years to come. Now’s the time to reflect on leadership strategy, remote work, and how we do marketing differently.
For more information and resources from Oracle regarding the COVID-19 crisis, visit our website.