Best leadership articles of 2020

The Best Leadership Articles of 2020 (and more … based on your votes)

It’s always fun to look back to see what resonated as the best leadership articles of the year at Let’s Grow Leaders. Most years, there’s quite a mix of topics and interests.

It’s not a shocker that this year, the most helpful articles were about creating a deeper connection with your team, leading well during times of uncertainty and disruption, and of course, practical tools for leading remote teams.

So here you go (click on the header link to access the article). These are our best leadership articles of 2020 based on your reading and sharing.

What do you think were our best leadership articles of 2020… what resonated most for you?

And of course, if you have a topic you like us to tackle in 2021 please let us know in the comments or drop us a note at

The Best Leadership Articles of 2020
(According to You)

1. How to Start the Decade in Deeper Conversation

How to Start the New Decade in Deeper Conversations

We wrote this most popular leadership article in January of 2020 BEFORE we had any idea what was on the horizon.  And yet with the quick pivot to remote work, it turns out this easy team-builder worked wonders for creating trust and connection in remote teams.

We’ve had tremendous feedback from participants of our live-online leadership training programs who’ve used this tool as part of their action learning this year.

2. What Employees are Yearning For in Remote One-on-Ones

What Employees are Yearning for in Remote One to Ones

When the Pandemic first hit one of our biggest concerns was how many managers we saw canceling their one-on-ones. This was our passionate response. We captured the biggest needs we were hearing from managers around the world.

what employees are yearning for in remote one-on-onesAlso fun, this article was recognized in the CTO awards for best leadership articles of the year. If you’re looking to get better at one-on-ones in the new year, this posts for you.

3. How to Lead When Your Employees Don’t Have to Follow

Also a pre-pandemic hit, David shares one of our core philosophies: “everyone’s a volunteer.”

4. Practical Help For Exhausted Leaders Who Need to Get More Done

Okay, this was also interesting. We wrote this in February almost as if we knew what was coming next. Who knew that we had no idea of the exhaustion that lay ahead. In this practical article, we share some of our foundational tools and approaches to get results and improve relationships without driving yourself (or your team) into the ground.

5. How to Lead in the Midst of Urgent Rapid Change and Strain

In this early pandemic article, we share a great story from our very last on-site client visit of the year, along with practical tips for leading through a crisis.

6. Three Ways to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Remote Team

So much of the research about leading remote teams points to what employees miss most are the informal opportunities for interaction and sharing best practices. This article gives you practical ways to recreate that for your team.

7. How to Capture What You’re Learning From This Crisis Right Now

We wrote this right at the beginning of the Pandemic when everything was in total lockdown, Clorox and toilet paper were in short supply, we were sanitizing groceries before they came in the house, and our readers told us they were quarantining their copies of our books in their garage for 24 hours before they could read it.

And so we captured this “BED Talk”

8. How to Disrupt the Disruption and Help Your Team Move Forward

A lot of the training work we’ve been doing with our clients over this past year has included practical tools and techniques to”disrupting the disruption” to build a brighter bolder future. Here are a few practical approaches that can help as you continue to navigate this crisis.

9. How to Co-Create a Better Future

This article pairs well with our #8 winner, with more practical approaches to help your team do the best they can with what they have from where they are.

10. Four Words to Help You Build a Powerful Team

“How can I help …?” can go a long way in building a team. In this article, we share important ways to uncover the support your team most needs.

Most Popular Leadership Article of All Time on Let’s Grow Leaders

7 Ways to Help Your Team Deal with Ambiguity – Let’s Grow Leaders    

This article continues to top our “best leadership articles” list every single year. And, Winning Well: Leading Through Uncertainty and Change continues to be one of our most requested keynote programs.  You can’t always choose what you show up to, but you can always choose how you show up.

The Best Leadership Articles of 2020 (as seen in other media)

Leadership without Losing Your Soul Podcast (With David Dye)

David’s podcast audience has been growing quickly with over 80 episodes. Here are the top 3 for 2020.

how to avoid micromanaging remote employeesHow to Avoid Micromanaging Remote Employees

Burnout to Breakthrough – Interview with EileenMcDargh

Advanced Guide to Leading Online Meetings that Don’t Suck

Asking For a Friend Vlog (With Karin Hurt)

In the 4th Quarter  2020, Karin’s Asking For a Friend Vlog went live on Friday’s at 11:30 EST with a sprinkling of her old school pithy moments of leadership advice.

And the most popular Asking For a Friend Live was about Connection and Celebration in remote teams with Scott Friedman and Debra Fine (be sure you’re logged in to LinkedIn to view)

We are so grateful to all of you who read and share our articles. We’re delighted to have you part of our growing Let’s Grow Leaders Community.

How leaders can find the fun during the slog

How Leaders Can Find the Fun During the Slog

Find the fun with authenticity, surprise, and variety.

Robert unmuted his microphone, leaned into the camera, and asked in a near-whisper: “How can we find the fun again?”

We were facilitating at the Inc 5000 Vision Conference, helping leaders navigate the challenges of a remote, socially-distanced workforce. Heads nodded. And a sea of sympathetic half-smiles and hopeful eyes filled the Zoom screen.

He continued, “My company culture was built on frequent social gatherings and my people draw energy and encouragement from one another. The fun isn’t window-dressing, it’s an essential part of their productivity–and without it, I worry about our future.”

As the pandemic’s socially distanced slog continues into the winter months in the northern hemisphere, you know how important Roberts’s question is for your team’s morale and productivity.

4 Ways to Find the Fun Despite the Slog

As we’ve talked with leaders around the world who can find the fun, four characteristics emerged.

1. Authenticity and Vulnerability

Vulnerability isn’t ‘fun’ per se, but it’s essential. Starting with “fun” without acknowledging reality feels disconnected or manipulative.

Transparency from leaders and team members about their feelings, acknowledging the reality you and your team face–these build trust and credibility. They also lighten the load just a bit.

And to get real for a moment: the pandemic slog is real. We’re living it. Close family and friends are sick. Friends, family, and clients have lost friends and family. Along with you, we long for the days when we can once again gather safely with loved ones or conduct training and strategic facilitation in person.

Those days will come again, but right now we face the slog. Frankly, it stinks and everyone’s tired of it. And …we can do it.

Over and over again we’ve seen leaders care for their teams, inspire morale, motivation, and breakthrough performance. This is hard; and you’re up for the challenge.

2. Varied and Individualized

In our conversations with leaders who are able to find the fun, a recurring theme is variety. The virtual happy hour was fun the first time, but the tenth one feels obligatory and routine.

How can you mix up your routine remote activities?

Perhaps you could start every team meeting with a different activity? For more social or fun activities, keep it fresh. Many teams have incorporated online games, themed events, and professional development into their mix of recognition and connection.

Another important aspect of variety is individualization. Recognize the differences in your team so you see and connect with people as they are. One CEO shared an effective way to do this in her company: periodically they take half-days for self-directed professional development, followed by brief sharing about what they chose and what they learned.

With everyone choosing their focus and learning, then sharing it with their colleagues, the activity is both individualized, varied every time, and connects team members more closely with one another in areas of passion.

3. Anticipation

An endless horizon stretching ahead forever is discouraging and, on top of pandemic-related anxiety, can lead to significant mental health challenges.

Give people something to look forward to will break up the monotony and energize performance. But don’t schedule everything – leave room for …

4. Surprise and Delight

One of the most powerful ways to find the fun is with the element of surprise and delight. Create moments of the unexpected where people feel genuinely seen and valued.

Recently, a client had a coffee meeting with Karin. He had pastries delivered to our home office ahead of the meeting. It was so unexpected–we rarely have pastries, and it brought so much joy.

Another client ordered a pizza to arrive at her team member’s home just as our meeting was wrapping up. That pizza brought so much joy that he sent us a picture just to celebrate the moment.

Surprise and delight don’t have to be about food. When people show up for a routine meeting, what can you do that would delight them? Make them smile and say “Wow, that was cool!”

You don’t need to rely on surprise and delight every week. If you do, it becomes routine–and the endless horizon returns. But every few weeks, how can you make people smile, feel seen, and do it in a way they aren’t expecting?

Your Turn

The slog is real. But so is your team’s resilience and ability to persevere. You can find the fun and energize your people with a combination of authenticity, variety, anticipation, surprise, and delight.

We’d love to hear from you: As you lead through these challenging circumstances, how are you renewing your team’s energy and morale?

3 Ways to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Remote Team

3 Ways to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Remote Team

One of the most frequent concerns we hear from leaders and teams (where remote-work is the foreseeable norm) is the lack of a virtual watercooler. That metaphorical place where people exchange ideas, build connections, and spontaneous innovation thrives.

The informal exchange of ideas is critical for innovation and building relationships.

Fortunately, you can create spaces and interactions that simulate or improve upon the accidental connections that happen when you’re in the same building.

But it does require different ways of thinking and interacting.

As you’re thinking about how to re-create these interactions, it may be helpful to reflect on why watercoolers have become shorthand for these dynamics. The prosaic watercooler wasn’t designed as a place for team members to build relationships and share ideas.

But it works. Well.

Why? One reason is that it feels easy … no pressure … just chatting.

It’s the same reason people tell us the best conversations that happen at conferences happen during the coffee breaks.

So, how can you bring people together to cultivate spontaneous connections and new ideas?

3 Ways to Create that Virtual Watercooler

1. Create a standing “watercooler room.”

One of the most straightforward ways to re-create that gathering space is to build an online version. A Zoom or Teams video meeting that stays open, where people can drop in to say hi, take breaks, and talk about whatever they want.

To get people used to its availability, it may help to have a natural reason people would want to stop by. Perhaps a different daily resource, fun prompt, or shared activity or whiteboard.

Standing “break room” Slack or Teams channels can also play this role. We’ve seen organizations create dedicated spaces for work-related free-form discussions as well as personal topics like exchanging recipes, following sports, and many more.

2. Use quick parallel conversations

We’ve been inspired by teams around the world who come together quickly to solve problems, get creative, riff on ideas, and chart strategic action–in minutes, not days.

The secret to this rapid creativity and strategic problem-solving?

Breakout rooms.

There are so many ways to use the power of breakout rooms for fast parallel thinking.

You can seed the conversation with one meaningful, specific “How can we?” question and have each room address it – or give each room a different question or aspect of the challenge ahead. Or hold a quick standup meeting where people address one current challenge, then design a rapid-breakout session to address solutions for the three most common issues.

Create groups of 4-6 people, create a time limit that feels slightly too short, and get out of the way to let people engage with one another. The secret is to make these conversations relevant and fast. The best result is if one group says, “let’s keep talking” and then does.

3. Get personal with meaningful prompts.

It is possible to build and nurture human relationships remotely. We know because we’ve done it with clients and friends around the world. Whether you’re starting a business meeting with human connection or facilitating a virtual social hour, how can you be intentional and increase everyone’s understanding of one another?

The key is to use meaningful prompts. You might introduce the process with easier topics like hobbies, but over time, move to more meaningful conversations.

One of our favorites is “What are you most proud of?”–either in life, work, or any other aspect of life. This gives everyone quick insight into a person in a way that’s safe and not too vulnerable.

We’ve also worked with teams who have used questions like “What has been your source of strength or inspiration over the past months?” “Can you show us a picture or object associated with your source of strength and inspiration?”

Your Turn

It takes intentional effort to rebuild these informal exchanges, but the rewards are worth it. Your virtual watercooler will help to build connected teams and facilitate better ideas.

We’d love to hear from you. What are the most effective ways you’ve seen remote teams rebuild informal gatherings?

You might also like:

How to Get Better at Remote Small Talk

How to Find the Best Ideas to Make Remote Work Easier

Beyond the Basics: Online Meetings that Don’t Suck Your Soul

How to Get More Creative In Your Remote Team Communication


Debra Fine and Scott Friedman

How to Get Better at Remote Small Talk

Small talk is challenging for many leaders, but it can be even more challenging when leading a remote team. In this episode of Asking For a Friend, I talk with small talk experts Debra Fine and Scott Friedman about practical ways to approach this fine art.

“Yeah, I don’t do small talk.”

“My team understands, I’m cool with THEIR chit chat in-between meetings, but I don’t really have time for that stuff. I’m all business. That’s why I’m so productive.”

“I get that small talk is important, but I just hate it’s so uncomfortable. I never know what to say.”

“I love hearing about what’s going on with my team personally, but I don’t want to waste their time talking about my personal life, so I keep that to myself.”

These are all phrases we’ve heard from managers (and executives) recently. And yet, what we hear from their teams is quite a different story. People are yearning for human connection, with one another and their manager.

The truth is small talk is no small matter.

5 Practical Ways to Up Your Remote Small Talk Game

In our Asking for a Friend Live series this week, Karin interviewed connection experts Scott Friedman and Debra Fine about building connection and celebration—and of course, the importance of small talk in the mix.

A few tips (watch the video below for more):

1. Use prompts to invite a deeper conversation.

Debra suggests that instead of asking “How are you?” Use the phrase, “Catch me up.”

For example, don’t just ask, “How’s your kid?” Because of course, you’ll hear the most likely answer, “Oh, he’s fine.”

But if you say, “Catch me up about your son, Sebastian. What’s he’s been up to since we last spoke?” just like that, you are having a meaningful conversation that helps your co-worker feel seen and cared for.

2. Make small talk a task.

If you struggle with small talk, make small talk a task.

For example, you could make a calendar appointment to reach out to two people you work with each day, just to check-in. Or, if you’re leading a meeting, make a deliberate plan to start the meeting with space for small talk and a check-in prompt or two.  Then, just like every other task, once you’ve completed it you can check it off. (P.S.  no one needs to know you think of it as a task. They’ll just love the time for connection.)

3. Book-end each meeting with time for small talk.

Small talk doesn’t have to take a lot of time. As you head into each remote meeting, think about having small talk frame your meeting like bookends. Begin and end every meeting with time to connect for five minutes at a human level.

4. Create opportunities for asynchronous small talk.

One of the I.D.E.A.s that came out of a recent Courageous Cultures live-online program was to build a series of Slack channels where employees could engage with one another as they had time around topics they cared about (e.g. recipes, funny pet pics/stories, fitness challenges).

5. Make small talk a ritual.

Scott talks about the power of “Wow Friday,” where people get a moment to share their concerns and celebrations.

Wine: Get a beverage of choice and give people a chance to share what’s on their hearts.

Wow: Celebrate something good, and be able to celebrate.

More here…

Asking For a Friend Live With Scott Friedman and Debra Fine

Join us on Friday’s For Asking For a Friend

Join Karin every Friday at 11:30 EST for her Asking For a Friend Video Series where she shares practical tools and techniques including interviews with well-known authors and business leaders from around the world.

Your turn.

What are your best tips for small talk on remote teams?

See Also:

Fast Company- How to Replace Small Talk When Working Remotely

For more remote team tips and techniques visit our remote team resource center.

Don't let well-intentioned big mouths hijack your virtual meeting

How to Prevent Well-Intentioned Big Mouths From Hijacking Your Virtual Meeting

The pivot to more virtual meetings didn’t create this problem. Anyone who has ever run more than a meeting or two knows the challenge of managing the person who just can’t seem to shut up.

It’s extra tricky when they’re a high-performer whose heart is in the right place. And extra, extra challenging when no one else is talking.

After all, it’s human nature for your oxygen sucker to think, “Thank God for me, otherwise, no one would say a word.” And they keep on talking for the good of the team.

My best advice for in-person meetings is to take a break. Then have a quick hallway conversation with the well-intentioned over-sharer to (1) thank them for their ideas and contribution (2) share your concern about getting more voices into the room and, (3) invite them to help draw others in by asking more questions and inviting their colleagues to contribute.

5 Ways to Encourage Everyone to Share in Your Remote Team Meeting

So how do you keep your well-intentioned talker from hijacking your virtual meeting? In some ways, it’s actually a bit easier if you use this opportunity to reset expectations and leverage the technology.

1. Take time out to reset expectations as a team.

First set the stage, “We’ve been working from home for a while now and it looks like we’ll be at this for a while. It’s really important that everyone has an opportunity to contribute and offer their ideas in our virtual meetings.”

And then, invite their ideas.  “Before our next meeting, I’d like everyone to email one or two I.D.E.A.s to ensure everyone has a voice in our virtual meetings. Then, I’ll combine the ideas and we can talk through them and come up with a strategy that will work for all of us.”

Note: by giving everyone a chance to submit their ideas in advance, you give the people who are normally not talking a better chance to weigh in on what it would take to draw them in. This pre-gathering input technique can work well on other topics too.

2. Use the power of chat

The private chat works just like a hallway conversation but without having to take a break. Use a similar “thank, explain, invite” approach as I outlined above with your meeting hijacker.

Public chat also works great to prime-the-pump for conversation. One of our favorite ways to do this is to ask everyone to “put your fingers on the keyboard,” and then ask a provocative question and have everyone chat in the answers. Then you can call out the answers of some of the folks who are less likely to unmute and speak.

3. Leverage breakout rooms for more intimate and streamlined conversation.

This is where technology is your friend. When we’re facilitating virtual meetings or live-online training we almost always use the breakout rooms to encourage deeper dialogue. We find the smaller the better. It’s hard to hide in a group of three or four, and we find participants do a better job of encouraging one another’s contributions and making space for everyone to speak. AND the ideas generated are almost always better with more brains actually engaged in the conversation. Vary who gives the readout from the groups each time. You can even randomize it so that it’s not just a volunteer. For example, “and when we come back I’d like the person with the birthday earliest in the year, to give the readout.”

4. Teach the art of facilitation and then take turns.

Empowering all team members with some basic training or tips on remote facilitation will help everyone know what success looks like and be more likely to help keep the meeting more inclusive (with a side-effect of encouraging some self-regulation). By rotating the meeting facilitation through every member of your team you by default encourage more balanced conversations.

5. Talk with your well-intentioned meeting hijacker off-line.

If you try all this and still have a well-intentioned meeting hijacker, it’s time for an off-line voice to voice feedback conversation about the pattern, point out why it matters and invite them to come up with a solution. Our I.N.S.P.I.R.E. technique for having a difficult conversation works great at a time like this.

Your turn.

I’d love to hear your ideas. What are your best techniques for preventing a well-intentioned big mouth from hijacking your virtual meeting?

HT to James daSilva of Smartbrief for the prompt.

How to Show Up as a Better Leader During Chaotic Times

How To Show Up As a Better Leader During Chaotic Times

Do you ever feel like us? Sometimes we just look at one another and say, “Why are we so tired?” Leading in chaotic times is exhausting.

But when it comes right down to it, one of the biggest reasons is all the uncertainty and contingency planning.

“If there’s a vaccine by then we’ll hold our event this way … and if not, let’s plan for an entirely different approach.”

“We will go in THIS direction unless THAT happens, and then, of course, we’ll need to do THAT instead. Can you build it out both ways?”

“We desperately need leadership training. And we’ve selected you …” (that’s the good news).

“But first, we have to see if …” (and all we head into another hopeful holding pattern).”

And your contingencies depend on THEIR contingencies. And the vortex of chaotic times continues.

How to Ensure You Show Up as a Better Leader During Chaotic Times

You just don’t know what you’re going to show up to tomorrow.

But you do have a very important choice: How you show up.

One of the best ways to become a better leader is to DECIDE how you want to show up.

No matter what.


Regardless of what happens next.

To lead from your own playbook.

You can’t always choose WHAT you show up to,

but you can always choose HOW you show up.

When Karin was teaching in the MBA program at the University of Maryland, one of her favorite assignments was helping her students articulate their values and operating principles by building their “leadership credo”(click here for a step-by-step guide to this activity which you can easily adapt for a Zoom team-builder).

We take a similar approach in our long-term leadership programs by helping leaders build their personalized leadership playbook. They reflect on and articulate their leadership values, operating principles, and what they want to be known for—their leadership legacy.

We then take the conversation a step deeper as we talk about scenarios that make it challenging to show up as this best version of themselves. And how they can help one another overcome those challenges.

Then, when the chaos ensues, we encourage leaders to pause and control what they can control: how they show up. Because they’ve got the playbook.

Your Personalized Leadership Playbook

And so we share this tool with you, to help you (and your team) build your own leadership playbook for thriving during chaotic times. Let us know how it goes. We’d love to have you share your aspirational leadership legacy with us in the comments. Feel free to use this playbook with your team. You can download the PDF here.


Your Turn:

What’s your aspirational leadership legacy. For what do you want to be remembered as a leader?

How to Demonstrate Your Leadership Potential Right Now

How to Demonstrate Your Leadership Potential Now

You know you’ve got leadership potential.

But, how do you get others to see it? Particularly, now. After all, your boss has bigger fish to fry than talking about your career.

But this crisis could go on for a while.

And you care about your future and want to make a bigger impact.

In-person visibility is at an all-time low. The company off-site where you would normally have some great hallway conversations is now virtual.

But the good news is that in some ways it’s even easier to emerge as a leader and get noticed for your leadership potential.

Because you know what your company needs right now?

Great leadership at every level.

If you’re stretching out of your comfort zone, contributing what you can, truly caring for the people around you, making the tough decisions, and prioritizing what matters most—you are bound to get noticed.

5 Ways to Demonstrate Your Leadership Potential Now

This is your moment.

New leaders always emerge in times of crisis.

Stay focused on adding value, making a consistent contribution, and worry less about who gets the credit.

It might not happen right away, but trust me, there will be a point that people look back and say, “Who made a difference during our time of crisis, what did they do, and why did it matter?”

You want your name at the top of the list.

Here’s a start.

1. Connect deeply.

Everyone is struggling in their own way right now.  Show up with deep empathy (and a bit of vulnerability) and work to connect. Influence starts with trust and connection. And you know what else? It feels good! For you and for them.

2. Keep your cool.

Grace under pressure is by far one of the hardest leadership competencies to teach. And, it’s one of the most important leadership competencies needed right now.

When everyone’s freaking out about a fast pivot, or visibly oozing pandemic stress onto everyone around them, the people who can provide stability and calm stand out.

Just like stress, calm is contagious.  Anything you can do to help the people around you stay grounded will add huge value. Be the one who helps the team stay focused and productive.

3. Consistently contribute I.D.E.A.s to improve the business.

And not just any ideas. Bring ideas that are strategically aligned with what your organization needs to do to thrive in the next 18 months.

No one has all the answers. That’s your invitation.

Show that you get what matters most and bring ideas about how to solve a big problem, and in the next 9 box review, your boss will be sharing how resourceful you are with excellent critical thinking skills. You can use our I.D.E.A. model to vet your ideas and then make your case.

4. Be sure every meeting you attend is better because you were there.

Leading remote teams resource pagePeople are Zoomed out. Everyone we talk to is sharing that remote work is leading to more meetings, not less.

You don’t have to be in charge of a meeting to make it better.

Check out our FREE remote team’s resource center for ideas on how to lead remote meetings, run better remote one-on-one and more and work to make any meeting you are a part of better. Suggest alternative ways to communicate, including asynchronous communication.

5. Lead a team to solve a problem.

There’s no shortage of challenges right now. Pick something that’s really frustrating you, that’s within your ability to make better. Find a few like-minded people and work on it. Don’t do it because you need visibility. Do it because you care and want to make your organization better. Every leader I’m talking to right now is looking for more gung-ho, solutions-oriented people to help.

Be the person others see as working to make things better.

Your turn.

What ideas do you have for someone looking to demonstrate their leadership potential right now?

how to be compassionate without destroying consistency

How to Be Compassionate Without Destroying Consistency

The other day, “Joe” reached out with a genuine dilemma. Throughout this crisis, he’s encouraged his supervisors to be compassionate.  Because, like you, he knows that everyone is dealing with their own set of challenging circumstances.

Like you, he’s focused on doing the right thing for the human beings on the team. Which, of course, means an extra dose of flexibility.

This compassionate, flexible approach worked great—at first. But, now, half a year into this work-at-home reality, with no end in sight, people are complaining about consistency.

And frankly, a few folks are taking advantage of the loosened expectations. The results could be better. The supervisors who try to reign things in look like the bad guys.  Frustration abounds.

How to Calibrate Compassionate Consistency

So what should Joe (and you) do? How do you reset expectations without being a jerk? How do you create compassionate consistency within and across teams?

It starts with setting parameters and calibrating with specific examples.

We find it helpful to think about decisions in three buckets: hard lines, soft lines, and your lines.

Hard Lines

These are areas where employees don’t have much discretion. Think compliance, ethics issues, or even brand standards. Your people can’t bend a rule like that without coming to you.

And, you’re not likely to budge either. Being really clear about your hard line parameters saves time and frustration—for everyone.

Soft Lines

Soft lines are decisions that have more discretion.  People are free to make the call, within certain boundaries. This is where calibration is vital.

For example, suppose you will bend your attendance policy, giving people an extra chance for extraordinary family circumstances during this time. What does that actually mean? It’s likely that your managers will have different interpretations of what constitutes “extraordinary.”

Start by identifying what decisions fall into your “soft lines” bucket, and then play with some imaginary “what if” scenarios, and help the team collaborate and discuss what they would do. It’s far easier (and way less emotional) to calibrate on what compassion looks like in “pretend” situations. And, having already had a similar discussion makes it easier when the time comes to make the tough call.

Your Lines

And if there are areas where your team truly has discretion, be very clear about what those are.   For example, if you only need people in “the office” (working synchronously) during certain hours, say so. And give them the flexibility to manage the rest of their schedule around their life. Or, perhaps you’re requiring every manager to hold a weekly one-on-one with each member of their team, but exactly what that looks like is up to them.

It’s surprising how often people feel overly constrained in areas where they actually have discretion.

The antidote to uncertainty is clarity. The more clear you can be about who owns the decision, and calibrate on what a compassionate response actually looks like, the easier it will be for your managers to make the right, and more consistent, call.

online meetings that don't suck your soul

Beyond the Basics: Online Meetings that Don’t Suck Your Soul

We don’t hate online meetings – we hate soul-sucking wastes of time.

After months of online meetings, video conferences, Zoom, and Teams meetings, you’ve mastered the basics:

  • You’ve got light in front of you (not behind you) so we can see you.
  • You look into the camera to connect with your team.
  • You’ve got a list of everyone attending and you call in each person to take part.
  • You found a decent microphone so your team can hear you and you don’t have to yell.
  • You invite the least number of people to make the best decisions.
  • At the beginning of the meeting, you summarize the purpose.
  • Your agenda is short, snappy, and people don’t drift and start checking emails.
  • At the end of the meeting, you check for understanding and schedule the finish by asking “Who’s doing what, by when, and how will we know?”
  • And, vitally, you’re not holding a video meeting when a phone call or email will do.

You’re doing these things, but online meeting fatigue persists. What now?

Why Online Meetings Wear Us Out

Online meeting fatigue is real. There are a couple of reasons it happens and, when you know why, you can do something about them.

Remote Energy Drains – It takes energy to look into that camera and convey your support, encouragement, urgency, or concern. And then, you’re putting that energy into the camera, but you don’t get it back.

Your brain is built to work with the verbal and nonverbal cues you get from other people. Without those cues, you spend more energy in the form of anxiety, trying to figure out what’s happening. Much of this is unconscious, but it’s happening and it wears us out.

Seeing Yourself – Imagine a traditional face-to-face team meeting. Now imagine holding a mirror in front of your face while you’re talking. You would become hyper-aware of your facial expressions, posture, the tilt of your head, that fly-away hair that won’t behave, asking yourself “Should I move that way, no-wait-I’m-mirrored-go-the-other-way. Oh dang, that looked dumb, argh …” the list goes on.

The default “see-yourself” settings in many video meeting platforms create new awareness. For some of us, this isn’t bad—we needed the help. But this awareness of yourself consumes yet more energy – energy you never had to expend in a face-to-face setting.

People Become Less Human – One of the challenging aspects of our humanity is that it’s easier to see people close to us as fully formed persons with complex lives and a range of interests. The farther away a person is, the easier it is to reduce them to their role, a number, or even a problem. Online meetings can reinforce this tendency if we’re not careful. (Fortunately, they can also help to humanize one another if we’re intentional about it.)

How to Invigorate Your Online Meetings

Get Personal – One of the most effective and easiest ways to reinvigorate your online meetings is to show up with (and invite others’) full humanity. You can set a different tone and create meaningful connection by starting with the people, rather than the business.

Get past the friendly banter and start with meaningful, but safe, self-disclosure. For example:

  • Ask everyone to share an inspirational quote that’s guided them through challenging times.
  • Have every participant show an object that is meaningful to them and explain why.
  • For a lighter tone, you might start by asking everyone to share the most humorous regret they have during the pandemic.

Add Drama – What made Tiger King such an early pandemic phenomenon? Perhaps it was the lack of new alternatives, but at its core, that show had drama. (I wasn’t a fan of the show, but every minute had you wondering “What the heck will happen next?”)

Now, I’m not suggesting you threaten your competition or accuse a colleague of murdering their spouse (and if those references don’t mean anything to you – you didn’t watch the show, and that’s perfectly okay)—but, you can add drama to your meetings and make them more interesting.

There are several ways to amp up the intrigue, drama, and curiosity.

Start by making interesting decisions. Start a decision-making discussion with a clear definition of what’s at stake, why the decision matters, and what their choice will accomplish.

Not making a decision? Use a classic pre-commercial television technique: the teaser. “When we return, will our hero save the day or will she face crushing failure?”

In a business meeting this might look like, “Today we’re discussing a new process that will reduce our headaches and give us a chance to catch up on …”  Assuming you’ve told the truth and the process really does those things, now I’m leaning in, paying attention, and wanting to get to the good stuff.

Another fun way to add dramatic tension is to use tools like the Wheel of Names to review content, summarize action items, check for understanding, or choose someone to answer questions. You don’t want to overuse it, but people almost hold their breath waiting to see where the needle lands.

Finally, you’ll introduce more drama as you vary the other techniques in this article. Your team will constantly wonder what might happen next. That positive anticipation alleviates fatigue and boredom.

online meetings fatigue

Collaborate – One of the best advantages of online meetings is the ability to collaborate quickly, discuss critical questions, and regroup to share analysis, conclusions, and solutions. We’ve been so proud of the speed with which large teams can quickly identify strategic solutions and move to action when given the chance.

Use your breakout rooms, whiteboard tools, collaboration platforms like MIRO, and your public chat room to take advantage of all the thought-power on your team.

Bottom line: if you hold a meeting and don’t have participants talking with one another about critical issues, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

online meetings fatigue

Think Outside the Screen – It’s only natural – we zero in on the camera lens with an occasional glance at the video images on the screen. Before long, your world—and the world of your teammates—has shrunk to the rectangle in front of you.

Ease online meetings fatigue by thinking outside the screen.

  • Get people moving. Stand up. Dance.
  • Have a yoga practitioner on your team? Have them lead a 60-second yoga break.
  • Do an agenda-related scavenger hunt – “In 30 seconds, find an item that best illustrates [the problem we’re addressing] or [the future we want to achieve].”
  • Communicate key messages outside the screen in ways no one will expect (check out this article for a fantastic list of ways to communicate off-screen.)

Build, draw, tear—almost anything you’d do in person, you can adapt for remote meetings.

live online leadership development

Remove Energy Drains – Once you’ve got your camera set up and you know you framed your backdrop the way you want it, in many platforms, you don’t have to keep looking at yourself. Here’s how to hide your video from yourself in Zoom.

What about that energy drain of not getting reactions?

Depending on your platform, you can use thumbs up, claps, emojis, chat responses, or visual cues (think jazz hands) for real-time feedback. Create a culture of engagement and people will naturally interact with one another’s comments, feedback, and presentations. No, this doesn’t replace the real-time nonverbal signals we’re accustomed to, but over time it will help.

Your Turn

Some of the most fun moments over the past few months have been talking with leaders about the fun and creative ways they run meetings and engage their teams. We’d love to keep that spirit of creativity, fun, and team engagement going here.

Leave us a comment and share: What is your best suggestion to alleviate online meeting fatigue?

stop remote work from stealing your life

How to Stop Remote Work from Stealing Your Life

Awareness and intention will help stop remote work from stealing your life.

It’s not your imagination: if the pandemic shifted your job to working from home, odds are, you’re working longer hours. For many of the leaders we’ve spoken with over the past months, WFH arrangements are sapping their energy and their team’s morale and mental health. To lead your team through these challenges, it’s vital that you stop remote work from stealing your life.

One of the best parts of working with so many business leaders around the world is seeing the concern and creativity of leaders to help their teams during the pandemic. There is no magic wand that will solve every challenge, but you can stop remote work from stealing your life by incorporating some combination of these approaches.

Six Practices to Stop Remote Work from Stealing Away Your Best Self

Tap into the Power of Ritual

You’ve likely heard of Parksinson’s Law: that work expands to fit the time allotted for it. That’s a big problem when time seems unlimited.

One way to stop remote work from stealing your life is to clearly define the time in which it must happen. If you know you can’t work before or after a certain time, you’ll write that email in half the time, shorten or eliminate meetings, and spend less time on social media.

Without that clear definition, it’s easy to start work while you’re blearily reading emails in bed while waking up, keep on working through breakfast, and stumble into the evening without ever having stopped.

That’s a poor way to live (nor is it a good way to be a productive team member).

Tap into the power of rituals to create a “container” for your work. Writers are famous for rituals they use to define their work. Victor Hugo would take off his clothes to write and put them on again once he was done (not recommended for those Zoom calls!)

One IT manager we spoke with said his powerful work-from-home ritual was simply to pack his lunch. He’d eat breakfast with his family, prepare his lunch, put it in a cooler bag, and then take it with him the 15 feet to his desk. That would signal the start of the workday.

Perhaps you light a candle to start and blow it out during breaks, lunch, or at the end of the day. Others set a timer. Find a ritual that tells your body and mind when it’s working and when it’s not.

Shift Out of Crisis Mode

Another factor that has contributed to the expansion of remote work is the feeling of crisis. As the virus first spread and shelter-in-place orders went out, most businesses and teams faced legitimate crises.

  • How will we maintain enough cash?
  • Will we survive this?
  • How can we get everyone working from home quickly enough?
  • How do we keep our people safe?
  • Will I keep my job?

A crisis energizes people. It provides clarity, focus, and adrenalin. It disrupts inertia and sparks innovation. Everyone rallies together and you can achieve amazing results. Some leaders love crisis-productivity so much that they manufacture drama and drive everyone nuts with constant fire drills.

But the power of crisis is limited. You can’t maintain that energy, focus, and adrenalin forever. It’s like sprinting. You sprint 400 meters. You can’t sprint a marathon.

Shifting out of crisis mode is difficult when the initial crisis isn’t over. The pandemic is a slow-moving economic and social crisis that isn’t over in a week, a month, or possibly even a year.

To stop remote work from stealing your life, shift out of crisis mode. Sometimes deep breathing, meditation, prayer, time in nature, or conversation with good friends are enough to make this shift.

A ceremony can also help. Declare the crisis of initial response “completed” and define the next stage, including the level of energy, effort, and overall health you expect of yourself and your team.

Still struggling to shift back to a gear you can maintain? Make two lists: what you can control and what’s outside of your control. Highlight your M.I.T.s (Most Important Things) on the first list. Release the second list (burn it, flush it, shred it, or delete it) and release yourself from having to work on the things you can’t control.

Find your focus on specific actions you can take toward the M.I.T.s where you can make a difference.

If, after these practices, you’re still finding it difficult to shift down, a conversation with a mental health professional can help.

Practice Mini-Experiments

One fun way to maintain your sense of life, build culture, and personal/professional development is a technique Karin learned from Susie, an executive whose company cultivated the technique of personal mini-experiments.

In short, you choose a behavior you want to try out. The criteria are that it has to be easy to do—and it has to scare you or make you uncomfortable. You commit to practice the new behavior for two to four weeks and see what happens.

For example: Susie described how she had a tendency to over-prepare for meetings. So her mini-experiment was to limit her preparation time to one hour. She worried that she would be under-prepared, but she discovered she did as well as ever–and now she had reclaimed many hours.

As the pandemic has progressed, we’ve heard leaders share their own mini-experiments:

  • Giving themselves permission to put down their phone and have lunch with their family for 30-45 minutes.
  • Starting a garden.
  • Waking up 30 minutes earlier for exercise, reflection, or to try a hobby.
  • Saying no to opportunities.

Enjoy a Hobby

Your mini-experiment might take the form of a hobby. One way to keep remote work from stealing your life is to have somewhere else to focus. David, who already enjoyed baking bread, used our extended time at home to join the ranks of sourdough bakers. It refreshes him and keeps him going between long days of leadership development.

Bread might not be your thing, but what might you do that would be fun and absorb some of your attention?

stop remote work from stealing your life

Make Team Agreements

One of the powerful tools we’ve seen many leaders use is to establish team norms of shared expectations about how they will work together. Examples include:

  • An international team that decided they will not schedule meetings after 7 pm for any participant. This forces them to be efficient with the time they have.
  • Other teams that have declared no-meetings-days such as Wednesdays or Fridays.
  • A commitment to always leave 15 or 30 minutes between online meetings.
  • Clarifying what communications tools to use for specific content. What can wait, and what needs to be discussed promptly? What should be an IM, an email, a phone call, and what must be a video meeting?

These discussions and commitments help everyone use their time more effectively.

Use the Flexibility

Working from home gives us opportunities. Where can you use the flexibility to restore your energy and relationships? Can you take an exercise break mid-morning? Can you meet your partner, child, or neighbor for a 15-minute break? Perhaps a walking meeting?

We talked with a team leader whose team all leave their work-from-home desks and walk while they meet by phone for 30 minutes.

Your Turn

For many, working from home during the pandemic is more difficult than traditional remote work. The challenges of family members unloading the dishwasher while you’re on a call, ad hoc workspace, concerns about illness, and social isolation add extra layers of complexity and stress.

If you’re working remotely, in order to lead your team and help them maintain their health and productivity, it’s vital that you stop remote work from stealing your best self. Energy, confidence, and empathy are hard to find when you’re strung out and exhausted from unending work.

We would love to hear from you. What techniques have you and your team used to stop remote work from stealing your life? Leave us a comment and tell us what’s working for you!

See Also:

What Your Employees Are Yearning For in a Remote One-on-One

What Employees are longing for in a remote one-on-one

What Employees are Yearning For in Remote One-on-Ones

If you really want to connect and support your team, there’s no better place to start than a great cadence of meaningful one-on-ones.

And yet, even before this transition to remote work, when we would ask employees about their experience with one-on-ones, we often heard nervous laughter and responses like these:

“One-on-ones, what are those (hahaha)?”

“She has an open door. She tells us to come by whenever we want. (Of course, she’s never there. Hahaha)”

“I just count on windshield time with my manager between client visits. He’s so busy, that’s the only time I know I’ve got him captive (hahaha).”

“He just leaves me alone. I do a good job. I guess he would tell me if I was screwing up (hahaha).”

Obviously, these responses are less than ideal, but it’s even harder to wing it now. So much is changing—and fast.

In the last few months, when we’ve asked employees about one-on-ones, the tenor of the conversations has changed from nervous laughter to deep concern.

Employees are yearning for MORE DIRECTION and CONNECTION in their remote one-on-ones.

“Dear Boss, here’s what I need most in a remote one on one…”

Today we share what we’re hearing employees need most right now in their one-on-ones. We encourage you to share this article with your team and to talk about what’s working in your remote one-on-ones and what you can do to take them to the next level.

Clarity: Help Me Understand What’s Most Important Right Now

“I understand that you don’t have all the answers. Priorities change.  But please give me a fighting chance of working on the right things, because quite frankly, I’m feeling overwhelmed and I don’t have time for rework or wasted effort. Please use our one-on-one to ensure I know what matters most this week, and what I need to do to be successful.”

Caring: Show Me I Matter More Than My KPIs

“It’s been a rough week. I’m tired. I signed up to be a working parent, but not a working parent with no daycare! I know you’re busy, but before you jump right in and talk about the project, can you take a minute to see me and check-in to see if I’m doing okay?”

Consistency: Give Me a Cadence I Can Count On

“I know your heart is in the right place and that you’re being pulled in a million directions too. But this is the third time you’ve canceled our one-on-one. I had my list all ready to cover with you. And now I’ve got to track you down. I scheduled my one-on-ones with my team AFTER ours so I would have answers for them. Now I’m heading into those with unanswered questions which is embarrassing and is slowing all of us down.”

Credibility: Be Real With Me, So I Can Be Real With You

“You know what made me feel great, that one time when you opened up and really shared how you were feeling. It made me feel so much better to know that you’re scared and tired too. But since then, you’ve just been so perky and positive—and I wonder, are you for real?”

Capacity: Ask Me What I Need

What I need to hear more than anything right now is: “How can I be most helpful?”

Curiosity: Ask Me For Ideas

I’m learning a lot and I’ve got some great ideas about how we can do things better. But, I feel awkward sharing my ideas if I’m not asked.

Boss, I really care about you, this company, and our success. I’d love to have some time to pull up with you each week in a quick one-on-one to share as we work through this important time together.


Your courageous employee.

Your Turn:

What would you add? What’s working well in your remote one-on-ones?

P.S. This article was featured in CTO Universe MVP Best Articles of 2020 Awards.

what employees are yearning for in remote one-on-onesSee Also:

How to Overcome One of the Biggest Challenges from Working From Home

How to Hold an Effective Mid Year Review in a Pandemic

How to overcome one of the biggest challenges of working from home

How to Overcome One of the Biggest Challenges of Working From Home

The Harvard Business Review article,  The Implications of Working Without an Office covers great research about the benefits and challenges of working from home. I highly recommend it.  If nothing else to validate those mixed emotions you’re having.

Because if you’re like every client we talk to, this new working from home model isn’t ideal. But it’s not a disaster.

The big challenge is not that people are forced to work from home. It’s that they’re working from home in a pandemic with children crawling all over them. Their other routines are disrupted. They can’t see people they love. All in an unstable economy. And of course, there’s the emotional investment in the very important conversations about racial equity and injustice.

People are tired. Worn thin. Scared. Lonely. Overwhelmed.

And Yet …

And with all that going on, the research shows many people are feeling more productive.

Since all-virtual work began, employee stress, negative emotions, and task-related conflict have all been steadily falling; each is down at least 10%. At the same time, employees have experienced an approximately 10% improvement in self-efficacy and their capacity to pay attention to their work. A couple of months in, employees reported that they were “falling into a consistent routine,” “forming a pattern [of work time and breaks] with my coworkers,” and “learning what makes me the most productive and how I can best manage my time and energy.” One employee even noted, “I think it’s weird how normal everything has become — the virtual meetings, the emails, everyone looking grungy.” Another stated that it just became “business as usual.”

Comments made by everyone from frontline employees to CEOs revealed a slew of perceived benefits from working from home. One CEO told us he “hoped this put an end to the ‘fly across the country for a one-hour meeting’ expectation forever.” Others reported that they had “more focus time,” “shorter meetings,” and “more flexible time with family” — and, most commonly, were “not missing the daily commute.” By the eighth week, many employees reported getting “into the groove of working from home” and “wanting to continue” working virtually. Several even said, “I love it.”

And if your teams are like the many employees being surveyed by HR departments all over the globe,  you’re hearing, “I’d prefer to work from home at least some of the time.”  Particularly once we’re past this pandemic and the kids are back in school where they belong 😉

Lost Informal Collaboration: One Big Challenge of Working From Home

One of the biggest challenges of working from home is lost informal communication that leads to spontaneous collaboration, best practice sharing, and new ideas.

One key reason to think twice before going down that path (a long term shift to WFH) is the loss of unplanned interactions that lead to important outcomes. Physical offices cause people who don’t normally work with each other to connect accidentally — bumping into each other in the hallway or the cafeteria — and that interaction sparks new ideas.

This is worth considering and being deliberate about addressing.

4 Ways to Foster Deliberate Collaboration in Your Work From Home Team

1. Ensure you have meaningful shared goals and measures.

If your employees are only being measured by their own KPIs (or stack-ranked against their peers), you’re already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to collaboration. Now add “out-of-sight,” and it’s natural for people to keep their head down, focus on their own work and forget about the “team,” which is a generous use of the word in this case. If you want your team collaborating, ensure they have some shared goals, and shared skin in the game.

If your success depends on your peer’s success, you are far more likely to pick up the phone and see how you can help.

2. Create deliberate time for collaboration and I.D.E.A. sharing.

The challenge of depending on spontaneous collaboration, even in an office setting, is that it might not happen.

Don’t leave collaboration to chance. We’ve been amazed at the incredible ingenuity that’s coming out of quick, focused zoom breakout room sessions where cross-functional teams come together and ask important “How can we?” questions and share their best thinking. With the right set-up, even twenty minutes in focused conversation is enough to get people sharing micro-innovations and solutions.

This is more than just asking “Does anyone have any ideas?” at the end of the meeting. Start with clarity about where you need a great idea, and then give them tools to vet and share them.

3. Enable asynchronous communication.

In his book, Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe the best practice they use at their company 37signals.

At 37signals we’ve institutionalized this through a weekly discussion thread on the subject, “What have you been working on?” Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. It’s not a precise, rigorous estimation process, and it doesn’t attempt to deal with coordination. It simply aims to make everyone feel like they’re in the same galley and not in their own little rowboat. It also serves as a friendly reminder that we are all in it to make progress. Nobody wants to the one to report that “This week was spent completing Halo 4, eating leftover pizza, and catching up on Jersey Shore.” We all have a natural instinct to avoid letting our team down, so when the commitment becomes visual, it gets reinforced.

4.Train in cross-functional cohorts.

We’re in our third year of an award-winning cohort-based, live-online leadership development program (see my interview with Michelle Braden on why this worked).  We run this 7-month program in cohorts of 20 or so employees from 6 countries across a wide variety of functions. It’s highly interactive so it’s easy to share best practices and work through challenges together. Although participants are not people who would normally work together, they build deep relationships and learn an incredible amount about other areas of the business—all while honing their leadership skills—all without ever being in the same room.

Remote team collaboration requires a bit more intentionality, but with just a bit of focus, you can actually get more collaboration than waiting for people to bump into each other in the hallway.

Your turn.

What are your favorite ways to overcome the biggest challenges of working from home?