Leading from Afar: Remote Management Lessons from CSOs
Remote work was already on the rise. The number of hours spent working off-site was increasing at the beginning of 2020, and flexible work arrangements led to more enthusiastic, engaged employees, according to Gallup data.
Employees who worked remotely 60 to 80 percent of the time were the most likely employees to strongly agree that their development and relationship engagement needs were being met at work. Highly engaged workplaces claim 41 percent lower absenteeism, 30 percent fewer quality defects, and 21 percent higher profitability, Gallup research showed.
Just a few months after this research summary was released, however, many companies saw those remote work practices put to the test. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders put in place after the spread of COVID-19 forced many organizations to rapidly shift to a remote workforce. A Gallup poll conducted among U.S. workers in September 2020 found that 33 percent were working completely remotely—down from 51 percent in April 2020—and 25 percent were working remotely part of the time.
While the turn to remote workforces was originally a crisis response measure, the trend is likely here to stay. More than a third of employees who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so after the COVID-19 crisis resolves, Gallup found. Additionally, major companies such as Twitter and Square announced that employees will be allowed to work from home in perpetuity, not just during the pandemic.
The turn to decentralized workforces—not bound to a headquarters or designated office space—has affected security professionals as well. Threats and risk mitigation efforts have changed, from detecting insider threats to monitoring for workplace violence or domestic abuse situations to addressing network security in employees’ homes. But management has been forced to evolve, too.
The Shift for Security
Security started out remotely in crisis management mode, says Tim McCreight, CPP, chief security officer for the City of Calgary. However, the longevity of the pandemic has forced leaders to adjust their pace, moving from a sprint to a marathon mentality.
McCreight manages approximately 160 employees across the city’s cyber and physical security program, and beyond incident response—such as during a flood—he had no truly remote workers until March 2020, when the city started asking thousands of employees to work remotely. Nearly 50 security employees were sent to work from home, and months later, 45 of them want to remain working from home long-term, he says.
But the shift to remote work during a crisis led to the establishment of some bad habits. When the pandemic response in Canada ramped up in March, many people responded by hustling nonstop, working 12-hour days and weekends.
“That’ll burn you out,” McCreight says. “This is the long game. We had to change our mind-set early on when we realized this isn’t going away anytime soon.”
That meant shifting the management mind-set to daily, weekly, or monthly goals and objectives, rather than attendance or hours worked, and performing regular check-ins to evaluate progress, roadblocks, and effectiveness, he says. It also meant letting employees know that they had the time needed to accomplish that work, and not every task was urgent, so they could—and should—maintain a more reasonable pace and find some work–life balance. In addition to project updates, McCreight and his teams hold regular check-ins with employees to catch up on personal news.
“That focused our attention on the human aspects—providing that empathy for employees who are working from home who don’t have that typical social interaction that they would sitting in their workspace and being able to engage other members,” he says.
Despite the changes in location, basic leadership principles like authenticity and practicing what you preach remain in effect, says Jeroen van der Vaart, CPP, head of global security and resilience at Booking.com, based in The Netherlands. The pandemic sent the majority of Booking.com’s 16,000 global employees to work remotely, and the crisis challenged the organization to quickly scale up its remote connectivity infrastructure to ensure that the organization could maintain its close communications and all-hands-on-deck collaborative culture.
Many managers have been concerned about culture when employees are largely decentralized. Through centuries of trial and error, leaders have learned how to foster a sense of ownership and enthusiasm in-person, but they have had to reconfigure preexisting standards to meet virtual needs.
Van der Vaart implemented regular staff check-in meetings, virtual coffee breaks, and casual, skip-level meetings where he connects one-on-one with employees outside the circle of his direct reports to get a better picture of how they are coping with challenges and what ideas they may have for the organization moving forward.
While these were originally moves to maintain departmental culture during COVID-19, they may outlast the pandemic.
“I’ve seen the teams thriving when they can see the broader goal. They can see the direct impact of their work, having that insight into how their work affects crisis management and executive decision making,” he says.
Establishing a sense of purpose and impact among remote employees also improves engagement and mitigates burnout. But organizations like Booking.com are trying to go further to maintain employees’ wellbeing.
“Resilience doesn’t stop only at our office. We also thought broader: How can we support you at home, with mental health, fitness, homeschooling?,” van der Vaart says. “We give a lot of freedom to a lot of managers to determine what is the best fit for each person on their team. This showcases that it doesn’t matter where the world is at, we are able to support our employees.”
According to Terri Govang, CPP, director of strategic security and technology at management and engineering consultancy company WSP Global, once employees settled into remote work, they found that they were less working from home and more sleeping at work, which is not a sustainable mind-set to foster, she says.
“That was recognized early on, and it fortified the need for direct and frequent touchpoints where we would discuss workload, assignment deadlines, and resourcing,” she adds. “We want to make sure they have the support to perform.”
Before changing her management style, Govang took a step back to reflect on her unique organization and how to approach it when working remotely. She determined that she needed to be steered by three key concepts: engineering consulting is not a 9-to-5 job, pandemics are traumatic experiences, and people need to remain the priority. With these concepts in mind, she could start reconfiguring how to meet her team’s changing needs regarding both professional and personal challenges.
She gave her team permission to take personal time away from the job to handle their emotional wellbeing. Different people respond to a widespread crisis in unique ways, and Govang says she strives to lead with vulnerability to be open with her colleagues so they feel comfortable reciprocating and are willing to step up and share the load when someone is feeling overwhelmed.
“There is a wild humanness in pandemic response that we need to be mindful of,” she says. “I do not mandate any online status—they don’t need to be online from set hour to set hour. We work in a complex environment that is fast-paced and high demand, so I pay fierce attention to the quality and the timeliness of their work, to their responsibilities, and their deliverables. My expectation here is that work is performed well, on-time, and on-budget while we’re keeping each other informed.”
Govang instituted a mandatory video call once a week for a casual team chat to sustain preexisting workplace culture and relations, and she encourages the use of mobile phones for walk-and-talk meetings or joining a video happy hour from a nearby park or while on a walk. This encourages more of a casual connection while giving employees permission—if not strong encouragement—to unchain themselves from their home desks.
She also connected with other managers and department leaders to discuss available resources—such as the employee assistance program—and signs of burnout, both in their teams and themselves, so they can intervene early.
“The best thing you can do for yourself and for the company is to take time off, to work your regular hours, to take care of yourself, and stay healthy, so you can be performing at your best. It’s not about performing the longest, it’s about performing your best,” she says.
But direct reports are not the only stakeholders whom security leaders need to connect with. Particularly with employees’ and leaders’ need for reliable intelligence during periods of uncertainty, security can step up and deliver trusted information—provided leaders have laid the groundwork.
RC Miles, global director of safety, security, and organizational resilience for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit operating in 45 countries, has found that during remote work he is operating as a full-time relationship manager across the organization, as well as a security manager. He is hosting regular virtual meetings with bureau leaders, regional branches, and the CEO. In an uncertain time like the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, security has proven its worth as a trusted source of intelligence on developing situations worldwide. Having established relationships before a crisis is an essential part of delivering on this need.
“The question is: Does distance destroy trust? I have found that it doesn’t,” Miles says.
While all-digital communication leaves the door open for misunderstandings, Miles recommends assuming positive intent (which, he notes, is a challenge for security and investigations professionals) and fostering a sense of camaraderie through regular communication.
“There is a sense of shared burden here if you’re in regular contact,” he says. “Part of what challenges trust is distance, and the other part is the perception that ‘you don’t understand my stressors.’… and you have to get past that limited perspective to get to the agreement that gets things done.”
While the response has not been without challenges—primarily from fear, brought on by uncertainty early on in the pandemic—being frank, forthright, and using well-known and trusted sources to back up communications and intelligence reports across the organization helped messages to land.
“Facts don’t always overcome fear,” Miles says. “Sometimes you have to take the time to walk people back from the edge, which takes a fair amount of patience and determination.”
Govang describes her communication style as direct and honest, which has not changed since the beginning of the crisis. Transparency—keeping people informed, not laying all your cards on the table, she explains—engenders trust. Employees understand that crises sometimes mean uncertainty, so saying “I don’t know yet” is acceptable.
While it is likely that organizations will have their share of chain mail vigilantes, sharing unverified information or rumors, it is essential that security managers respond with calmness, vetted intelligence, and patience, Govang says.
McCreight had to slow down his usual communication style, both in meetings and outside communications, to account for the changes in technology and format. In video conference meetings, it is more likely that attendees will voice their comments and questions—either out loud or in a questions box—so McCreight added extra time to meetings to ensure everyone’s voice was heard.
He also established meeting rules. In some sessions, it’s acceptable to raise your hand to ask a question, and in others—especially those where he wants to maintain a record of questions to review later—comments and queries need to be typed in the chat box. The rigor of these sessions also encourages more participation without derailing the meeting; attendees have a way to signal that they want to ask a question without needing to interrupt the speaker. This facilitates a more polite, effective, meeting structure, McCreight finds, and relieves some pressure on presenters and attendees.
Team wellness extends to the leader. It is tempting to focus on work during a crisis, especially when usual hobbies or outlets are unavailable, but with no end in sight to the pandemic, this is unsustainable.
McCreight realized that he needed to take time to turn work off and disengage, whether that’s taking a short vacation to the mountains near Calgary or just disconnecting for the day to renovate a basement or binge-watch a series on Netflix.
“I know that sounds crazy to do in the middle of a pandemic, but the change in mind-set and relaxation is obvious when people come back from vacation,” he says.
Taking vacation time also has a business continuity purpose—not only does it refresh a leader’s state of mind, it tests his or her team’s ability to step in and step up.
“We have to be resilient, and this is the part that all of us in leadership positions have to focus on too—particularly during times like this. If we step away from the keyboard for a week, is someone there to take my place?” McCreight asks. “Now more than ever, it’s apparent to us that we need to have that resilience.”
In addition to taking time away, mindful scheduling has helped him stay on track and preserve his professional stamina in the marathon of remote work and COVID-19 response, he says. McCreight forces himself to schedule in a lunch break each day, and he allots time to his schedule at the end of each day to catch up on emails or administrative tasks that could easily pile up or spread into personal time.
“I try to stay on a schedule—I will log on at almost the same time every day—and that gives consistency to how my team looks at me as well,” he says. Maintaining a regular and reasonable schedule presents a good example to employees while preserving some work–life balance.
Schedules’ benefits extend beyond the workday. Van der Vaart rediscovered his love of basketball in 2020, and he regularly pencils recreational time into his day.
“This goes back even before the pandemic; you work long hours, you do everything you can to make the team successful, and you don’t prioritize yourself enough,” he says. “It helped me when I allowed myself to take that time, 90 minutes, to reconnect with the sport, with my team, and deal with uncertainty and keep my emotional resilience where it needs to be.”
Regardless of how strapped for time security leaders may feel they are, Govang recommends staying connected with associations and peer groups, including ASIS International and the CSO Center.
“In keeping ourselves engaged, we’re reminded that we’re not alone, and we’re stronger together. Engaging in the dialogue there, sharing experiences, and reciprocating advice is refreshing and invigorating, and further benefits both personal wellbeing and corporate performance,” she explains.
She also notes that once the initial crisis and high-pressure response passes and managers settle into a conscious flow, they should take a moment to reflect on lessons learned, individual performances, and areas of improvement.
“Leaders must adapt to the environment,” Govang adds. “With the present astronomical shift into the digital paradigm, security here can benefit as a business enabler, but ultimately remain flexible. Security leaders want to foster a safe and trusting environment for the team so that we can loosen our grip. I believe the adage is ‘Blessed are the flexible, for when they bend, they don’t break.’”
Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at [email protected].