• Christian Rast, Leadership |

“So, I think we’re live, are we?”

My voice is ringing through speakers and headsets from Dallas to Toronto, from Hamburg to Singapore. Hundreds of people have dialed in for the first global KPMG town hall hosted virtually as a Microsoft Teams live event. But the screen is dark. For a few tense seconds, a team member in their Berlin condo kitchen is trying to find the right toggle button … and then we’re off to a successful premiere which sees us pioneer new technology and translate it into new ways of working together.

It's March 26, 2020. At the height of the global lockdown in response to COVID-19, most KPMG offices are closed. But as a team, we’re staying connected – thanks to our significant investments in technology, our expanded alliance with Microsoft and our early adoption of their online collaboration tools.

Fast forward, and a few months later we’ve helped to run more than 50 of these virtual town halls (we know how to work that tricky toggle button now!). We’ve rolled out Microsoft Teams to more than 240,000 people globally. And the number of calls on the platform has skyrocketed: from 0 in March to more than 28 million in July, with a whopping 1.4 million calls on a single record-breaking day that month.

It’s hard to imagine how people and organizations would have responded to this pandemic without the power of technology. In a few short weeks, much of our lives have moved online, and remote working and virtual meetings have replaced the daily commute to the downtown office. It’s safe to say that the new reality of working is a digital one.

We know that most of our colleagues feel well equipped to do their jobs productively at home for an extended period. But this ability to work virtually, anywhere and anytime, comes with some real-world challenges. Most notably, we’re missing the shared human connections. To keep people motivated and engaged in the virtual workplace, leaders need to adapt their approach and develop their skills. I believe three competencies are front and center here: embracing technology, demonstrating agility and showing empathy.

Embracing technology: building virtual spaces to connect

The informal, in-office communication channels no longer exist. We rely on those far more than we realize. In the absence of team lunches and impromptu chats by the watercooler, leaders need to actively build new, virtual spaces for people to connect. We’ve seen great creativity across KPMG member firms, with activities ranging from online scavenger hunts to remote yoga classes. Thanks to modern collaboration tools, these communities are easy to build. But the momentum can be difficult to maintain, especially once the novelty wears off. Keeping remote groups engaged requires leaders to embrace the latest collaboration technology and to put a dedicated community enablement strategy – and team – behind it. At KPMG, we’ve introduced a white glove service that trained some 2,000 senior executives across 60 global groups and functions.

Demonstrating agility: managing remote and hybrid teams

The new reality of working requires leaders to be more agile. From the outset it was clear that day-long meetings – sustained by chewy cookies, lukewarm coffee and meandering views from the top-floor conference room – can’t be replicated online. We quickly pivoted to a model where we meet more frequently but keep meetings shorter (three hours really is the maximum). I’m attending a lot of global calls and find the best time to bring everyone to the – virtual – table is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. CET. We also instituted a tiered approach to working groups with clear responsibilities for faster response and measurable outcomes. This also allowed us to elevate people into new or broader roles, affording learning and development opportunities.

Going forward, leaders need to stay nimble and continue to respond quickly as the situation evolves, and larger, multi-national organizations especially will see their different jurisdictions in various stages of recovery. As I’m writing this, my colleagues in Germany have already returned to the office, while the Canadian team continues to work from home for the foreseeable future. A phased return to the brick and mortar office and individual employee preferences will ultimately result in hybrid teams.

Showing empathy: acknowledging concerns and respecting boundaries

Perhaps the hardest part of virtual leadership is showing empathy. Leaders need to acknowledge that people can feel uncertain, anxious or overwhelmed by change, and not everyone may be comfortable expressing their concerns or may find it more difficult to do so remotely. In the office, you might notice if someone is sad or disengaged. Make sure this doesn’t go unnoticed with the virtual way of working.

When I speak to our people, many say they enjoy the freedom and flexibility of working remotely. Yet others struggle with what they feel is an invasion of their privacy (show of hands: who has taken a work call from their bedroom?) and find it difficult to disconnect after a day in front of the computer. Leaders should set and respect boundaries because always home doesn’t mean always on.

COVID-19 has fast-tracked the digital transformation of organizations across the globe. We’ve harnessed the technology to work remotely. What we’re missing is the ability to virtually tap into human feelings and emotions. Now is the time for leaders to hone the skills they need to manage their teams in a post-pandemic world.