Effective Working From Home & Leadership Tips From An Ex-Army Soldier

This weekend we honoured ANZAC Day. While we had to remain physically distant, there was an element of connectedness by coming together in spirit to remember, thank and salute our fallen heroes. 

We were lucky enough to experience a child playing The Last Post on our street, which was a beautiful way to commemorate Australia and New Zealand’s most revered day.

Which is why it feels fitting to have former soldier and ‘Human Of The Week’, Mike Whitelaw, with us again this week to share his experience and advice on navigating the challenging environment.

This week I asked Mike to share leadership and team management skills he learnt in the military, that are applicable to the current disruption we face. He also shared the positive side of working from home and four rules, which make WFH efficient and successful!

What leadership skills have helped you manage your team during this time?

Keep it simple for the team. Focus on what is important to your function or team and not necessarily what is urgent to others. Provide clear priorities and the guidance needed for the team to continue. 

Own the challenges and opportunities. If issues need to be addressed, tackle them head on. Being reliant on technology rather than face to face communication means we can lose context, subtleties and other cues. Our current isolation can amplify uncertainty. Everyone should try and find those small and big things that can be turned into opportunities.  Innovate. Move on. 

Keep the team connected. Both socially and professionally, it is key to success. One of the things we did as a team in the first week of ‘iso working’ was introduce virtual morning teas where we catch up for 30 minutes once a week and the only rule is ‘no work talk’. We have learned a lot about each other’s families, homes, hobbies, pets and more. It is also important to keep the one on one interactions with team members going. Check in how individuals are coping, ask what you can do to make things easier and keep an eye on productivity. Be transparent, be authentic. 

Be flexible. The volume of change went up a few notches when the pandemic rolled into town. Team members leave plans changed, major conferences and courses have been cancelled, uncertainty has arisen on projects and budgets for next financial year – the list goes on. Expect ambiguity, work within it and don’t fight it.  

Empower the Team. One of the opportunities we have embraced at work are ‘Stand Down Step Up’ days. This is where I ‘stand down’ from my role and take a break from the intensity of managing a crisis for a day and one of my team ‘steps up’ into my role. This is a win-win situation – my team members are challenged and learn from the opportunity to be in a senior role and I get time to clear the head, reassess where the team is at, and look ahead and plan for what is next.  

We have been running in crisis mode at work since December. In 2019, our crisis teams were activated for a total of 8 days. This year we have hit 106 days already. Any chance to take some down time is welcome. 

How are you managing working from home? What obstacles/challenges are you facing in this new environment? How are you overcoming them?

I am really focused on the positives of the new work from home regime. I used to work from home one day a week whenever I could but there have been some changes needed for a 5 or 6 day a week routine at home.

Time spent commuting is now exercise time. Instead of being in an office block all day – I can sit outside on my balcony on my laptop for creative or productive time in fresh air and sunshine. I feel more relaxed that I have in a long time. 

The boundary between work and home can be a challenge. I know some of our team shut down the laptop and close the study door at 5.00pm every day because that demarcates work time from home time. That works for them.

What works for me is making sure I have the time with family, minimise after hours work but in my role, there are always emails, texts and calls flowing and sometimes I need to jump on for a half hour after dinner to clear something up or prepare for the next day. Other times I need to hold critical meetings on weekends and just accept that is a part of my role.

On the flip side, I often push meetings around so I can finish at lunchtime on a Friday and go for a surf or swim with my boys. Just let the ebbs and flows of life and work happen. There is no real point in fighting it, counting hours, or getting stressed about missing out on some family time. 

One of the first things I did was communicate with my family on what was important for me to be able to do my job. We basically have 4 rules:

1.    We each have a dedicated space – I have my ‘work zone’ and the boys have their ‘school zone’.  

2.    Set a routine. I am generally in the ‘office’ from 7.30am and finish around 6.30pm. I have a break around 12.30pm each day and where possible, have coffee or lunch breaks with the family. 

3.    If the door is closed the family know that I am on a videoconference and not to disturb me (or come into the room wearing a towel or even less). The same guidelines apply with the boys for schooling – we know their routine, if the door is closed – don’t disrupt the class (bit of an advantage in having high school aged kids). 

4.    The previous 3 rules will fail at some point. Go with the flow and don’t get upset. There will be extra noise at home just when you don’t need it, the family will walk through the middle of an important videoconference, routines will be different during school holidays. 

If I can tie all of that into one piece of advice, it would be to focus on the things you can do and not those that you can’t do. I can work on my health and fitness. I can still connect with family and friends. I can be an effective leader for and part of my team. I can spend extra time with my family. I can enjoy whatever the ‘new normal’ will be when ‘iso time’ comes to an end. 

Thank you for sharing this excellent advice with the Front and Centre community, Mike! We will be taking this all on board…especially rule number four.

Mike Whitelaw is also the Director of Wandering Warriors, a fundraising initiative of the Australian SAS Association– “Providing support to returning special force soldiers transitioning back into civilian life.” For more information click HERE or follow them on InstagramFacebook and LinkedIn

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