Understand how work gets done and lead with flexibility

These challenging times demand more from leaders at all levels to keep the business running and reaching its goals, but we must also notice and address the ways we ourselves are responding to the moment. While I knew that the past few weeks had been demanding, looking at my work habits cast things in a new light: I’ve been attending more than 55 meetings per week, spending more than seven hours per week in meetings outside of my preferred working hours, and had, on average, less than an hour per day of intentional focus time. And I’d be naïve to think that my way of working wouldn’t influence the work habits of others, too.

What’s interesting is I only stopped to look at my own data when conducting a demo for a customer, but once I did it really made me pause and realize I needed to reflect on how I—and our teams—are getting work done, and how it could be better.

Understand how time is spent, and then experiment

Before we can adjust our work practices, we must start with understanding how the work gets done, and technology can help us with this. These personal insights–like time spent in meetings, focused work time, meetings outside working hours, and more–are embedded into our Webex platform and allow employees to understand how they are spending their most precious asset: their time.

But insights alone cannot address the problem. After recognizing the ways that we work, we then need to experiment. Put this in practice by encouraging your people to understand how they’re spending their time and then offering the flexibility to experiment with creative solutions, such as meeting-less Wednesdays, blocking out time on Monday mornings to focus, or trimming 10 minutes off every meeting.

Set the tone from the top

Any successful shift in the company’s culture must be built on a strong foundation, and that begins with the highest level of leadership. At a time when organizations are taking on additional work to address global issues from COVID-19 and social justice to the war in Ukraine, leadership must be transparent with their thinking on what the critical business priorities are and what can wait. Abandoning a project midway goes against ingrained instincts and can feel counterintuitive or demoralizing. But we’re used to setting annual goals and priorities, and we can also leverage this muscle to re-prioritize and de-prioritize.

I recently asked the leaders on my team to have discussions with their teams about where work could pause or stop altogether in order to allow us to support areas of critical work. Establishing business-critical priorities becomes a lens for every leader to apply to the work of their teams, and a decision-making tool for directing resources. Put this in practice by encouraging the leaders who report to you to set aside dedicated time with their teams to audit emerging projects and work underway. Together, they can determine what moves forward and what does not.

At Cisco, we also believe that well-being should be a measure of success, so we are working to build well-being into our organization’s strategy and planning. This helps our employees have more predictable workloads and more agency in how they get work done, enabling them to achieve their goals while allowing for self-care. Put this into practice by working to quantify and build well-being into your long-term strategy planning process moving forward.

Foster a culture of trust and transparency

Building new muscles and reflexes in an organization takes practice, focus, cooperation, and communication. Operating in a new way takes adjustment, and it’s important for leaders to acknowledge that. Our people need more from us in times of change and challenge, and we build their trust if we respond. Put this in practice by protecting all opportunities to connect, share, and gather feedback from your people, from meetings to surveys.

From our internal survey data, we know that 81% of Cisco employees agree their team leader knows them well, and this kind of connection is fundamental to building trust between our people and our leaders. This is not the time to let weekly check-ins slide off the calendar or postpone all-hands meetings. Leaders must stay in close touch with their people and listen more, not less. With closer communication, leaders can better understand the pain points of their people and take action to respond. This trust builds a transparent culture where people feel safe to speak up when there is too much on their plate.

As a company, this work must be aspirational and intentional, just as I need to be intentional about reviewing my personal insights and reflecting on my work habits. This will require building new muscles, but with focused attention and shifts in how we work, our people and companies can thrive. We may not be able to control the events of our world and the tough times we face, but we do have agency and opportunity in how we rise to meet them.

Fran Katsoudas is the chief people, policy & purpose officer at Cisco.

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