6 leadership rules I rewrote during the pandemic

COVID-19 changed the traditional work model for good, forcing CIOs and IT leaders to adapt overnight. Here are six rules I revised during the pandemic to help my teams stay connected and productive
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If this article began with a cartoon representing how much time had passed since the start of the pandemic, you’d see a caricature of me with a waist-length ZZ Top-style beard, scratching lines on the wall of my cell to indicate each day that had passed. Each day would be represented by a single line, and the wall would be covered with hundreds of lines.

During those 500+ days, I haven’t been on a plane or in an office, yet I may have accomplished more than in any other period of my career. I’m sure some road warriors will read that and be saddened. But for me, it served as a semi-sabbatical from the traditional office and gave me a chance to evolve how I work as a CIO.

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Here are six leadership rules I got to rewrite during the pandemic:

Rule #1: Have only meaningful meetings

Meetings are free to book but costly to operate. Jeff Bezos famously had a two-pizza rule at Amazon, which limited the number of meeting attendees to only as many as could be fed with two pizzas. That rule may not apply in a remote world, but it shouldn’t stop us from focusing on meaningful meetings.

That means holding meetings only with key stakeholders, and only when a Slack or Teams message would be insufficient. Along with limited attendees, meetings must have an agenda and desired outcome, and they should end with assigning actions post-meeting. Without these requirements, meetings often become unfocused and produce no meaningful outcome. Focus more on the outcome and less on the frequency of meetings.

Rule #2: Reach out to people outside your team weekly

Every week, I check in with a different employee of our company. The individual I reach out to is somewhat randomly chosen – it could be a member of HR, client services, or sales. The point is to make sure it is someone outside my own team. My check-in may be as quick as a Slack message, or I may host a virtual coffee chat, and our discussion doesn’t necessarily need to focus on work. People have given me heartfelt updates on their families, shared pics of their hobbies, and offered candid feedback about what they like or don’t like about remote work.

[ See our related article: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

These virtual check-ins serve as a water-cooler moment where I can connect to members of the organization to see how they are doing and how I can help. It shows that even if we are no longer in the same office, we can still be connected.

Rule #3: Rethink productivity

Pre-pandemic, we all knew someone in the office who loved to complain – constantly and loudly – about how busy they were. I’m guessing you also found them annoying.

Too often, productivity is measured by how full one’s calendar is. But a busy schedule does not necessarily mean you are getting a lot accomplished. If you spend all day bouncing from meeting to meeting, you don’t have time to truly focus and think, and you probably aren’t getting much done.

I block out certain days and times during the week to focus on projects, review strategy, or attend virtual conferences or webinars. Just because you are working at home doesn’t mean you need to constantly be in meetings to be seen as productive. Productivity is as much about what you choose not to do as what you do.

If you spend all day bouncing from meeting to meeting, you don't have time to truly focus and think, and you probably aren't getting much done.

I have changed many meetings with my direct reports from weekly to bi-weekly. This gives them time to focus on their own projects and shows that it’s okay to reduce their own meeting count whenever possible. If something important comes up, they understand that they can always reach out between our scheduled meetings.

When I reduced the number of recurring meetings in my calendar, I became more productive. I was able to focus more attention on critical projects, corporate strategy, and client engagement. I even looked more closely at some recurring meetings I had previously considered untouchable and reduced the frequency of meetings I have with my own peers and my boss, the CEO. My productivity and connectivity have never waned because of fewer meetings.

Rule #4: Get up, get out

Pre-pandemic, I commuted 20 miles to the office every day. In Atlanta traffic, that means a slow and frustrating 90-minute drive each way (which I spent listening to podcasts such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History). Now, I can’t imagine going back to spending three hours a day on the road. I still listen to Gladwell and other podcasts, but now I also take calls while walking in my neighborhood or relaxing on my back deck (setting my watch to remind myself not to sit longer than an hour at a time). I also enjoy lunch with my wife and children every day, which provides a physical and mental break from work and ensures that I don’t sit behind a screen all day.

Rule #5: Disconnect – and encourage taking PTO

Site reliability engineers and infrastructure teams know that maintenance windows are critical to maintaining the reliability and health of an environment. The same is true of people: We can’t work non-stop without expected failure.

Many of us haven’t been working from home so much as living at work. It’s essential to set boundaries to avoid burnout and maintain mental health. When you take time off, don’t check in – truly separate from the workplace. Work with HR to make sure your teams are also taking their PTO (think of team PTO usage as another KPI to monitor and manage).

Rule #6: Disregard all rules

These rules aren’t really rules, but guidelines that helped me during the pandemic. Because nobody had a playbook on how to manage the past 18 months, many leaders (including myself) created our own practices that worked for us and our organizations. So, make your own rules, but be prepared to break and replace them as needed.

Now what?

CIOs have been focusing on digital transformation for years. The pandemic forced many of us to embrace a workstyle transformation. As I predicted more than two years ago, the millions of workers who shifted to remote work temporarily may never return fully to a traditional office. The pandemic has proven that organizations can remain highly productive even while their workforce is fully remote. And the methods, locations, and tools we use will continue to evolve, driven by employees who want flexibility.

As any CIO knows, the key to success is a willingness to quickly evolve and adapt. The same is true with the future of work, no matter what it’s labeled. Two years from now, we probably won’t be referring to what we do as hybrid work. It will just be, well … work.

And as COVID-19 cases decline and we edge closer to a post-pandemic world, I don’t know how many more lines I will scratch on the wall – but I am certain I won’t be growing that ZZ Top-style beard.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Jason James is CIO of Net Health. He has led IT operations for fast-growth technology companies for over twenty years.