This article is taken from HBR.org
It’s no surprise that online work is depleting our energy and resilience. The evidence shows that many of us are working longer hours, suffering chronic stress, and burning out at levels the world has never witnessed. At the same time, we’re longing for and losing our social connections and sometimes experiencing profound loneliness and grief in solitude. To regain energy, find renewed pleasure in our work, and truly connect with colleagues and friends, we need to find ways to block out the noise in our virtual reality.
One way we can do that is through cultivating mindfulness — online.
Mindfulness is the choice we make to be present in the here and now: This moment, in this meeting, with this person or group of people. Research shows that most activities of our working lives, from working on an independent task to team meetings and one on ones, benefit from being conducted with mindfulness. By pausing, checking in with others, or starting meetings with a few moments of meditation or reflection, stress levels drop and we feel more connected to our purpose and to others in the room. We listen better and feel happier.
But how can we be mindful in an online working world? How can we be truly present for others when we couldn’t be (physically) farther from one another?
What we learned from 2020 is that online and remote working doesn’t have to be a barrier to our capacity to deliver leadership presence, empathize and connect with colleagues, and build strong workplace communities. Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don’t have to retreat to a mountain top or a meditation cushion to practice mindfulness. You can do it while working from home by:
- Pausing and noticing where your thinking mind is
- Purposefully bringing your awareness to the people and context that are with you virtually
- Suspending your own narratives, agendas, judgements, and ego to offer your full online presence, evidenced through eye contact, warm and responsive facial expressions, and minimized multitasking
You can apply these three principles of mindfulness to managing and leading online.
From doing to being: Offer your presence. Action is the hallmark of managers. It’s what they’re noticed for and measured on: Doing, achieving, producing, organizing, controlling. New remote and hybrid working environments have thrust managers into excessive patterns of “doing.” But sometimes, who and how you’re being can be more important than your actions.
To cultivate trust and motivate and inspire others, pay attention to how you’re being with them. Are you rushed or distracted? Is your mind on the next meeting or your to-do list? To enhance the quality of your leadership presence with others, take a moment to reflect on your physical and emotional state when entering a new meeting. Through your virtual presence, what energy will you convey to this set of colleagues or clients? Will you bring the tough conversation you just had with someone else into this new one? Will you offer a sense of calm and reassurance?
Another’s presence (or lack thereof) is noticeable. When someone is speaking, are you using the moment to check your email, send a text, or schedule a meeting? You may think that none of this shows in online working contexts. But just as in a face-to-face meeting room, virtual participants know whether and how you’re truly present with them — emotions and attention can be broadcast, felt, and contagious across virtual boundaries. Even in a big online town hall, the audience can sense if the speaker is truly with them, and the speaker knows if most of the audience is elsewhere.
Lead by example when working remotely. Try to have your camera on and ask others to do so if possible. Ensure others can feel your presence by establishing eye contact, and use your body and posture to convey interest and empathy. If you know you just can’t help but look, turn off those enticing email notifications.
Shifting your focus to how you’re being doesn’t mean that things don’t get done. And none of these shifts in your awareness and attention take more than a few moments. But they do have impact on you and on those you’re working with.
From future to present: Be here, now. Managers are taught to relentlessly plan for the future. Yet always having your mind on next month’s targets or next year’s profits can mean you miss life today. You forgo important opportunities for connection and empowering others if you’re in your mind, planning “the next step” or worrying about something that might not happen.
Take a moment to step back from the busy-ness and view your tasks with perspective — looking down from the balcony. What or who is important right now? Ask yourself: Am I postponing life, thinking that all the good stuff will come next month, next year, or when lockdowns and pandemic restrictions end? Postponing life can exacerbate unhappiness and stress. We hold out for when things will improve but don’t see all the beautiful small things around us now: A fun meal with family, a morning walk or run, the sharing of a special moment or a celebration with colleagues.
Next time you’re in a virtual meeting and notice your mind has wandered off, catch yourself. Bring your mind to where your body actually is — this present moment, right here, right now. Take a few seconds to anchor your awareness in the now by drawing on your senses. Look outside if you can, and take in any sky or green that may be visible. Relax your shoulders and your jaw. Breathe out. These momentary connections with your physical senses are the gateways to being more present. Sharing some words of gratitude for people showing up and for what exists in the here and now can help others to pause and pay attention. They may notice they’ve been ruminating and can choose to tune in, not tune out. Practicing mindfulness techniques like these has been demonstrated to lift moods, foster well-being, and improve overall psychological health.
From me to you: Enabling connection and community. When people are talking, where is your mind? Is it with them? Or are you waiting for a gap to jump in with your opinion or experience? Can you suspend your own agendas and ego needs to hear what people on the team need? Try deepening your listening. Try listening without wanting to “fix” people or (perhaps silently) insisting they get over things. Deep listening is generous. Encourage the person speaking to discover and voice a way forward. They will appreciate and be empowered by it, finding their own path or solution.
In our executive development work, we have found that virtual meetings can reduce barriers for people to speak and to have their voice and presence heard and felt. For example, tools like “raise hand” indicators and simultaneous chat functions enable different ways for people to offer insight and signal their contribution. Further, that everyone has one equal-sized window with only a headshot in a virtual meeting can diminish stereotypes, hierarchies, and power differentials as certain physical and status markers are removed. As a mindful leader, be aware of who is present, and pay particular attention to inclusion. Welcome and seek people’s input, especially from those who usually don’t say much.
Endorsing expressions of openness and vulnerability can help cultivate a culture of appreciation and psychological safety. As a leader, you might offer some vulnerability about where you are right now, which will open the space for others to express how they really are. You might be juggling the needs of a sick child or a parent in aged care. The circumstances of online working have sometimes meant we’ve had to get more real. People are tuning in from their living rooms and bedrooms. They have families, pets, and other competing needs to accommodate. We’ve had to take off our office masks, our make-up, and our constructed work identities and allow others to see us more fully. This has surely been a good thing.