Leading from a Distance: How to Achieve Peak Performance When Everyone’s Working from Home

On November 11th, we held a webinar hosted by NJBIZ to discuss how leaders can improve performance when the workplace is now almost entirely virtual. We were fortunate to have more than 120 people in attendance.

I lead the human capital division here at NJII. We are responsible for delivering professional development and executive education in the form of individual and group training and programs. For this session, we asked one of our partners and lead instructors to help us cover this topic.

Our guest speaker was Dave Mitchell of the Leadership Difference. Dave is the author of The Power of Understanding Yourself, The Power of Understanding People and Peak Performance Culture: The Five Metrics of Organizational Excellence.

Over the years, more than 450,000 people have attended Dave’s “enter-TRAIN-ment” seminars on topics that include leadership, customer service, selling skills, and personal performance enhancement. His clients include Allstate Insurance, Bank of America, Universal Studios, Hilton Worldwide, Sub-Zero Wolf Appliances, Electrolux Appliances, Trek Bikes, Walt Disney World and the CIA.

Dave teaches several leadership programs which are available to both individuals and groups and offered through NJI. These programs include the following:

  1. Communication Excellence
  2. Customer Centric Sales & Service
  3. Peak Performance Culture
  4. The Power of Understanding People
  5. The Power of Understanding Yourself

I interviewed Dave and asked him a series of questions that helped focus our discussion on what you and your leadership team can and should be doing to help ensure your employees remain engaged and productive during these challenging times.

If you didn’t have a chance to attend, you can register quickly and watch an on-demand version of the event or contact us for a copy of the presentation that was shared during the session.

For your reading pleasure, below are the questions I asked Dave and a summary of his responses.

What is the most surprising thing we’ve learned during this forced “work-from-home” period created by the global pandemic?

As Dave said, this is really an unprecedented time in our history. He joked “There’s not a lot of leaders who guided us through the Spanish flu and are still providing us direction.” He went on to say that it does provide us an opportunity to re-evaluate what we think we know about communications and try new things we’ve never tried before because we just didn’t have to, and it’s going to make us better.

So, what’s surprising?

Well, one of the first things you learn in any communication course is that there’s a big difference between formal and informal communication. And one of the things that’s been a little surprising is how painful and acute the loss of informal communication is.

Formal communication is more commonly vertical in nature – involving leadership directives or team member updates. Examples include things like group meetings, video conferences, formal scheduled individual meetings, emails, press releases, policy statements etc.

Informal communication is more commonly horizontal in nature – involving peer to peer interactions and includes things like small talk, lunch or breakroom conversations, texts and DMs, chat features and pre- or post-work gatherings.

In summary, informal communication is the fun part. It’s what people really enjoy about their day to day. And during this time, we’ve ensured that all our formal communication is in place and even more of it has been added. But, all the informal communication is really gone which has created a loss for people.

How can leaders encourage more informal communication between employees?

Dave re-iterated that we need to embrace small talk. And that can be a challenge for some leaders who don’t naturally lean towards small talk. Therefore, as leaders, we need to try and make time for and create opportunities for small talk and informal communication to happen virtually.

We talked a bit about ideas and ways to encourage information communication including things like:

  • Strive for less, shorter meetings
  • Schedule opportunities for informal communication
  • Explore fun activities like:
    • Online games
    • Happy hours
    • Crafting or other virtual meetups
    • Coffee chats
    • Virtual escape rooms
80% of communication is body language, how do you read that or use your own body language effectively when everyone is virtual?

Reading body language isn’t as emphasized right now because it is harder to get that information but USING body language and leveraging the visual medium of video conferencing is increasingly important for today’s leaders and many haven’t really embraced it.

To be as effective as possible, use the camera. Make yourself big. Bring your energy level up. Do whatever you can to be as expressive as possible on that medium.

Many leaders are concerned about maintaining productivity and achieving results while employees are working from home. Should they be?

Dave’s response to this question was funny – he deadpanned “No, they should be petrified.” He then quoted some of the statistics that researchers have shared about how the work from home model has proven to improve productivity. However, he was quick to point out, those studies relied on four important considerations that had to be addressed before a work from home model would improve productivity and those four things were:

  1. Are the employee’s childcare issues addressed?
  2. Does the employee have space to work at home?
  3. Is the employee’s workspace private?
  4. Does the employee have the choice to work at home?

Unfortunately, during the shift to a work-from-home model due to the pandemic, in many cases, none of those considerations were addressed and we have people working at home who are trying to balance their kids educational needs, they may be set up in a modest environment and they have no choice, their offices are closed.

So, the result is that productively is compromised and as leaders we must be mindful of what our employees and colleagues are experiencing. We can’t’ and shouldn’t require our employees to go on video. We can’t or shouldn’t make huge demands of them right now. For example, a mandate like “no one should take video calls from a bedroom” might not be appropriate since for many people that may be the only space they have available to them that affords them any sort of privacy or quiet.

Bottom line – leaders need to be empathetic and compassionate in considering the challenges facing their employees. The good will forged now will pay off in increased productivity long term.

What are the most common mistakes leaders are making related to managing and communicating with employees who are working from home?

One of the most common mistakes is failing to pay even closer attention to the differences in terms of how people communicate with one another and making sure that their “intrinsic needs” are met.

There are tons of assessments out there that analyze people’s communication preferences or personality types to provide a framework for approaching communication. In Dave’s book, “The Power of Understanding People” he puts forth the below framework for identifying what people’s performance styles are and their corresponding sensitivities, values, intrinsic needs and communication preferences.

Performance Style
The Leadership Difference
Source: the Leadership Difference

In the chart above, you can see for example, that if someone is a romantic, their intrinsic need is appreciation. As leaders, one of the things we may be overlooking right now is the fact that our romantics aren’t receiving the same amount of appreciation they would typically receive if we were all face to face. A romantic who’s used to hearing “thank you so much”, “great job” and “couldn’t have done it without you” at work might not be hearing that as often or even at all when their interactions are all virtual and distributed. The romantic person is suffering because of it and his or her productivity and level of satisfaction with their work life is negatively impacted.

The bottom line is that as leaders we need to make sure we recognize the communication preferences of those on our team and cater to them as much as we can. Pay especially close attention to their intrinsic needs and try to make sure they are met.

Is there a specific tactic – something leaders can start doing right now – that will enhance performance in this environment?


One of the approaches that’s touted as best practice even before the pandemic, is something Dave calls “People Preventative Medicine.”

The idea behind this is to create a continuous feedback loop from the employee to the employer. It should be casually executed but formally administered. Meaning, you, as the leader or the employer, should schedule it to make sure it happens, but to the employee it should feel like a casual check-in.

It’s a highly effective approach and mechanism for uncovering employee frustrations, inefficiencies and even customer concerns.

What strong leaders do is make sure they check in with their employees at least monthly and have a minimum of a 15-minute conversation with them in an informal setting and unstructured way. Feedback is solicited through open-ended questions such as the following:

  • What things are frustrating about your job?
  • What do you need to make it easier to do your job?
  • How can I better communicate with you?

And the key is to both listen and respond. Fix the things that are fixable and if they can’t be fixed or addressed, explain why. It takes time. Don’t expect immediate results, but after a few months, you should see enhanced performance and improved job satisfaction.

Do you want to learn more? Contact us with your questions or to learn about our courses for individuals or groups and other ways to get the advice and insights you need during these challenging times.