With so many working from home, the pandemic is making it more difficult for companies to innovate and engage their employees. A study conducted by my Babson College colleague Rob Cross found that the most effective leaders use practical techniques that help their organizations to overcome these challenges and meet their performance objectives.

I interviewed Cross on February 2 and he shared many practical insights from the 200 90-minute interviews he has conducted with successful leaders. He found that working from home can cause employees to feel overwhelmed by Zoom meetings, and that the most successful leaders manage collaboration in ways that boost innovation and increase employee engagement.

Here are five techniques Cross described:

1. Restore happy accidents by seeking help for addressing weekly challenges.

One of the benefits of people working together in the same building is that it boosts the odds for happy accidents.

Someone with a valuable perspective on a problem you are trying to solve with another colleague might overhear your conversation when they are walking back to their office. That interloper might have a great idea that you had not considered, and suddenly your problem is much closer to being solved.

With people working from home, this kind of serendipity is hard to recreate. But, as Cross notes, successful leaders can recreate such happy accidents by using a virtual space in which they share the challenges they are working on with their team members. In this way, team members may come up with new ideas or work more closely with others to help tackle these challenges.

2. Build trust by sharing with your team what pleases you and what causes you pain. 

Many leaders feel that they have to act as though they are always in control and have all the answers. But the most successful leaders recognize that trying to conform to such behavioral norms is not realistic. Instead, high performing leaders take a different approach, aiming to build what Cross calls "benevolence-based trust."

One leader at a major financial institution achieves this by sending his team members a weekly missive on a discussion board in which he talks about roses and thorns, Cross explained. The rose petals are cool things that make the leader feel good. The thorns are things that cause the leader pain.

By sharing both with his team members, the leader creates a psychologically safe space for his team. The implicit message the leader is sending is that being your authentic self is valuable to the organization--which makes employees feel more trust in the organization.

3. Boost employee engagement by structuring one-on-one meetings well.

Most people feel increasingly drained and stressed while participating in Zoom meetings with many attendees. The most successful leaders boost employee engagement by holding effective one-on-one meetings with the members of their team.

As Cross told me, the most successful one-on-one meetings address a specific series of questions:

  • How are things going in your life?
  • What are you working on, and why is that important to you and to the company?
  • What are your personal priorities? Who do you want to be?
  • How are you doing on your work priorities?
  • What will we each do between now and our next meeting?

4. When interacting with employees, do something fun.

When leaders become more comfortable during Cross's interviews they share "crazy" things that they do that are intended to give people time to laugh a little. Here are some examples that caught my attention:

  • Who are your favorite superheroes and why?
  • What is on your bucket list?
  • What are you doing to try to maintain your sanity?

5. Reach agreement on how your team members should work together.

When people are working from home, they can feel a need to respond immediately to every email or text they receive. This pressure to respond can easily cause employee burnout.

To counter this possible outcome, the most successful leaders foster a conversation among their team members on the norms of collaboration. This could include topics such as:

  • Agreeing not to send emails after, say, 8 p.m.
  • Setting expectations for, say, responding to an email with 24 hours
  • Formatting emails in bullet points with key expected decisions at the beginning
  • Using instant messaging to celebrate the success of team members
  • Turning on their cameras during video conferences 

The most effective leaders take the time to reach agreement on these norms of collaboration rather than assuming that people will absorb them through osmosis, Cross noted.

Use these five insights, and your company will innovate more and engage your people far more effectively.