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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Alumnae News April 6, 2020

Dorie Clark ’97: When It’s (Not) Business as Usual

Dorie Clark
Photograph by Mark Thompson

In the past month, millions of workers around the world have been forced to find alternate ways to do their jobs as businesses, corporations and other organizations close to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Dorie Clark ’97, a nationally recognized corporate consultant and author, has been paying close attention and watching how the shift may reshape the way we all work in the future.

Clark, who spends a great deal of time traveling and speaking at conferences, was named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. Her book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, was named the top leadership book of 2015 by Inc. magazine. She also teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School and counts Google, Microsoft, and the World Bank as clients.

She recently took some time while social distancing at her home in New York City’s financial district to discuss the new work “normal,” the emotional side of working in isolation and some tips for leading a productive, successful home-based work life.   

The new American workplace
The transition to working from home has been building for 20-plus years. But it’s been a slow process, because employers have resisted. Certainly, going forward there is going to be a lot more comfort with virtual models of all things, whether that’s learning, meetings or an acceptance of remote workers. I think what has happened is that the changes that we were going to see unfold organically over 5 to 10 years basically happened in three weeks. It’s going to be very hard for a company to say to its employees, “You must work from the office,” when the employees are able to say, “I’ve been working from home for two months and you said I did an amazing job. I’ve already proved I can do it.”

The upside
An advantage for companies having more remote workers is that they can save money on real estate, especially in downtown markets, where it is really expensive, and people are sandwiched into an open-floor office. If you give people the choice and the tools to work remotely, I think many will jump onboard because studies show that the worst time of most people’s day is during their commute to work. If you can give this time back to people, their happiness and quality of life is immediately higher.

The novice telecommuter
First, even if you are perfectly good at working from home, if you have somebody coming up to your elbow all the time and saying, “Hey, where was the peanut butter?” You’re not going to get a lot done. You have to train the people around you to make it so you can work at home successfully. Second, there’s an emotional element; a lot of people are extroverts and they are used to being around people. That’s one of the more gratifying elements of working in an office environment. For them, this could feel very lonely.

Clear communications
The rule of thumb has been if you need to have a high-stakes conversation, do it in person. The reason you want to do it in person is that you have access to all of the visual and auditory cues to see how the person is receiving it. Therefore, you can modulate your tone to make sure that you’re responding to them appropriately or adapting as needed. In a video call, you have more data than you would on a conference call, but it’s still not as much data. We have to become more attuned to watching micro cues and expressions.

Tips for working at home
Try to carve out a separate workspace. Having a space where you can keep your files out and your computer set up will make you more efficient, and you will feel more like you’re at work. For many people, having a set schedule is valuable. In lieu of a daily commute, some people are finding it helpful to have something else to ritualize the start of their day, for instance, doing an online workout.

Effective management
Managers should be very clear about expectations up front. Number one: what is the official communications channel for your team? Also, you need to be very clear about response times, especially for time-sensitive communications. Spelling this out is very important because you don’t have the luxury of just going to someone’s office. You can be a little looser in your protocols when you are in person—you can kind of wing it—but you can’t when you are operating remotely.

Yay, team
When people are operating in the midst of a crisis, it’s important to celebrate small wins at work. Managers can call out special moments of people behaving in positive ways, people helping team members, or people making a sale despite all the bad things going on around them.  Acknowledging small victories gives people a sense of progress and forward momentum.

A time for reinvention
I think that there is a temptation certainly to spend this time a few different ways. One temptation is to stress out and not get anything done because you’re reading the news so much, which obviously is not particularly helpful. Another tendency might be to just say, “I’m going to knock everything off my to-do list,” and that’s great, but if that is literally all you do, you risk turning into a machine. I think it is important for people to carve out time to try something new, to learn and to explore. Because that is what can actually lend a little bit of levity and pleasure and sense of forward momentum to what might otherwise feel like a time when you’re hunkered down and under siege.