Being Approachable—When You’re Not in the Office Together

Before COVID-19, I had lots of ideas for leaders on how to become more approachable: how to show people that you are open to their ideas, their questions, and their visits to your office or cube. 

Back then, it was easy to hide, intentionally or not, or be “busy” in conference rooms for several hours each day. Leaders were always, it seemed, in back-to-back meetings. I know, I know: you wanted to be at your desk and be available. But it seemed impossible to be at your desk, so you could be approachable. You needed time to sit down in one place to be approachable. And then, there were business trips. More time out of the office to be in other offices—and in other conferences rooms, being busy. 

Well, it’s July 2020, and COVID-19 means huge numbers of people are working at home, away from each other, and ironically, when we do see someone, we need to create physical space between us and that person. Let’s also add in the mask factor into this scenario. With masks on, it’s hard to read someone’s face, as well as figure out what they’re saying. 

We’re physically separated, and we’re working together using unreliable and overworked technology, and we still desire connection. 

The setting and circumstances are different. The need to be approachable remains the same. 

Pandemic aside, things haven’t changed enough to ignore the fact that if you’re a leader, you still need to send the message that you are open to hearing from your team.

As a leader, it’s your job to provide information and guidance to your team, and you can’t do that if no one is willing to send you an email or text or give you a call.

Here are 3 updated approachability tips. I’m leaving some of the pre-2020 content I wrote in 2007, so you can see that tips haven’t changed dramatically (which is kinda crazy).

Pre-2020: Make your office or workspace look inviting or organized
2020: Make your desk, desktop, and background look inviting or organized

People should be looking at your face during video calls, but they are more interested in and also distracted by your background. 

“Be vulnerable and it’s OK to show junk” was the theme for March and April of 2020. Now it’s time to clean up the junk. 

We’re in it for the long haul, so tidy up what people see around you. I don’t mean adding fresh flowers, a framed motivational saying, and the books you’re going to read one day: leave that lifestyle blogger stuff out of the picture unless you are a lifestyle blogger (if you are one, I’m consistently impressed and scared by you ).  

Tidy up your desk and workspace to help yourself and tidy up your background so you appear a tad bit more organized to your team. Yes, you’re at home as they all are, yet as a leader, you need to send an impression that you got things under control. Even through your laptop camera, you’re under a microscope. 

Pre-2020: When you’re approached, stop what you’re doing and look at the person in front of you. Stop what you’re doing and pay attention to the person in front of you. 
2020: If you are going to multitask during a call, then skip the video. And if it is a video call, then communicate with it.

I’m not going to coach you to avoid multitasking. You know it’s unproductive and rude. But if you can’t stop yourself, then at least do it during a conference call–not a video call. What’s the use of being on video if all the heads are looking at their screens and not the faces of other people? Might as well cut the video and send the bandwidth upstairs to your gaming or streaming kids. 

If it is a video call, make it so people want to look at you. This isn’t about  makeup or finally getting a haircut. I simply want you to look at the camera and be engaging. 

Smile, nod, and use facial expressions. Use gestures: bring your hands into the picture. These actions make it more likely that people will want to look at you during a Zoom call and that they will pay attention to what you are saying. Adding more body language into the picture makes you more approachable and more accessible. You seem more than standing a head on a screen. 

Also, try coming closer to the camera. Your face fills more of the screen. You look closer to people and they in turn feel closer to you. 

Pre-2020: Engage with your employees
2020: Rapport building and shooting the sh*t are still crucial 

Being at home vs. in the office doesn’t change the fact that your team wants to get to know you. More than they already do. 

Yes, over the last three months, you’ve shared your struggles with homeschooling, gripes about postponed vacations, and recipes for sourdough bread. And, well, it’s not enough. 

You still need to ask how they are doing. How their weekends were. How the latest recipe turned out. How their kids are doing. What books they’re reading. What shows to binge watch. 

If we were back in the office, we wouldn’t stop building rapport or shooting the sh*t. 

We all seem closer to each other because we are all similar places: at home, wishing to be somewhere else or at least wishing the circumstances that forced us home were different.

So, continue to ask how people are doing. Continue to learn about your team. And continue to share things about yourself. 

Being Approachable Means You Learn More–Faster

When you appear approachable, people talk more to you, listen more to you, and overall, are more productive. 

You learn what’s wrong before it becomes a problem. They call you to discuss the email before they send it. You learn how they are feeling before those feelings lead them to drag their feet completing a project. 

As a leader convey that you are there for them–from your spare bedroom to their kitchen table.