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“You’re on mute”: lessons learned during the pandemic that will help for the rest of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way and the pace of how we work. If you are like me, my primary focus during the first few weeks of the pandemic was how to keep the business running. I did Google searches on “best ways to work virtually” and “effective virtual meetings.” We had to work differently, but the team came together, and we made it work.

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Experience has taught me the value of Coaching by Walking Around. Coaching by Walking Around means that you get out of your office, interact with associates face to face, and learn what is going on.  Yogi Berra said it best, “You can observe a lot by watching.” It is hard to observe and learn sitting at your desk but Coaching by Walking Around is extinct when everyone is working from home.

I replaced Coaching by Walking Around with Coaching by Calling Around Virtually.  I would video call a few members of my team each day to see how they were doing.  We would discuss our families and work-related topics.  The calls might run two minutes or 20 minutes.  As a rule, I would always turn my camera on.  I found most people I talked to would keep their cameras turned off.

Through this process, I discovered five insights that have helped me lead through the COVID crisis. 

Laughter and humor keep the team camaraderie tight

Someone once told me, “everyone loves kittens and babies.”  I found it to be accurate, and it served as an inspiration.  I started sending daily emails with a simple picture with either a cute kitten, cute puppy, lighthearted cartoon, beautiful vacation destination, or surprising fact.

Humor helped keep the team engaged and happy.  The team responded by sending out pictures of their animals or favorite travel spot.  Laughter and fun kept us connected and eased the stress. 

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Authenticity – It is acceptable to bring your life and personality to work

As leaders, we set the example we hope others will follow. I found half of my time during the pandemic was spent on conference calls. So, I changed my video conference photo into a cute kitten. The cute kitten drew some good-natured laughter and appreciation. 

Another lesson learned was it is perfectly acceptable to be silly in a difficult situation.  Sam Walton once danced in a hula skirt to pay off a bet. I did not mind showing my silly side.

I also changed my Linkedin profile picture to stress the importance of covering your face and Social Distancing.  I made up a new job as a practicing “Rogue Internet Time Traveler,” “Space Fishermen,” “Social Distancer,” “Marathon Avoider,” and “Taco Ninja.”  I got hundreds of messages from all over the world thanking me for making them laugh.

The connection between laughter and stress is not surprising. Studies have shown the importance of laughter in stressful times. As leaders, we get these opportunities to make a difference.

So, get a sense of humor. The world is stressful right now.  Laugh a little.

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Body language is being replaced by a new common language

“I think you’re on mute.”  How many times have you heard that over the last 3 months? For me, it is at least ten times each day.

A more thorough analysis of the virtual meetings shows we can no longer gauge someone’s attentiveness based on their body language.  We have lost the ability to quickly scan the room to see if our message is getting across. 

During a virtual meeting, we might hear the meeting audio, see someone share their screen, get an instant message, and receive a text message at the same time from different people, all while reading an email. 

These distractions can impact our ability to listen and focus during virtual meetings.  It is creating a new common language of over-communication.

As leaders, we must encourage our teams to embrace more open communication and discourage the side conversations.  The focus should be on what is said, and the caution should focus on how it is said.

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Companies are developing a new “Digital Corporate Culture”

Hundreds of books and articles have been written on corporate culture.  Human Resource professionals and consultants are paid to evaluate, harness, and improve a company’s culture.  We are witnessing the birth and rapid evolution of a “Digital Corporate Culture.”

The norms for each company’s “Digital Corporate Culture” are, for the most part, still being developed.  We can shape how our teams develop new cultural norms. 

I have had many employees ask to continue to work from home when Social Distancing rules are eased.  There is still no clear path on how these requests will be resolved. This creates opportunities and challenges for how we define future work.

It is essential we openly ask our teams and customers what they need.  Open communication will lead to developing norms and expectations within your group and across your organization.

“Infinite Meeting Room” is changing and improving communications

E-commerce introduced us to the concept of the Infinite Aisle in retail.  The Infinite Aisle provides customers with an almost unlimited selection of items to purchase from their electronic devices. Customers no longer need to visit a brick and mortar retailer to make a purchase.

Virtual meeting technology also provides us with the “Infinite Meeting Room.”  Our meetings are no longer limited by the size of the meeting space and giving every employee access to every level in the corporate structure.

The virtual technology has been available for more than a decade, but companies have been slow to adopt it.  Social distancing has accelerated the technology adoption and provides for safe and affordable mass communication.   

As leaders, we can embrace the change and find ways to use the virtual meeting technology to improve both internal and external communication. This is a natural evolution of the “Digital Corporate Culture.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and transformed the way we work and the way we lead.  It is forcing us to change how we interact with our teams.  Humor, authenticity, and adapting to the changing work demands are essential to leading through this crisis.

Joel Arnao is a Senior Advisor at the Navio Group and has led large teams at Walmart and Home Depot. Interested in learning more about how to lead your team out of the pandemic? Email

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