We are amidst the most unsettling and unpredictable global crisis that the majority of us have ever seen. With Government officials, medical professionals, and virtually everyone on Twitter telling us to #stayhome, those of us who can work from home, are, and businesses are having to adapt to managing an entire team of remote workers practically overnight. These are unchartered waters, and the ever-sought-after work-life balance must suddenly make way for the work-life blend, as kids are at home, vulnerable family members are less independent, and so the responsibility has landed on those of us in between to juggle the lot while trying to stay safe (and sane). Those in positions of leadership will be challenged over the coming weeks, and possibly even months. Productivity, concentration, and efficiency will inevitably take a hit, with the disruption to everyday life and a collective, global anxiety taking effect on the general population’s consciousness. Through it all, leaders will need to be both tactical and benevolent in their approach to the new dynamic if they are to keep morale boosted and sustain high levels of productivity, motivation, and collaboration within their workforce. So, the question is: How do you effectively lead and encourage employees amid a global pandemic, all while from a distance?
1. Stay Connected While Isolating
Now more than ever, leaders will need to master the art of communication, and fast. While it’s crucial that members of your team are self-isolating during the Coronavirus outbreak, you don’t want them to feel isolated. For most, working remotely will be yet another thing to learn to navigate during this time of uncertainty, and it is likely that they will feel abruptly closed off from the contacts, information, and resources they ordinarily rely on to perform well. Being quick to establish structure by scheduling regular calls, perhaps one every morning to talk through the plan of action for the day ahead, will give employees the chance to adapt and form their new groove. Never let a full day go by without touching base through at least voice call – though video call is recommended and relying on email alone is highly discouraged. Try to remember that without water cooler conversation or chance catch-ups in the hallway, this daily ‘face-to-face’ interaction could be the only real – albeit virtual – connection that your employees have to their workplace in a day, and it’s essential to their motivation and productivity. In addition, don’t be afraid to encourage socialisation amongst employees. While you may be used to trying to keep chit-chat to a minimum in the workplace, now is the time to support it. Encourage your employees to meet for a video conference, even if you can’t make it. Keeping them connected to one another will boost motivation and morale, sustain successful collaboration, and remind everyone that we’re all in this together. Working remotely shouldn’t mean that striving for a positive company culture goes out the window. If collective lunch breaks or Friday evening drinks are a commonality within your organisation, they don’t necessarily need to fall to the wayside. Human beings are sociable creatures, and people the world over are meeting for a glass of wine on the couch with their laptop perched in front of them displaying mirroring scenarios in return. With the current situation comes an inevitable spike in stress, anxiety, and loneliness, so coming together when the working week is done could serve as essential decompression, which will benefit the company’s productivity and individual employees equally.
2. Enforce and Respect Boundaries but Offer Flexibility
When accustomed to the structure that comes with working on-site, working from home (especially if you share your home) can blur the lines, with business hours spilling into personal time and vice versa. Leaders will need to enforce collective boundaries and ensure they are being respected. While it may be true that the daily commute has been made temporarily redundant, the time it once occupied is not, subsequently, open for business. It might be worth setting some boundaries on behalf of both yourself and your individual team members, making it explicit that the parameters of the normal working day still apply. One way of keeping this in check as this time of uncertainty and irregularity continues is by keeping your own timings of work-related communication within said parameters. Don’t be tempted to reach out to employees outside of working hours simply because inside the realms of your own home the structure of the workday has become distorted. Instead, if you notice someone who may be losing track, kindly remind them during work hours that these boundaries still exist, and encourage them to distinguish between personal and professional time. On the other hand, some organisations will suit a more individualised approach. Speak openly and supportively to your staff about what their needs are in the coming weeks/months and accommodate those whose lives have been severely disrupted. Those who have their kids at home all day may need to break their workday up more or carry out the bulk of their work in the evenings without distraction, or those with vulnerable or unwell family members may need to take longer breaks in order to provide care. Being open to accommodating the unique needs of your staff will prevent a decline in productivity, morale, and indeed in mental wellbeing. So, weigh up requests for flexibility and prioritise turning a flexible work policy into an organisational reality. Naturally, this will present its teething problems, and allowing flexible arrangements for some employees may involve ramifications for others or for wider team solidarity.
3. Encourage Healthy Balance
With everyone in self-isolation and the daily commute being reduced to a shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen table, it is likely that both mental and physical health will suffer. Leaders will be faced with the new responsibility to inspire employees to get fresh air and exercise every day, which may come across patronising or judgemental if handled incorrectly. The best approach is to follow your own advice and lead by example. During the daily video call, start by talking about your morning walk. Maybe you took your coffee and listened to a good podcast. Or maybe you practiced yoga in the garden or went for a cycle during your lunch break. Just because you know your staff is firmly based at home doesn’t mean you can’t start a conversation with, ‘So what have you been up to today, other than work?’ This simple question paired with the mention of your own activity and how it made you feel brighter/happier/less confined, will encourage others to prioritise their own wellbeing, too. Even during the best of times, we could all benefit from a reduction in screen time. Throw extended self-isolation into the equation and the whole nation may very well resurface with square eyes. Between swiping through Coronavirus news updates, to FaceTiming friends and family, to staring at your laptop for work and virtual meetings, to the inevitable Netflix binge, we are all going to need to be vigilant and deliberate about putting our screens away. Remind employees to take regular breaks that don’t involve watching TV or scrolling through social media, and encourage them instead to step outside, get active, meditate, or read a book, in order to decompress and refocus. Excessive exposure to blue light, and screens in general, is extremely detrimental to quality of sleep, concentration, and anxiety, and this will show both in terms of your team’s collective mood, engagement, and the level of productivity that the company is receiving.
4. Lead With Compassion
The statistics surrounding remote work and productivity/work-life satisfaction are profoundly favourable. Even with the panic and uncertainty of the current situation looming over us all, it is possible to keep engagement and morale boosted, but only if your staff can trust your leadership. Open and consistent communication is paramount, especially as economic fears build, and your staff will need to hear from you about strategy and expectation going forward. But above all else, stay positive and lead with compassion. Check-in on the wellbeing of your employees, especially those who live alone and those with dependants. Provide structure and encouragement, and ensure they have everything they need to perform well. At the end of the day, while this too shall pass, employees will remember how they were or weren’t lead through the darkness.