The COVID-19 crisis is profoundly impacting how we feel, think, live and work, all of which is of concern to leaders as they seek to protect and nurture their teams. While we like to think we know our people well, the truth is that the crisis has raised issues that we have never had to think about before.
Working virtually is challenging enough. Doing so because the world is in a crisis heightens the challenge. Leadership is about containing anxiety, and now is an opportunity for you to lean in and step up. Ask your team members what they need and how they are, and do so frequently and regularly. Because many people are proud and may not admit to struggling, be proactive —offer support and a listening ear — and surprise and delight them from time to time. Invest time and money in over-communicating and in creating a (virtual) environment where people can work effectively, productively and happily.
People are complicated. We all react to situations in different ways, and you may now be finding out who is great in a crisis and who is not. To be remembered as great in a crisis, it’s important to understand that leading in a crisis is different from leading in a “steady state.” This particular crisis has forced us all to change, in many significant ways, how we work, how we think about work and everything it provides us, and how we think about the work/home divide. Staying connected, healthy and productive requires leaders who can bring people through these changes in an authentic and active way. To be that kind of leader, there are three key questions you need to answer:
1. How Do I Keep My Team Motivated and Connected?
Productivity is about more than having somewhere to sit and broadband. It’s also about the formal and informal communication that goes on when people are at the office. Meetings, whether spontaneous or planned, in a meeting room or around the water cooler, in the office or at a social, are opportunities to innovate, update and plan. Working remotely presents unique challenges, ranging from the fact that you are not going to bump into your colleague at the coffee maker to the possibility that one of your colleague’s children is going to take a tumble and interrupt your scheduled calls.
As a leader, how can you keep people motivated and productive? Can you organize a virtual team lunch and order everyone pizza? Can you send them links to online art or music classes for their kids, online yoga or dance classes for them, or access to a therapist or counselor? Do you know everyone’s birthday so you can send a cake? Can you organize a community challenge, like picking up litter during daily walks, dropping off canned goods to a local shelter or shopping for elderly neighbors? What about a competition like who can build the best science project volcano or bake the best sourdough bread? Walk around the world together, charting the number of steps on an interactive map and exploring famous monuments as you go. Most importantly, thank them and acknowledge them. In doing so, you’ll inspire them to follow your lead.
2. How Do I Lead an Effective Virtual Meeting?
Energy is contagious, but when we meet remotely, we do not have a chance to pick up on others’ energy, which can make meetings tiring. The limitations of technology mean that we can lose nuance; humor can be labored; and it’s easy to misunderstand each other, because we’ve lost some of our visual communication cues.
Your formal meetings aren’t the only ones that have become virtual. The “water cooler conversations,” when you discuss and digest work and share information informally, have gone, too. We all need to master video and chat technology. Make sure videos are turned on during meetings and chat channels remain open during the work day. These tools are the best ways we have for continuing both formal and informal communication. Here are some ideas for leveraging them effectively:
- Make your meetings shorter and more frequent. Consider 30-minute meetings or taking 10-minute breaks every 30 minutes if your meetings have to be longer.
- Be disciplined about sending out the meeting’s agenda and objectives in advance.
- Stick to the agenda as best as you can. Productivity will tail off rapidly, so you need to reach the point quickly.
- Take side conversations offline.
- Reserve five minutes at the end of every meeting for articulating progress, decisions and next steps to clarify understanding and maintain momentum.
- Circulate notes and assign roles and responsibilities, following up with a series of one-on-one meetings if appropriate.
3. How Do I Deal With Personal Issues?
The science of positive psychology has identified the habits of people who report being happy, including spending time with friends and family, sleeping for eight hours each night, exercising, eating well, being actively grateful, participating in a community, and contributing to the happiness of others. In the days and weeks to come, some of these activities will be difficult. In addition, most of us feel stressed and anxious when we experience change — and we have all experienced a great deal of change in the last few weeks.
Asking people questions is a great way to encourage self-reflection. Start with asking, “How are you doing?”, and the move on to questions such as:
- Are you sleeping enough?
- Have you found a way to exercise now that you are not cycling to work?
- Are you getting enough time alone?
- Are you getting enough time with others?
You could also set up cohorts in your organization, giving everyone three or four people to look after and teaching them the kinds of questions to ask. Trust is not built overnight, so don’t expect people to be honest with you straight away. You don’t need all the answers, so don’t try; just listen for ways you can reach out and help — before you are asked to do so.
For many people, working from home every day is a new experience that is especially challenging because of the global health and economic crises. Major changes to individual routines are causing stress and anxiety in all sorts of ways; even the simple act of commuting has gone and, with it, the time that we spent at the beginning and the end of every day to transition between work and home. At every level, our lives have changed.
Out of this crisis, leaders will emerge. They will be the people who stepped up and stepped in to help the people around them find a path through these turbulent waters. By asking these three questions — and carefully considering the answers — you can be one of them.