When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and many workplaces made the transition to work from home, companies did so without the knowledge of when we could return to our usual routines. As many of us settle into the new norm of a combined home and workspace, it’s important for managers and leaders to be mindful of the changes we are experiencing, not only due to the pandemic threat but from the changes in the way we connect with each other.
Working remotely might be well-suited to certain personality types, but the impact of removing people from social interactions with colleagues, managers and friends over a prolonged period should not be ignored. The shakeup to our lives has already has some lasting effects, with workers reporting a deterioration of mental health since the coronavirus outbreak.
Most leaders are used to managing teams in person, with at least some face-to-face contact and feedback. Managing people and teams remotely requires concerted effort and a shift in thinking and style that may be a difficult transition for some leaders.
How can you be a great leader to a physically distant team?
Exercising ‘soft skills’ such as empathy and understanding during these uncertain and isolated times will be what leaders are remembered for when the dust has settled. We explore some tips and tricks to transitioning your management style to adapt to changing circumstances.
1. Normalise the mental health discussion
Mental health discussions have become more common and fluid in recent years but are not always well practiced between managers and employees in workplace situations. One positive of the pandemic is how it has escalated this conversations into a new realm, where asking people directly about their mental health and how they are coping has become more accepted and normalised.
Without the visual cues and in-person interactions the workplace provides, managers need to make a more concerted effort to maintain regular communication using technology. Checking in with employees both personally and professionally and normalising the discussion around mental health and wellbeing will help leaders connect, respond, and support their staff in the ways they need.
2. Understand the specifics of people’s situations
An unusual element of the pandemic is that it has given us an unexpected, more intimate look into our co-worker's lives. Video calls give us visual insights into people’s homes, their relationships, their children, pets, different rooms in their house, and aspects of their lives we may have not uncovered otherwise.
We see parents home-schooling their children, people caring for their family or friends, or moving back in with their parents. Many people are living completely different lives than they were before COVID-19 and their lives are changed beyond anything they could have imagined for 2020. The specifics of each employee’s mindset and situation widely varies from person to person. Understanding how each person’s unique circumstances impact their ability to get the job done is imperative to managing individuals and helping them perform at their best. Physical distancing has exacerbated the isolation and loneliness of many people, reinforcing the importance of shared connections, including workplace relationships.
3. Build virtual connections
It’s much easier to build rapport with people when you’re physically present together, so not being able to read visible feedback and body language can make relationship-building more difficult. It’s harder for relationships to develop naturally without the regular, personal interactions facilitated by a physical workspace. With the barrier of technology added to the mix, building remote relationships and rapport needs to be more measured and deliberate.
Expanding new work exchanges beyond your to do list to be able to catch up on ‘watercooler moments’ you may have had in a physical workspace, helps encourage much-needed personal connection, interaction and support between managers and team members. Think not only of the connection between managers and employees but also how you can facilitate your team members to work together and develop their connections. Using a variety of communication channels and scheduling different types of online meetings and virtual catch ups between teams will add variety and stimulate engagement to help keep your networks active and build a sense of community.
4. Regular routines and contact
Although some working hours might be turned on their heads, it’s important to keep connected and maintain some routine. If you previously had weekly catchups, keep that spot in the diary. If you were previously inclined to going out for a coffee, encourage people to bring a beverage to convert your chat into a virtual coffee meeting and help restore some sense of normality or routine. Watercooler moments, workplace banter and dropping by people’s desks to chat about the weekend is harder to come by, so maintaining regular contact matters.
Finding your ‘new normal’ can be based on your old ways of working – coffees, the occasional afterwork wine, regular WIPs, performance review, and open conversations. You will likely need to adapt to find a new way of doing things that works for everyone, which may involve some trial and error. Encouraging the channels of communication to remain open and ensuring people embrace an adaptive, understanding mindset will help you manage the changes until you find your new groove.
5. Manage outcomes, celebrate wins
It’s much harder to oversee day-to-day tasks when distanced from your team. Not only are many of us now working remotely, but we’ve had to chop and change working hours to cope with the changes. Leaders need to shift their focus to the outcomes and results of the assignments, projects and tasks being completed rather than micromanaging minor tasks or delving into the details of an employee’s day. Providing the leeway for employees to maturely self-manage their work and be accountable for their actions within agreed parameters can improve worker’s job satisfaction and work-life balance.
Working together to clearly communicate requirements and timeframes, manage expectations, and provide ample feedback, while trusting your team members to deliver outcomes will improve your rapport and help you develop more sophisticated and satisfying working relationships. Maintaining engagement and motivation for individuals and teams during this period can be tough, so sharing and celebrating achievements, learning, general events, and successes with team members can be a morale booster that lifts spirits and productivity.
6. Adapting to flexible working hours
Working from home challenges the traditional perception of standardised working hours, as many workers are no longer required to be physically present in the workplace during set times. With no rush hour or public transport to contend with and not having to be in the office for meetings, the standard 9 to 5 workday can be reassessed and evolved to capture efficiencies, productivity benefits and elements of job satisfaction that have been experienced.
Many people also have children or other household members to contend with during normal working hours, making standard workday hours difficult. For some people this will mean that they’re finally working hours that they’re best suited to – perhaps they’re night owls or are most productive early in the morning. Being able to start work by simply opening your laptop lid, provides the potential for more work-life balance and many workers are highly productive not being in a shared office. Understanding this and being flexible and adaptable to some new hours will make the transition easier and ensure the best work and personal outcomes.
Managing flexible working requires good organisational and team communications around availability, working hours and response times to reset expectations. An important element of flexibility is being able to open people’s thinking to adapt to a new way of doing things and establish new social norms around working remotely and not having to be physically present in a workspace to be productive.
7. Reposition expectations
Working from home may have been incredibly productive for some people and companies, with their work or lifestyle lending itself to make a seamless transition to work autonomously. For other people’s lifestyle, personality type, or role type, adapting to work from home isn’t as easy or natural. To be an effective leader, learn about the preferences and style of your employees and take stock of the challenging situation we are all experiencing; talk openly with your team members about what is realistic to achieve while juggling their own circumstances. Timeframes may need to be reassessed as our ways of working evolve, and it is likely that some tasks done before COVID-19 (BC) may not be as important as they once were. Working collaboratively with employees and communicating regularly with teams and key stakeholders as circumstances change will help harness connection and engagement.
Managing through ambiguity
It’s hard to be exactly the same manager or employee you were before the outbreak of COVID-19. People are feeling discombobulated, concerned and perhaps even lonely (or overly close to their housemates). With all the ups and downs we are experiencing, putting people first and leading with empathy will help us all.