This is definitely not business as usual.
No matter which industry you work in, it's almost certain that the coronavirus pandemic and its economic aftershocks will affect your business and, more specifically, your team. Right now, it feels as though everyone is starting at the beginning and scrambling to keep up. If you're in a leadership position, this can feel like an even bigger challenge.
As difficult as it is to navigate uncertainty on a personal level, those in team leadership, top management, and human resources are often looked toward as beacons of hope or guidance. Is it possible to be everything to everyone? To keep employees engaged and thriving as much as possible, while also keeping your own sanity and emotional reserves well-stocked? There are ways to deal with these challenges, and it starts by assessing what your employees need most right now.
Give them your attention
Open-door policies and frequent check-ins are popular with hands-on managers during the best of times—and for good reason. Employees feel more engaged and invested in their work when they feel heard and understood. That's especially true now, when our attention is split in a million ways. "It’s hard, but the more you give your team your presence and attention, the more trust you build and the quicker your meetings will go because everyone will know what’s going on," writes Jake Kahana, a frequent proponent of remote work and co-founder of Caveday, which facilitates deep work sessions for individuals and companies through online and in-person meetings.
Even if your team is adapting to a remote work set-up, consider the ways you can offer your undivided attention, even in small bursts. Kim Scott, author of the book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, recently wrote on Twitter that she's found "shorter, more frequent 1:1's are often a better way to keep in touch than longer weekly meetings. So much happens in a week, especially now." Maybe now that looks like a ten-minute phone check-in or an individual Slack message off the main group.
Communicate like you've never communicated before
Radio silence is the enemy. Offer small updates, even if the update is that you don't have anything new to report. They show the team that they're still a priority, even during a time of crisis.
Nobody has a guide for how to handle this. "Whether you're in HR or the business, we're on a learning curve and getting a PhD in Business Continuity Planning and Crisis Management," says Alex Seiler, partner and head of HR, Americas, at Control Risks, a specialist global-risk consultancy that helps organizations succeed in a volatile world. "I think communication more than ever is critical, and [on our team] we've increased how often we communicate and the channels by which we communicate (email, Skype, internal podcast). We've also continued to stress that we are in this together and to talk about our own personal journeys as a leadership team, to reinforce that what people are going through isn't lost on us. We've created shared team sites with useful tips, information on working remotely, and just general connection amongst the business, and we'll continue to fine tune this as the situation evolves."
You can also consider how you're communicating with prospective team members. I have a friend who's interviewing for a new job and completed an in-person interview last week, before social distancing became the norm. She actually received an email this week from the hiring person saying that a decision would be made in the next week or two. That's communication. Even though hiring a new employee is probably at the end of their priority list, sending that one quick email shows the company is still functioning, that they respect the prospective employee's time, and sets a clear expectation for an outcome.
Make calculated decisions (but don't be afraid to change your mind)
Employees love bosses who can make decisions. And now, during a time when so much is uncertain, it can feel cathartic to have decisions made for you that erase some of that uncertainty. Major changes such as remote work schedules, paid time off and sick leave, adjusted working hours for parents whose children are now home–employees will be grateful if you can share your decisions on these topics before they have to approach you themselves.
In a recent piece for Forbes about how pandemics reveal leadership character, executive coach John Baldoni writes that during this moment, leaders should be straight with their employees, "Reveal what you can about the business, but do not make promises you cannot keep, e.g., no layoffs. Stick to the facts." But don't feel like you have to make rush decisions because of this current instability. "There are many actions people should take over the next several weeks and months, but the decision to act should be based on deliberation, sober reflection on data, and discussion with experts–not in reaction to a headline or a tweet," writes Art Markman in the Harvard Business Review.
Lead by example.
Everything's crazy. I can't believe this is happening. When will things go back to normal? These are all natural feelings, and it's important to share some of your concerns with your employees–you're not a robot. But people gravitate toward and take a cue from leaders who set a good example of how to manage during a crisis. One high-profile example is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who's apparently working 19 hours a day fighting the virus and updating the public–and is allegedly running 3½ miles a day as stress relief. (He's 79 years old.) There's no doubt that the team working under him marvel at his dedication and doggedness. (You do not have to mimic his routine, of course–actually, please do not.) There's no reason to burn yourself out, but can you can help provide a sense of calm for those working around you by maintaining a regular-as-possible work-life schedule with a well-structured day, standard meetings, and even just eating and sleeping as much as you can and communicating that sense of health and well-being.
Offer up kind feedback.
"While productivity may not have dipped, we need to remember the human element of connection," Seiler told From Day One. "Employees will miss working with their colleagues side-by-side, so we need to focus on the psychological shifts they have to go through. We need to find ways to create connections–for example, Zoom lunches and happy hours–to get creative."
This isn't the time for a full-fledged performance review. Avoid that. But do be liberal about giving feedback and praise. Employees don't want to feel like they're alone or, worse, like their adaptability isn't being noticed. Extend a few generous observations their way: I'm very impressed by how you're handling all of this or You're doing excellent work, even despite the circumstances.
And take a cue from Seiler and think about innovation in tandem with moderation: "We need to think creatively about health and wellness needs during this time, like a mindfulness/meditation app that employees can use to set aside time to disconnect from work. We don't want people to burn out, and they need to know when to step away from their computers, now that many are stuck at home seven days a week."
Throw out your old expectations–and create new ones.
While it's natural to want to stick to a timeline established earlier in the year, extend a favor to everyone and re-evaluate your goals and expectations now, so that later you don't feel compelled to scramble and try to meet them. "We’re not working hard by working more hours," writes Kahana, the Caveday cofounder. "We work hard by delivering our work on time and by collaborating well with our team."
The same feeling holds on the interpersonal level. If an employee is not responding to your Slack messages or is having trouble adjusting to whatever new technology they were forced to adopt in 24 hours, consider one of the dozens of other urgent needs probably calling for their attention right now. If an employee is following up about paid time off or flexibility with working hours, remember that their responsibilities likely encompass the needs of their family, friends, and of course, themselves. Remember that everyone is working hard, and everyone is human.
Kara Cutruzzula is a journalist, playwright, and lyricist and writes Brass Ring Daily, an encouraging newsletter about work and creativity. She's the author of the forthcoming motivational journal, Do It For Yourself.