Working from Home during a Pandemic
Part Two: Leading at a Distance
In the first part of this “working from home” blog, we looked at what it means to work from home and provided some tips to help people be as productive as possible under the circumstances.
Let’s now turn our attention to team leaders, who are accountable for results, and the challenges and pressures they are facing as they lead from a distance. Some may have experience leading a remote team, but given the rapid closure of many businesses, few leaders would have had time to prepare themselves and their team to work with and through technology. So let us examine the challenges of leading a team using technology exclusively and what experts are advising leaders to do to keep their teams on task, collaborative and hopeful.
Your leadership voice. Your people want to hear from you regularly, a finding confirmed by recent data from Gallup during the pandemic. They want to know the way forward, even if it’s only next steps for the next two hours, two days or two weeks. This provides your team with a sense of continuity and confidence. You may be balancing the health and safety of staff and the community, which is paramount, with your duty to maintain operations. You needn’t (and shouldn’t) try to predict the future, but you must speak often on the path forward and do so honestly. Stick to facts.
Your folks are looking to you for hope. This is a time for realistic optimism, where the facts of how difficult the challenges are that lie ahead are shared along with a belief that through hard work, done together as a team, there is reason for optimism. This is no time for Pollyanna Positivity (everything will be all right just do your job) or playing the helpless victims. Consider increasing the frequency of group and individual check-ins (for a while), and make sure your team members are connecting with one another and staying in touch with clients. Acknowledge the signposts along the way: “It’s already been three weeks and we’ve been through a lot and we’ve learned a lot!”
Call it crisis management if you’re still in the thick of it. Harvard’s Nancy Koehn reminds us if your organization is in crisis, survival is your urgent priority. Your role above all is to distinguish the urgent from the important, and urge everyone else to do the same. Tradeoffs will have to be made when speed may be more important than precision. Keep defining and redefining priorities and communicating them diligently. You may have moved into a second phase of team oversight and coordination; for example, your management team may have gone from three meetings a week to two. The key is to stay fluid and understand that roles in the crisis will continue to change.
Resist centralizing decision making and putting yourself in the center of everything. Rely on your folks even more, because they will respond to taking on more responsibility, recognizing that your time as a leader needs to be freed up for pressing issues and challenges. As a leader, understand that mistakes can happen, and that they are learning opportunities for all. Make sure that the team is aware of who has been given temporary accountabilities and what aspects of procedure have been changed to accommodate the assignment of new responsibilities.
Choose and foster “deliberate calm” and the ability to maintain relative calm under stress. This is a time to summon your inner scientist or external consultant perspective in order to step back emotionally and gain a more detached perspective. We will all be experimenting and testing different ways of doing things. As I said, mistakes will be made. Do not frustrate yourself or your team with finger pointing and blame. It serves no purpose. Everyone is experiencing higher levels of anxiety. Some of your folks will struggle through this turbulence better than others. Focus on your health and that of your folks. Offer whatever assistance you can. If you feel your organization can do more, bring this up with the senior team. Choose deliberate calm.
Very few of us have received training for leading in such a crisis as the current pandemic and global stay-at-home orders. We are witnessing an amazing transformation to workplaces worldwide, and how we lead and manage in these times is redefining our role as leaders. We have to rise to meet and overcome the challenges and experiment to find those better ways forward. Stay gracious, stay safe, and do what you can to make sure your team is cared for and supported.