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Stressing Over How to Lead a Socially Distanced Team?

The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak has certainly thrown a spanner in the works where businesses are concerned. As the world goes into lock down, staff have been told to work from home. For businesses that are more reliant on the bricks and mortar set up without wriggle room to work outside the office, this could spell disaster and given that this is not likely to be the last pandemic the world will face, it might be high time for businesses to look at investing in more agile working arrangements.

That being said, leaders have to consider how they can effectively lead and manage a workforce that is now working from home in order to comply with social distancing requirements.

In an article entitled "8 Ways to Manage Your Team While Socially Distancing" on the Harvard Business Review by Timothy R Clark, it was noted that managing a team without face-to-face human interaction and the structure of a typical workday could be challenging. Not only does the leader and/or supervisor have to manage himself or herself in quarantine, he or she will also have to manage a team and the needs of others in unprecedented conditions. Clark has used the word "daunting" to describe the current scenarios that are likely occurring across many businesses internationally.

Clark has noted that "pressurized conditions, heightened uncertainty, and an overall sense of dislocation" exacerbate the situation. "Under quarantine, every aspect of the manager’s role is magnified and complicated. You’ll need to reset expectations for how work gets done and adapt your management style to a new context."

On that note, how are you offering guidance and support to your managers and teams who will likely be new at remote managing and working from home when social distancing is in effect?

To be clear, social distancing doesn’t mean we have to be distant. Do not assume your teams or employees are not present just because of a lack of constant texting or phone calls. We have to remember this so-called new norm we live in, is still not a normalcy for many of us.

It is still, a culture shock, a rude awakening and an uncomfortable adjustment to our daily normal lives and schedule. And the one thing that is needed to bring people together during these strange times is - Empathy.

Given this unique and highly pressurized environment of a highly infectious disease rampant in our society, combined with sudden lockdowns restricting movement, adjusting to working from home with home-based learning classes for the children and spouses stuck at home working at the same time too, it is definitely causing everyone to be on edge. Hence, as leaders, we need to empathise that this would take an amount of time for your teams to re-adjust their schedules and find some boundaries between work and home affairs.

Remember that as an employer, you are also affected by this new norm, hence, consider laying off the need to check in on your employees at every opportunity as this pandemic situation is something no one could have predicted and trust goes a long way for both the employer and employee. Having a system in place to allow employees to work from home is always a good starting point. Rather than stressing out at each moment wondering what your employees are doing, create an alternative scheduling option that can be put into place, or a deadline for certain tasks which your teams can check in once completed.

Empathy and Trust with New Expectations

The first message to send out to your teams is that the organisation is aware of how the Coronavirus has changed the landscape and as a company, it has reset its expectations in line with the altered situation. Allowances will have to be made to accommodate changes to how work is delivered, the possibility of IT glitches, the new model of working and all of its teething issues. Managers may need to relinquish some control over how workers accomplish a given task. Targets will also have to be adjusted to reflect the new reality. For example, sales figures may well drop and it will not do much for morale to pin the blame of that drop on the workers.

Leaders and Business owners will have to make clear that their chief concern is that of the well being of their staff. In doing that, managers will have to be more intuitive and alive to any changes in moods and emotions of their team members.

Secondly, leaders will do well to remember that the current work environment can and will create structure for many workers. You just have to give it some time. While routine and social interaction will be affected as we work in a socially distanced manner, you will need to make a concerted effort to ensure that some level of communication and interaction is happening regularly. That could perhaps take the form of a group WhatsApp chat being set up or organising regular team catch ups via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Keep optimism up to ensure motivation and engagement. Optimism is often contagious and if managers give their workers something to feel positive about, chances are, this will boost productivity despite difficult times. There is no point in lamenting the economic effects this pandemic will have on sales figures. The only way to bounce back from it is to conform to the best and most effective way to work in this new normal and be much more pandemic-prepared.

Have a fixed and clear communication channel

The clearer you can paint this picture, the more likely you are to be satisfied with the way your team handles a particular obstacle. One of the biggest mistakes often seen from leaders and business owners alike is that they have a fuzzy or incomplete understanding of what their team members, remote or otherwise, are responsible for in times of crisis. By focusing on clear success criteria, you empower your remote team to understand what they are working to accomplish.

One of the big stressors to having a remote workforce (or in times of crisis) is not knowing the status of projects and deliverables. Thankfully, with a little planning you and your employees can relax and focus on getting your most valuable tasks completed during uncertain times. Ask yourself these questions:

1) What "key performance indicators" (KPIs) should they report on and how often?

2) What updates should they submit? How frequently?

3) How often should my teams check In Face-to-Face (Virtually)?

There is a lot to be said for remote work and social distancing during times of crisis, but when it comes to brainstorming and creative projects, there is nothing that competes with face time. So explore using conference lines, video meetings, and other tools to keep your team connected when working remotely.

Once these changes for working remotely are set up and more stabilised, business can definitely become more normalised again and in fact, it could even develop more creativity and cohesion among your teams, giving birth to new strategies and delivering new ways of conducting business.

For the team at Engaging Leaders, we took some time to set some parameters ourselves to adopt to this remote working structure and now the team gets together once a week virtually to stave off feelings of isolation. It is usually 1 hour of huddle via video conferencing to share updates, brainstorm our new strategies and keep socially connected by recognising and appreciating our peers for 1 thing they have done during this period. One of the best parts of the video huddle is the chance to see our team members in their home offices and make a personal connection.

Changing the way you do business is stressful, but with a little communication and teamwork the transition doesn't have to be a painful one. So have faith, do not stress, all is not lost yet if you still have your teams by your side (albeit on a computer screen).



Key Contact:

Monica Tan, Engaging Leaders, leads our clients through a journey of performance and change. With more than 15 years of client and project management experience, she serves as a key advisor to our clients.


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