Leading remote teams during a crisis
The unprecedented events rapidly unfolding over the last few weeks have impacted everyone on both, personal and professional levels. The human impact of the current crisis is tragic, and business leaders have a responsibility to protect their employees, address the risks and mitigate the outbreak in every possible way they can.
Business as usual doesn’t exist anymore as many businesses have now changed their well-established business plans and strategies in response to the crisis and asked their workforce to work from home, to follow official advise on social distancing and self-isolation to protect others and help to slow down the spreading of the virus.
The increasing uncertainty and anxiety about the employees’ personal health and wellbeing, as well as the impact on the economy makes adjusting to work changes even more challenging. Compared to managing a remote team under normal circumstances, leaders play an important role in ensuring that the employees feel safe about the roles within the business and manage the additional mental health burden the current crisis is presenting.
The importance of communication
In fast-moving and uncertain situations leaders often face questions they may not have answers to. When dealing with uncertainty, leaders should look at communication from the audience’s perspective, and communicate even if they don’t have all the information and reveal as much as they can to reassure their teams and keep them updated, so they feel as included as if they were physically present in the office.
Whilst in the age of digital communications, there are many tools that can help employees to communicate and collaborate remotely, what’s missing from emails and phone call is body language and social interactions. This can often lead to isolation and misinterpretations which can create stress and anxiety, affecting morale and engagement. Especially during time when there is already a great amount of anxiety caused by the outbreak, this can be extremely distracting and therefore having regular meetings, preferably with the camera on can help teams feel connected and maintain the sense of belonging.
It is possible that high performers might experience declines in productivity and engagement when they start working from home. Newly remote workers are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from co-workers and even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle to remote employees. Therefore, it’s important to establish clear collaboration and communication guidelines for all, and encourage information sharing in both informal and more structured formats.
Adjusting to challenging circumstances
Under normal circumstances it is always preferable to establish clear remote working policies in advance, however, in times of crisis, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Leaders need to have an understanding of factors that can make working from home especially demanding. For example, many parents will be working from home whilst looking after their children, in many cases with their partner also working from home.
The typical advice for effective remote working is to ensure that remote employees have both a dedicated workspace and a distraction-free environment. However, in case of sudden transition, many employees will be contending with suboptimal workspaces and parenting responsibilities, whilst trying to maintain the same quality of work as if they were working from the office. Even during normal circumstance family and home demands can have a great impact on remote work, and leaders should take into account that distractions will be even greater during this unplanned remote working transition.
It is important that leaders listen to employees’ concerns, acknowledge their stress and emphasise with their struggles. Research on emotional intelligence suggests that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden change and uncertainty, and leaders can reassure them by both acknowledging the anxiety and providing affirmation of their confidence in employees. Reassuring employees with saying things like “we got this” or “it’s difficult, but we will get through this together” can help to make employees feel supported and re-establish a sense of purpose.
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