Leaders need to focus on being, not doing, in a post-COVID-19 workplace

customer churn

As the idea of a post-COVID-19 world and workplace stretches further into the future, the reality of dealing with high levels of complexity and a changing work environment is hitting home for leaders.

In research conducted in August by workplace wellbeing leader Michelle McQuaid and her associated labs, in conjunction with the Australian HR Institute, leaders indicated that “dealing with increasing complexity around the way we work” was their number one challenge. 

It’s understandable. While the impact of COVID-19 is global, the specific scale and nature of its disruption can be quite local, as we deal with pockets of outbreaks and the necessary containment restrictions.

And this provides another layer of complexity for leaders as they try to support teams and individual team members who may be having very different experiences.

Leaders are well aware of the challenge this provides, with 53% of leaders in the Australian sample not feeling highly confident or motivated to lead through the uncertainty that lies ahead.

There are many things that leaders will need to do as they navigate the COVID-19-impacted work landscape in the coming months, but it is often how leaders show up as they do those things that makes the most difference.

With that in mind, here are some ways to be that will help leaders navigate what lies ahead.

1. Be open

It is more important to care for workers well than to manage performance during this time.

The same research in Australian workplaces that I mentioned above showed that only 39% of workers were feeling positive about returning to work.

Leaders can help their team members understand that feelings of stress and struggle are not signs that they cannot cope or are breaking, but rather reflect a normal response to challenge. 

Be open to honouring the full range of emotions of your team without judgment.

As a leader, rather than pushing aside difficulties, listen to people’s concerns without judgement. Make it safe to talk about the struggles that people are experiencing.

For struggles that can be controlled, help workers identify actions they can take to address concerns. Consider whether adjustments can be made in the workplace to support people well.

And for struggles that cannot be controlled, encourage workers to practice self-compassion and compassion towards each other as they adjust to the ongoing uncertainty and changes required of them.  

2. Be curious

Some people will enjoy the expanding freedoms; others will be uncertain and unsettled. Neither is better; we are all different.

Because of this, leaders need to understand how individual team members are feeling about returning to the workplace. Are they relieved at the idea of getting out of their house or are they worried about caring for their health and finding new ways of safely working together?  

Do they feel comfortable being in shared workspaces? Or do they have family members that are considered highly vulnerable who they are concerned about putting at risk?

It is normal to experience fear. Being curious involves leaders asking open questions that make it safe for team members to speak openly and honestly about their concerns. It also creates opportunity for them to share their ideas for crafting new norms for working safely and productively together.  

3. Be clear

When situations are complex and uncertain, clarity is critical.

In fact, research by Gallup suggests that clear expectations from leaders is a primary motivator for team members and an essential foundation for employee engagement. This is because the clarity of expectations reduces confusion and uncertainty, which helps our brains feel safe through a sense of control, and in turn, reduces anxiety.

When leaders take an ‘invite and enquire’ approach to establishing expectations, they involve team members in co-creating them, which delivers the additional benefits of increased feelings of autonomy and higher levels of commitment to the outcomes.

Being clear means that leaders and team members know what’s expected, have agreed on how progress will be measured and understand when and how accountability check-ins will take place.  

Leaders need to do this for themselves too.

Leaders should be open to experiencing the full range of emotions and ask for support when needed; be curious about the concerns they hold and the possibilities they can see for the future; be clear about what is and isn’t possible so that the expectations they hold for themselves are realistic.

Our workplaces will be impacted by COVID-19 — directly and indirectly — for many months to come.

The to-do list will change, but the to-be list doesn’t need to. Being open, curious and clear will serve leaders through the complexity of COVID-19 and beyond. 


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