The COVID-19 pandemic is described as ‘unprecedented’, ‘volatile’ and ‘uncertain’ — an accurate snapshot of how a virus turned the world upside down within mere months. For many of us, these words also summarise our new way of life, as self-isolation and social distancing measures become the ‘new normal’.
Adapting to change is not easy, even for the most flexible of people. For those working from home due to COVID-19, the boundary between personal space and professional life has become blurred, if not invisible.
As Australia edges towards double-digit unemployment levels, we mustn’t forget that having the ability to work from home is a privilege not to be taken for granted. But it is important to acknowledge the inevitable challenges that come with managing and contributing to a remote workforce.
Co-workers have opened doors into their homes via video platforms, juggled parenting and family duties, and negotiated space with partners, housemates and pets. We’ve learnt to adjust our working routines based on the conditions of our environment, to good and bad effect. Self-isolation has seen demand for video-conferencing tech sky-rocket, but relying on virtual reality for social connection is wearing thin. On top of this, we are continually exposed to a cycle of bad news, creating an underlying sense of worry and doubt.
So as leaders, how can we best care for our employees as they navigate the continuing fallout from COVID-19?
Put simply, through support and encouragement — the fundamentals of which are grounded in healthy relationships.
Here are seven ways to keep your teams connected while working from home.
Effective communication is a vital ingredient to any successful workplace in normal circumstances, let along during a prolonged period of remote work. Establishing a steady cadence while working from home is essential to maintaining trust, and keeping teams aligned and connected.
Daily check-ins, for example, are a great way to gain perspective on individual workloads, determine who needs extra support and ensure teams are across key information. Instant messaging platforms, such as Slack, make for convenient internal communication channels as they allow for information to be shared quickly and avoid clogged inboxes.
From a company-wide perspective, weekly ‘all-hands’ meetings allow you to bring your workforce together — use the opportunity to boost morale, highlight wins, address concerns and share updates within the business.
While it’s almost impossible to over-communicate during this time, avoid micromanagement. Utilise anonymous surveys to ask for feedback on the number of meetings or check-ins you’re scheduling; too many can foster a sense of distrust, while too-few can leave employees feeling unsupported.
Make use of video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Skype when communicating with your team. It’s much easier to read someone’s demeanour through facial expressions and gestures compared to relying on tone of voice.
Switching on video means you have a better chance of establishing a connection with your team and conveying your message accurately. Correspondingly, visual cues will provide you valuable insights into how staff are feeling, allowing you to follow-up with team members who appear dejected during conference calls.
Reward and recognise
When leaders fail to acknowledge the hard work of their team, it can curb motivation and confidence. Focusing on reward and recognition is especially important during self-isolation, as you don’t have as many chances to quickly thank someone for their hard work, or remind them that they’re doing a great job.
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Find new ways to acknowledge success, such as via a dedicated Slack channel where staff call-out their colleagues’ excellent performance, or opening the floor at the end of an all-hands meeting to highlight those that have gone above and beyond.
A little bit of gratitude goes a long way when it comes to keeping teams connected and driven.
Stick to goals
Reinforcing the greater purpose of each individuals’ role keeps employees focused while working from home. Define that purpose by using goal-setting structures like objectives and key results (OKRs).
Not only do OKRs make it easy to track progress and keep everyone aligned to broader business objectives, but they also show employees how they’re individually contributing to progress, which can be hugely rewarding.
During periods of rapid change, allow some flexibility around OKRs as it’s possible your business objectives will pivot with the times.
Friendships reinforce working relationships, so your team is likely missing each other’s company.
With that in mind, be sure to carve out time for fun initiatives such as Friday afternoon Zoom drinks, group workouts or a dedicated Slack channel for general chit-chat to keep spirits high.
Just because we’re in self-isolation doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated too.
It’s natural to miss the small-talk, ‘water-cooler’ chats and shared lunchtimes that typically break up our days.
We’re often reminded to take regular breaks, eat lunch away from our desks, and start or finish work at a reasonable hour by the behaviours of our co-workers. Working from home means we risk neglecting these daily rituals that keep us productive and sane.
As leaders, we need to empower staff to find new routines in isolation that adopt healthy office habits. For those that need help, suggest scheduling a morning coffee break or afternoon walk around the block.
Create an optional lunchtime video call so employees can share a meal together a few times a week. When appropriate, schedule walking meetings. Encourage team members to share their calendars with colleagues so they can hold each other accountable to their planned breaks.
Over time, these habits will become ingrained as routine.
Prioritise mental health
Uncertainty creates stress; economic downturns, business closures and rising unemployment is only a fraction of the fallout from COVID-19. Of course, this impacts motivation and wellbeing.
While no leader is expected to be a medical professional, there is a responsibility to point employees in the right direction. If you have an employee assistance program, remind staff how to access it, otherwise, look to external resources such as the government-backed Medicare mental health plan, which is accessible to all.
Don’t shy away from prioritising your mental health too. Balancing vulnerability with courage as you lead through a crisis can be a powerful strength to harness.