Many organisations and companies are coming to terms with the changes forced on them by Covid-19 (“the coronavirus”), and working out what it means to them, their employees and their work patterns. For many people who were previously in offices, it means working from home. I wrote an article a few weeks ago called 9 tips for new home workers, and then realised that it wouldn’t just be new home workers who might be struggling, but also their managers. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a manager, working with people who don’t normally work from home – which may include you – so here are some tips for you, too.
1 – Communicate
Does that meeting need to be at 9am? Do you need to have the meeting today – could it be tomorrow? As managers, we’re used to being (or at pretending to be) the most important person in our team’s lives during the working day. For many, that will have changed, and we become a distant second, third or fourth. Family and friends may need help and support, kids may need setting up with schoolwork, or a million other issues may come up which mean that expecting attention at the times that we expect it is just not plausible. Investigate the best medium (or media) for communicating with each separate member of your team, whether that’s synchronous or asynchronous IM, email, phone, or a daily open video conference call, where anybody can turn up and just be present. Be aware of your team’s needs – which you just can’t do without communicating with them – and also be aware that those needs may change over the coming weeks.
2 – Flex deadlines
Whether we like it or not, there are things more important than work deadlines at the moment, and although you may find that some people produce work as normal, others will be managing at best only “bursty” periods of work, at abnormal times (for some, the weekend may work best, for others the evenings after the kids have gone to bed). Be flexible about deadlines, and ask your team what they think they can manage. This may go up and down over time, and may even increase as people get used to new styles of working. But adhering to hard deadlines isn’t going to help anybody in the long run – and we need to be ready for the long run.
3 – Gossip
This may seem like an odd one, but gossip is good for human relationships. When you start a call, set aside some time to chat about what’s going on where the other participants are, in their homes and beyond. This will help your team feel that you care, but also allow you to become aware of some issues before they arise. A word of caution, however: there may be times when it becomes clear in your discussions that a team-member is struggling. In this case, you have two options. If the issue seems to be urgent, you may well choose to abandon the call (be sensitive about how you do this if it’s a multi-person call) and to spend time working with the person who is struggling, or signposting them directly to some other help. If the issue doesn’t seem to be urgent, but threatens to take over the call, then ask the person whether they would be happy to follow up later. In the latter case, you must absolutely do that: once you have recognised an issue, you have a responsibility to help, whether that help comes directly from you or with support from somebody else.
Frankly, this builds on our other points: you need to be able to accommodate your team’s needs, and to recognise that they may change over time, but will also almost certainly be different from yours. Whether it’s the setting for meetings, pets and children, poor bandwidth, strange work patterns, sudden unavailability or other changes, accommodating your team’s needs will make them more likely to commit to the work they are expected to do, not to mention make them feel valued, and consider you as more of a support than a hindrance to their (often drastically altered) new working lives.
5 – Forgive
Sometimes, your team may do things which feel that they’ve crossed the line – the line in “normal” times. They may fail to deliver to a previously agreed deadline, turn up for an important meeting appearing dishevelled, or speak out of turn, maybe. This probably isn’t their normal behaviour (if it is, then you have different challenges), and it’s almost certainly caused by their abnormal circumstances. You may find that you are more stressed, and more likely to react negatively to failings (or perceived failings). Take a step back. Breathe. Finish the call early, if you have to, but try to understand why the behaviour that upset you did upset you, and then forgive it. That doesn’t mean that there won’t need to be some quiet discussion later on to address it, but if you go into interactions with the expectation of openness, kindness and forgiveness, then that is likely to be reciprocated: and we all need that.
6 – Forgive yourself
You will make mistakes. You are subject to the same stresses and strains as your team, with the added burden of supporting them. You need to find space for yourself, and to forgive yourself when you do make a mistake. That doesn’t mean abrogating responsibility for things you have done wrong, and neither is it an excuse not to apologise for inappropriate behaviour, but constantly berating yourself will add to your stresses and strains, and is likely to exacerbate the problem, rather than relieve it. You have a responsibility to look after yourself so that you can look after your team: not beating yourself up about every little thing needs to be part of that.
7 – Prepare
Nobody knows how long we’ll be doing this, but what are you going to do when things start going back to normal? One thing that will come up is the ability of at least some of your team to continue working from home or remotely. If they have managed to do so given all the complications and stresses of lockdown, kids and family members under their feet, they will start asking “well, how about doing this the rest of the time?” – and you should be asking exactly the same question. Some people will want to return to the office, and some will need to – at least for some of the time. But increased flexibility will become a hallmark of the organisations that don’t just survive this crisis, but actually thrive after it. You, as a leader, need to consider what comes next, and how your team can benefit from the lessons that you – collectively – have learned.
1 – or partners/spouses: I caused something of a stir on a video conference that my wife was on today when I came into her office to light her wood-burning stove!