How Do You Lead People During a Pandemic?

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Countless teams around the globe face the uncertain reality of a pandemic. Teams that were never remote-friendly (or even remote-tolerant) are now required to work from home for an abstract amount of time, and these are just the lucky ones. Companies struggle to make ends meet. Layoffs and shutdowns have reached an all-time high because of the coronavirus.

Put your own oxygen mask first

Take a deep breath. Airlines have been advising us for years: you have to put on your oxygen mask before you help others. It’s normal to feel stress and anticipatory grief. It’s normal to feel sluggish and unproductive, since achieving the goals you set in January is probably the last thing on your mind.

Keep in mind that no manager rulebook has prepared us for leading people during a pandemic. Think about how we’re all in this together, and it’s going to take a while. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so make sure you employ every tool in your arsenal to stay as calm and collected as possible.

Above all, be kind

This is the time to actively reach out to your people. They’re as scared as you are, and they’re going to be looking to you for clarity and guidance.

If you don’t already have recurring 1:1 meetings in place, make sure you take time every week to communicate with your direct reports. If you’re managing managers, make sure you reach out to their reports as well to ask them if you could help them in any way. Make it clear you don’t have all the answers right now, but you’re always there for them.

Acknowledge that people won’t be as productive as they were and that this is normal. They have their children 24/7 at home, older relatives to look after, dinner to cook, and their future to think about. Consider being flexible with their schedules: maybe starting the day earlier, or working later at night if they feel more productive then. Working from home shouldn’t mean being glued on a desk from 9 to 5.

Avoid replicating the office environment

Most teams that just got thrown into remote work try to replicate the office environment by having the same amount of meetings and constant ad hoc calls. This is counter-productive and eats away at your weary team members’ focus.

Instead, try the opposite approach: only schedule video calls when you’ve exhausted all other means of communication. Don’t expect everyone is always up for a call, it’s not a tap shoulder situation (which is bad enough when it happens in the office). Parents with young children might need to isolate themselves to a different room to participate in a call, and people suffering from depression might resent showing their faces on video.

This is a good chance to democratise information sharing in your team. Write everything down, especially meeting agendas and decision points. Try to hold short meetings only to make a decision and go forward, not to brainstorm or inform people about a specific issue. This is what written communication is for.

Make time for fun stuff

There’s a metric ton of fun activities you could try with your newly remote team. However silly or distracting it might seem, make sure you give people an outlet to have fun.

As an example, in Workable we hold regular coffee break meetings throughout the week (which are completely optional for attendees). We also have quarantine-specific channels to exchange healthy (or not so healthy) recipes and dinner ideas, as well as to compete in various challenges that bring us together (like sharing your most embarrassing teenage photo).

It’s easy to shoot things like these down until you see then working in bringing people together at this difficult time.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

There are lots of remote work and remote management playbooks out there, but there’s none on managing people working from home during a pandemic. As Mandy Brown mentions in her recent article:

You are not leading a remote team. You are leading a team that is scared, stressed, angry, frustrated, worried, and worse.

Investing in your own physical and mental health, being kind to others, communicating effectively and making sure you have fun are the pillars of going through this weird, painful time.

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