What your staff might need from you now, six weeks into lockdown

 Profile image of Steve Lobley From Spring Leadership

Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

The UK has now been in lockdown for six weeks. That’s six weeks of only leaving the house for up to an hour a day, six weeks of supermarket fights for toilet rolls and flour, 42 days of journalists asking questions to cabinet ministers, and over 1,000 hours spent in close proximity to our nearest and dearest.

But most of all, if you’re a business that’s asked a lot of its employees to work from home, that’s now more than 30 workdays spent operating remotely. And we’re still climbing that mountain…

So, how’s it going?

And more importantly, can you continue with it successfully as we move into the next phase of slow but careful removal of the lockdown?

Twitter will allow its employees to work from home “forever”, chief executive officer Jack Dorsey said in a company-wide email on Tuesday”. That’s an interesting development.

Now you’re not Twitter Inc, however remote working may well have to remain a part of your operations for a while yet.

Have you found your feet?

In the early days, there was a flood of articles online purporting to contain top tips for working from home. Things like making sure you’re up and dressed by the usual time and sticking to a proper daily routine. Try to eat healthily and get your daily exercise in. Set up a comfortable area at home to use as your office and learn to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or any one of a number of other videoconferencing apps. All very useful I’m sure.

But now that the initial panic to get set up and get working has passed, the IT systems are coping and Tom from Accounts has worked out he needs to unmute before speaking on a Zoom call, have the challenges associated with remote working passed?

I don’t think so!

The challenges have changed though…

We’ve gone from practical concerns about tech and the novelty of setting up new workspaces to real-world, potentially high-emotion concerns about the impact the situation will have on each and every one of us. We’ve mastered the art of brainstorming by video conference only to be faced with having to make real decisions about things like widespread cost saving as the true magnitude of the situation emerges.

Leadership has become less about firefighting now and more about planning for the future. But don’t get so wrapped up in the possible doom and gloom that you forget your staff need you now more than ever.

Good leadership has never been more important

Take a quiet moment to reflect on the last six weeks. Have you given your staff the emotional and practical support they need? They are, after all, key to your future rebound and success.

Have you considered how each of your direct reports is feeling in their current situation? Are they still struggling to get their heads around just how to work coherently and effectively? Do they have multiple children and a key worker spouse leading to overburden? Do they live alone and risk total isolation? Have they suffered from anxiety and mental health issues in the past, meaning they’re likely to need more support? Do you even know?

Don’t assume this stuff has nothing to do with you, or there’s nothing you could do in any case.

What’s the reason Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern are doing so well in the popularity polls, and others not so? They are coming across as compassionate, but still decisive and balanced in the decisions they make and the communications they undertake.

Your employees need to know you care, and they need reassurance that you’re doing everything you can to ensure they’ll have a job at the end of all this. But most of all they need positivity and clarity  – even if that’s the last thing you feel yourself.

A few ideas you can implement this week:

Encourage your senior staff to check in with their teams on a daily basis (if they aren’t already).

Ask them yourself how they’re doing on a personal level and be ready to offer support or simply a listening ear if that is what’s needed. And then you encourage them to check in on their teams and one another too. We may be physically apart, but that sense of human connection is so, so important to improve motivation, and let’s face it, effectiveness. It starts at the top.

Make sure staff are clear on their objectives and are made to feel they are useful.

It might be that responsibilities need to adjust slightly due to changing business priorities, but it’s vital that you help employees to see they still have an important role to play. Give them accountability and hold them to it. It’s what will keep them getting up in the mornings.

Make sure you don’t lose that sense of the whole.

It’s surprising how much people share in conversations around the coffee machine or at the start of meetings. But just because you’re all working from home doesn’t make it any less important to know what’s going on. Perhaps it is even more so. Get everyone together each week, give an honest rundown of what’s going on with the business, and set out the overall objectives for the following week. You’ll be helping to make sure everyone feels a part of something bigger. And that sense of belonging will be vital for many of them.

Show understanding.

When you entered this strange ‘new world’, you will no doubt have been expecting the same level of commitment you usually enjoy from your employees. And perhaps you’ve been frustrated when some were unable to step up. But maybe with children at home and changing responsibilities, it’s only fair that routines might need to shift slightly too. Offer a little flexibility and you’ll likely find you get it back in spades.

Development is still important.

Life as we know it may have been put on some sort of hold for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean all hope of future career progression needs to be cast aside too. This might actually be a great time for your staff to undertake the online training or work shadowing you’ve been discussing in their  121s for years. This is no time for promising the earth, but as a motivational tool, investing a little in training can go a long way.

One final point. To some this may seem obvious but remember not all of your managers will possess the emotional intelligence to do these things off their own bat – this isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. That’s why offering concrete strategies like those above can be so useful.

Ignore this at your peril

As a leader, our goal is to help our staff remain focused, engaged, and productive. To ensure they’re enjoying what they do as much as possible and getting something out of it personally as well as professionally. That’s how we get the best out of them and they remain motivated to work for the good of the company.

The problem is that unfamiliar working routines can leave your employees feeling out of sorts. Add to this worries about family, friends, the state of the country, and Covid-19 media coverage as well as concerns about the economy, jobs, and future opportunities and it’s easy to see why.

The problem is that unfamiliar working routines can leave your employees feeling out of sorts. Add to this worries about family, friends, the state of the country, and Covid-19 media coverage as well as concerns about the economy, jobs, and future opportunities and it’s easy to see why over half of UK workers report feeling more stressed and anxious since lockdown began.

These feelings can’t just be ignored. As leaders, it’s our job to offer support and understanding. While workers find themselves juggling their jobs, children, and worries, it’s sleep that often pays the price. And over time this fatigue can manifest in loss of focus, distraction, irritability, and an increase in mistakes. We may not have a magic sleeping pill but we can at the very least offer a sympathetic ear to help relieve some of the pressure that continues to build.

Put simply, in times of stress and anxiety we humans become less reliable – and it’s normal actually. That’s why it’s vital, for the good of our businesses, that we find ways to help our staff with the challenges they’re facing.

In the end

We hope that as we finally emerge from this situation there will be many positives we can take from it. Perhaps, if you put the effort in to support and nurture your staff now, they’ll reward you in terms of the indestructible team they’ll become.

And with a great team around you, you’ll be ready to tackle anything the post-Corona world – whatever that may look like – can throw at you.