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A Culture of Caring Part 2: Managing Your Newly Remote Team in Unprecedented Times

Julie Symonds headshot
Julie Symonds
Director

Many of us had no idea that our work worlds would be turned upside down when we first heard “Covid-19” on the news. Yet here we are now, trying desperately to adjust to “new normal”. If you’re a manager, there’s the added pressure of finding a way through the clutter and leading your team in a productive way, so that work can still get done. It’s daunting to say the least, especially considering the amount of distractions around us.

We’re living in an unprecedented time, and that calls for unprecedented measures. So while the information I shared in Part 1 is a big part of fostering a successful work from home environment, it doesn’t address some of the “soft skill” team care necessities of working in our new normal.

Below are some of the additional things you should consider when managing a remote workforce in a highly stressful situation.

  • Consider the environment each team member is working in
  • Be flexible to allow for daily decompression time
  • Encourage some movement and general self-care
  • Reach out, show you care
  • Offer avenues for fun (happy hours banter channel)
  • Give the benefit of the doubt
  • Offer some options to give the comfort of control
  • Be fair and honest about the state of the company
  • Reach out for help when you need it

Consider the environment in which each team member is working

In a typical scenario, there’s a certain amount of “evenness” surrounding the environments your team is working within. Working from their home office, kitchen table or even a coffee shop they can adjust the distractions and move if they need to in order to focus and accomplish their daily goals. This is not the case in our current state of affairs. You have to consider the makeup of each individual’s WFH scenario right now because there are factors at play right now that they simply may not be capable of controlling or changing. If they have kids, they are likely trying to juggle work, home school, general family dynamics and more all while keeping background noise to a minimum and honing their “mute the conference call long enough to yell at the kids” skills. This is not something these individuals can control and trust me not something they want, but it’s new normal and you as a manager considering this factor and offering some additional support and perhaps flexibility (can they do that report after the kids go to bed?) is much appreciated.

The same goes for anyone “sheltering in place” with a roommate, parents, spouse or significant other. If you’re in a small setting and you’re both trying to attend conference calls it can be a challenge. When you can, offer scheduling options so these individuals can stagger their call schedules and keep the peace.

Be proactive in conversations with your HR team and other managers. In the event that an individual needs time to care for a family member or themselves during this crisis, what is the company’s stance on how to manage that time? Be prepared to field those types of questions even if your ultimate role is to refer someone to your Human Resources team for further support.

A final point on the environmental portion of this article, consider not only the physical setting but the technical setting as well. Does a team member have the equipment they need to complete their work? Are there things you can offer to make things easier on an individual? Can the company temporarily provide any technology or accommodations so people working from home can be more productive. For example - an additional monitor, high quality headset to make video conferencing clearer, internet upgrade stipends, reimbursement for standing desks etc.

Be flexible to allow for daily decompression time

There’s stress and then there’s STRESS. I’m gonna go ahead and state the obvious, a global pandemic qualifies as the latter. No matter how good an individual is at managing the daily stress of their work and personal lives, our current state qualifies as something wholly different. Things are changing minute to minute for all of us right now and no matter how much you try to focus on the task at hand, other things can creep in. So as a manager who still has tasks that need to be completed by your team, you’ve got to take your lead from your team a bit. If someone needs time to walk the dog or go get toilet paper cause they just heard a truck came in, allow them that time. I promise you they’ll be better able to focus when those needs are met. Be clear on your metrics for success, but be flexible on the path your team members take to reach that success.

Encourage some movement and general self-care

As a leader you may need to push your team to decompress. Encourage 30 minute “outside time” breaks. Share an online yoga class or comedy set you’ve seen that offered you support or made you laugh. Let your team know that you are human, you are stressed too and while your job is still to meet your obligations and commitments, you recognize that having a physically and mentally healthy team will get you to those goals much faster. Many therapists and mental health professionals are conducting their sessions remotely in order to keep up with the needs of their clients. If someone on your team needs a break in their schedule during the day for an appointment, be as flexible as possible and work with them to allow for these very necessary breaks.

Reach out, show you care

So we spoke earlier about considering everyone’s individual environment, and here’s another example of why that matters so much. Your team may be feeling trapped and almost claustrophobic in their current surroundings. Different people have been interpreting the stay at home orders differently so in some cases, people haven’t left their home in weeks for any reason. Additionally, there are some individuals who may be sheltering in place alone. The isolation of a situation like that can be deafening.

It’s important that you reach out to your team one on one to check in. Not about their project, not about a report, but to see how they are doing as a human. Now more than ever people need to know that there are others in similar situations and that there are people who care about them. Take the time to offer that one on one connection and help where you can. If the need seems greater than what you can fulfill, encourage them to seek additional support and offer resources based on your human resources offerings. No one should feel alone right now.

Offer avenues for fun

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Offering organized avenues for your team to interact on a human level is important for their mental and emotional well-being. It can mean setting up a conference line and calendar invite for a virtual happy hour (your CFO will be thrilled cause this one doesn’t cost them a dime!) or setting up an “office banter” channel in your chat platform where people can go to talk all things not work related.

Prompt your team to share pictures of their “new” coworkers or organize a “show your school spirit” day where everyone wears their alumni tees. Let them run with a full on meme war about Tiger King (just make sure you post the spoiler alert warning!). Give everyone just a little excuse to release that pressure valve a little bit.

Give the benefit of the doubt

There’s a tendency to assume that comes with management. I mean, after all, you likely got to this place because of your past experience and your ability to “read” a situation or a person and your reliance on trusting when your manager “spidey sense” is tingling. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m going to ask you to set that aside a bit right now.

There’s the old saying, “Be kinder than necessary because everyone is fighting some kind of battle.” In this case, we all know the battle to varying degrees, so offering a little leniency makes you a better manager, I promise. If it still doesn’t feel right, then I’ll refer you back to part 1 where we discuss clear direct communication.

Offer some options to give the comfort of control

Our world right now feels very much out of our control. As a culture used to being able to control where we go and what we do, having all of that largely taken from us (for our own good and the good of everyone, mind you) can be disconcerting. While it seems silly, it’s amazing what having a little control can do to give back a little bit of peace of mind. It may be as simple as asking what a reasonable deadline looks like or when a good time for a meeting might be, but those little wins can do a lot for someone’s mental state when things feel out of our control.

Be fair and honest about the state of the company

You didn’t hire dummies. With the world’s economy turned upside down, we all have some fear about what’s going to happen to our industry, our companies and our jobs themselves. The world will never be completely what it was and that includes the state of our economy. So if you think no one is wondering what’s going to happen to their jobs, you’re fooling yourself. It may seem like keeping all this information under wraps is the best way to keep everyone focused on the task at hand. Don’t mention it, just keep pressing on. But the truth is, they are talking about it whether it’s with you and the rest of the management team or not. They may be looking for signs or reading into comments you’ve made. So it’s best to be as transparent as possible with your team about things. For most of us, part of that transparency is a fair amount of “I don’t know yet” and that’s ok too. Teams can respect that you may not have all the answers but lying to them or hiding things from them will do you no favors.

In the unfortunate event that you have to conduct layoffs, in my experience being direct, kind and quick is the best policy. Give them the facts, let them process, offer to answer questions as best you can and don’t drag out the conversation. Allow them to follow up later with you or HR via alternate communication.

In addition, address the obvious with the remaining team members and be prepared to support the difficult decision with facts. It’s not pleasant but again, honesty matters and lies and cover ups always come out in the wash.

Reach out for help when you need it

Being a leader is far from easy. Sometimes it feels like everyone’s problems are your problems and (spoiler alert) they kinda are.

Your job is to support your team, help them navigate things as scenarios arise and clear the clutter so they can focus on what they do best. It can be overwhelming at times and during a global pandemic, it can seem insurmountable. Know your limits. Find the helpers and the problem solvers and lean on them when you can. Share the burden and give your team the space and power to rise to the occasion. Reach out to your network when you need ideas because let’s face it, this is everyone’s first rodeo at a global pandemic (unless you were alive in 1918).

You will not have all the answers and sometimes there is no great solution for things. We have to take things as they come and pivot when necessary. Thinking on your feet and being able to lead through a challenge is likely what got you where you are, so you’re probably better equipped to do this than you’re giving yourself credit for. Trust yourself and lean on those around you who want to help because we are all in this together.

Got questions? Want me to expand on any particular topic? I’d love to talk about it, so please reach out.