“In spring of 2020, how did your organization’s leadership respond to COVID-19? ”
This may soon become a standard question asked by job candidates in interviews. Were there mass layoffs, or heroic attempts to keep people employed? Was there silence about the company’s stability, or frequent and transparent communication? Did people drift apart in remote isolation, or were efforts made to maintain relationships? Generally speaking, did leaders demonstrate empathy in the way they managed the crisis?
A recent webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review and featuring Liz Fosslien, head of content at Humu, and Mollie West Duffy, an organizational expert at RALLY, discussed how to maintain a functional and effective workforce in this difficult moment. The pair are the authors of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.” Here are three guiding rules for the weeks and months ahead, each with some detailed tips and ideas.
Lead with empathy
More than ever, it’s essential to understand the personal strain taxing most employees. They may be balancing work and parenting young children; they may have elderly family members that are sick; they may have a partner or close friends working on the medical front lines; they may be sunk in loneliness. Whatever the case may be, “you need to be conscious of where people are emotionally,” Fosslien said.
This means being deliberate in the ways you extend support. For instance, offer praise and gratitude to everybody you can. When offices were open, this kind of emotional bolstering generally came through chance encounters — a run-in between meetings, say. With everybody working remotely, praise is easily forgotten. Make it a “shutdown ritual,” Fosslien said, to reach out and say something encouraging to somebody at the end of each day. Be flexible, too, with deadlines; focus less on specific dates and levels of productivity, encouraging employees instead to learn new things and experiment. Give credit to effort as much as outcomes.
West Duffy also recommended very small tactics that, when bundled together, help reduce employee stress. Schedule meetings for 25 or 50 minutes so that people have opportunities to step away from the computer. Make some communication by phone or email instead of constant video conferencing. Encourage people to take days off, not simply through suggestion, but by example.
“The best thing to encourage your employees to take vacation is to actually take one yourself,” West Duffy said. “In the long run a day off is not going to end the world and it can have huge benefits in terms of how your people feel.”
Finally, it’s easy for companies to lose sight of the fact that circumstances remain challenging even after months have passed. As a leader, Fosslien said, it is critical to acknowledge persistent difficulties with regular check-ins. “It’s lovely to just say, ‘I’m thinking about you. I know this is still a thing.’”
Keep your team connected
Given the rarity of in-person interaction, it’s easy for teams to weaken and their efficacy to falter. One preventive measure is keeping team interactions generally cheerful; begin with something upbeat. “Think about moving into a positive space before work,” West Duffy said.
Aligning outcomes and expectations also takes on a new urgency these days. As with praise and gratitude, one-off, unplanned interactions are often responsible for keeping projects on-course: somebody pops into an office to clarify a minor point, another person confirms a small course correction over lunch. Remote work makes no space for these critical tweaks. Leaders must thus be extremely clear with expectations, and employees must be able to ask clarifying questions without fear of judgment. “You need to get very granular,” West Duffy said. “It’s otherwise easy to talk with someone on Monday, deliver something on Friday, and have them say, ‘That’s not at all what I was thinking.’”
Finally, consider conducting a virtual lunch series. (Make this optional.) Pair up participants by drawing names from a digital hat to broaden who connects with whom. “One risk of working remotely is that we look toward people we know and drift away from people we don’t,” Fosslien said. “Silos can deepen.”
Be ‘selectively vulnerable’
Vulnerability. Open emotions. When expressed at the appropriate levels and appropriate times, these are extremely beneficial to an organization.
Sharing how one feels can, for example, be an essential way to avoid “emotional contagion.” Moods readily pass from one person to another and declaring a negative feeling upfront can halt its spread. “If I have a bad morning, I might walk into my team and tell them I’m not in a great mood, and that I’m sharing that because the last thing I want to do is make their days worse with my bad mood,” West Duffy said. “You don’t need to have great day all the time, and this lets your reports know it has nothing to do with them.”
This kind of openness can also help employees feel less isolated. The stereotype of leaders remaining calm and collected under all circumstances, explained Fosslien, is misguided; the iceman makes people uneasy.
“Leaders should acknowledge that they, too, are struggling by saying things like, ‘I’m dealing with anxiety right now,’” Fosslien said. “That sets the tone and creates space for others to display empathy.”