How To Lead Remote Employees In The Wake Of COVID-19
UPDATE MARCH 16: I’ve released a comprehensive REMOTE LEADERSHIP TOOLKIT that contains videos, job-aids, how-tos and more. Click to visit.
As of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t declared COVID-19 (aka: coronavirus) a pandemic, but the likelihood grows by the hour. Whether or not it receives such a distinction is irrelevant. Organizations will soon grapple with the inevitability that the way work is performed might drastically change.
The potentiality of some form of workplace unsettledness is inching upward. Supply chains could be disrupted, and operational delays might become a reality. We’ve already seen major conferences and events cancelled as well as training sessions postponed.
Workers may be (rightfully) psychologically freaked out to be at work should the virus break out in your city. If it does, the very nature of day-to-day operations will change, at least until health officials, medical professionals and government leaders sort out containment measures, treatment plans and a vaccine.
When the unknown lies lurking in the background, it can, however, present a real opportunity. In this case, how might you lead your team and employees differently—indeed even the entire organization—should COVID-19 necessitate a change.
Here are a few leadership strategies to consider assuming you and your team are not all that familiar with a work strategy where people frequently (or constantly) work from home. It assumes you lead a team that is not in the business of manufacturing goods or scenarios where specific services are accessed by the public, such as restaurants, community centers, hair salons, and so on.
Keep Calm and Empathize
Like with any abnormal or crisis scenario, employees need their leader not only to remain calm but to empathize with both their thoughts and feelings. While they may be feeling nervous or anxious, they could also be thinking about the virus incorrectly.
For example, the recent YouGov Brand Index buzz score for Corona beer shows a decrease from 75 at the beginning of January to 51 as of late February. Clearly there is no association of Corona beer to the coronavirus but that doesn’t stop people thinking there might be. A leader must empathize with not only an employee’s feelings about the situation but how they may be intellectually interpreting the outbreak. (And providing factual guidance as appropriate.) I’d stick with WHO, Popular Science or Elsevier as my go-to sources.
Establish Team Norms
With employees no longer in the office, the daily cadence immediately gets thrown off. If you and your team are now working remotely, the first step is to establish what I call, “team norms.” These norms are a set of practices that you agree to carry out while everyone is offsite. Consider the following questions:
- Do we meet more frequently as a team? When? How long?
- Do we use a conference call or an online meeting platform like Zoom?
- If we use an online meeting platform, does everyone turn on their video camera?
- How do we ensure people are present and not multitasking?
- What is the recommended response time to a text or email? Should we use the phone more?
- How will we share sensitive information? Email? Online sharing platforms like Slack or Basecamp?
There are many more questions to ask, but it’s best to set up a conversation with the team to establish all team norm questions that need to be surfaced and answered.
Hold Virtual Open Office Hours
As a leader, employees need access to you. They need you to lead, not disappear. (See “keep calm and empathize” from above.) On top of your regular staff meeting and one-on-one meetings, consider holding open office hours on a conference call line or video-sharing platform. No agenda. No formalities. No hierarchy.
It’s merely an open forum for questions to be asked, ideas to be shared, and if needed, fears quelled. Make it accessible not just to your team, but however many are under your direction. (Sometimes called skip-level reports.) Fridays after lunch seem like a great spot to park it in your calendar.
And while I’m not one for recommending more meetings, in a situation like this it’s advised.
Conduct Morning Huddles
Imagine an employee who has commuted to work for several years. The routine has been consistent. Every morning started the same way. Their initial conversations with the security guard, the front desk assistant, even the coffee barista are now gone. The new normal is isolation. They’re alone.
To ameliorate any feelings of loneliness, I recommend a daily virtual huddle of 10 minutes. Now that employees are no longer commuting into work, start the day 10 minutes early with a 10-minute pep talk. Be open. Discuss what you’re up to for the day with your meetings, tasks, projects, and so on. Publicly recognize someone. Provide updates on other organizational projects or changes. Share a personal story. It’s a perfect opportunity to be human in the face of uncertainty.
More than ever, your team members need to feel that you care. The easiest gift you can give is actually to care. You are equipped with a mobile phone, tablet and/or laptop. Use it. Send out-of-the-blue texts, emails and DMs to team members asking how they are doing. Maybe use it as an opportunity to thank them or recognize something you’ve noticed that day or week.
You could send them an article, a hilarious meme, or a TED Talk. (Maybe one of mine!) Receiving unexpected messages from “the boss” ends up becoming an excellent shot of adrenaline for employees. Please don’t overdo it, but don’t ignore this tactic either.
If you’ve never led a team of remote employees before, you’re likely used to office collisions. They are the moments when team members—including yourself—bump into one another and magic occurs. Maybe it springs an idea. It could remind someone that a task is due. It could unlock a problem. The “water cooler” chat may even create a new network connection that leads to a sale or a new hire.
Whatever the case, these collisions are no longer if everyone is working remotely. How to mitigate? In part, set up an online discussion forum where employees can rant, rave and discuss anything that pops into their mind. It’s intended to be asynchronous—that means it’s not a live conversation—such that people use it as a means to create some virtual collisions. Let anything go. It’s the place to let loose and network.
Rather than sticking your head in the sand, I recommend that you become a proactive “remote” leader, one that is ready to change the very nature of how leadership is conducted should COVID-19 cause your organization to alter course.
Who knows? Maybe some of the changes will become standard practice as you evolve your leadership to become one that endorses a more flexible working strategy.
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