March 12, 2020

Managing in the time of coronavirus

Editor’s note: This post was written long before the true duration of the COVID-19 crisis was known, as you’ll see in phrases like “the next few weeks.”

The COVID-19 outbreak changed life at work for millions of people overnight. We’re all feeling the impact of org-wide work-from-home and the loss of valuable face time with our teammates. We’ve had to quickly adjust our habits to stay productive and collaborative while working from home.

Managing an entirely remote team — while working remotely yourself — is probably uncharted territory for you. For the managers our Pros are talking to, the biggest challenges have also been the most human ones: keeping up morale and motivation while coping with isolation.

First, how are you feeling?

Whatever you’re feeling right now — bummed out, determined to step up and lead, or kind of lost — you’re not the only one. And as a manager, your job is especially hard right now. You’re dealing with not only your own feelings, but those of your direct reports as well. No matter the pressure you’re under, it’s crucial that you don’t lose sight of the fact that your emotions matter right now.

This is a complicated situation, and it intersects with the individual circumstances of every person on your team. Consider these four rules to be your guiding principles for the weeks ahead.

Rule #1: Stay healthy, stay calm.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in employees’ lives right now, both in and out of work. In many ways, this is a critical moment, and how your team weathers it—with your leadership—will have a lasting impact.

You’re in a position to set a calm tone for your team, but you can’t do that in a vacuum. You’ll need to identify your own support system. If your direct reports are leaning on you, who are you leaning on?

Self-care is more crucial than ever. Of course, “self-care” doesn’t just mean indulging in chocolate, massages and bubble baths—not that those aren’t great. Self-care actually starts with the basics:

  •  getting a consistent and healthy amount of sleep
  •  keeping up your personal hygiene rituals even if you don’t plan to go outside or see other people,
  • and setting aside time for meals and exercise.

You can limit uncertainty on your team by communicating clearly and comprehensively. When you don’t know something yet (for example, how long a WFH policy will last), acknowledge it and explain where and when the next update will come (eg, “via email on Monday at 2pm”).

The calm you’re creating for yourself needs to be communicated to your team. When you talk about the unfolding coronavirus situation, do it in de-escalated terms. You can acknowledge the panic and concern people may be feeling without contributing to it. Remember: your company is taking pre-emptive safe precautions to avoid a crisis, and this, too, shall pass.

Rule #2: Care authentically, and show it

Acknowledge your team’s feelings. Don’t be afraid to outright ask someone how they’re feeling, and to be vulnerable about your own feelings. Normalizing vulnerability helps others express their own feelings before they get out of control.

Keep in mind that some of your people may be dealing with things that others aren’t: one person may have four roommates also working from home, another might need to divide attention between work and their children, and another might be worried that their path at your company has been disrupted entirely.

Introduce open-ended emotion-based questions into your conversations, including:

  • What’s on your mind today outside of work?
  • What do you need from me to feel good about your work right now?
  • What have you done today to help yourself handle stress?

Rule #3: Over-communicate.

We cannot stress this enough — no amount of communication is too much right now! To keep your team running smoothly, you’ll need to set clear expectations about:

  • working hours
  • email/IM response time
  • how your direct reports should ask for help, 
  • and how progress and deadlines should be communicated.

Send an email with your expectations on all of these, including how your team should report when they expect not to be able to meet an expectation for any reason.

Model the kind of over-communication you want to see from your team by “working out loud.” This means documenting your work meticulously and keeping as much communication as possible in public channels. Err on the side of “too many:” too many people on an email or too many updates in a public Slack channel.

Even so, default to trust. Assume good intent, and understand that everyone’s juggling a lot right now. Thinking of over-communication as benefiting everyone’s collaboration, not as a means of micro-managing, means coming at it from a place of curiosity.

Rule #4: Engage with your whole self.

Don’t let the separation lead to isolation. Keep up team rituals like daily standups in a virtual format. You can also invent new ones:

  • Have your team share what they’re having for lunch (photos and recipes are encouraged!)
  • Trade daily recommendations for books, TV shows, and podcasts.
  • Wish each other a good morning and a good evening in Slack.
  • Schedule time for quick “chit-chat” video calls during the day.

It’s important to understand that not all employees will be able to engage to the same degree. Someone feeling especially vulnerable about their situation may not be as willing to contribute to public conversations. Offer extended virtual 1:1s as an alternative.

Keeping up the spontaneity of an in-office conversation isn’t easy when you’re all remote, and the social aspects of work are crucial for morale and motivation. 

Conclusion: You’ve got this. Really.

You can still manage effectively as you wait out the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, getting your team through the next few weeks will leave you all stronger than ever.

We’ll leave you with this set of “self check-in” questions. Ask them of yourself regularly, keep tabs on how your answers change, and make tweaks to your day-to-day accordingly. Encourage your direct reports to do the same and to share with each other what’s working for them.

  • Am I making my home the most productive environment it can be?
  • Am I worried about anything in particular?
  • Who can I talk to if things are feeling hard?
  • Am I collaborating with other departments on my work?
  • Am I getting all the information I need to inform my work?
  • Am I getting and giving consistent recognition?

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