Adjust your expectations of remote workers to become an accountable leader

How are you providing an example for employees during the current crisis? Here are two tips to improve your internal communications.

COVID-19 has upended life. Much of what we’re experiencing is brand new, and therefore disruptive, stressful, and even a little frightening.

Suddenly millions of people are adjusting to working from home. Though some leaders have experience managing remote team members spread across multiple offices—this virtual reality is different. And what about the leaders adjusting to managing remotely for the first time?

The good news: There are ways managers can adjust and keep their teams engaged, connected and productive.

Even better, these new skills can serve any manager well in the long term, remote or not. After all, there’s a reasonable possibility that once the crisis passes, some organizations and some employees may not want to return to more traditional office environments. The future of work was always likely to involve a much more remote and dispersed workforce.

COVID-19 may have simply accelerated that change.

Tip No. 1: Acknowledge the current situation is unusual—even uncomfortable and scary—and plan for adjustments. Not only are millions of your team members working at home for the first time, it’s likely their spouses or significant others are doing the same. And for those with children, homeschooling became a reality almost overnight.

Most of us live in homes that were not designed to have multiple people trying to be individually productive under the same roof.  Add to that continual anxiety-inducing news headlines about COVID-19, and you have the perfect recipe for your employees to be completely distracted from work.

Here’s how you can manage through that:

  • Get comfortable with “messy.” At some point, a dog will bark no matter how critical the conference call conversation. Murphy’s Law tells us that children will need help with homework at the exact moment they need to present something important in a virtual meeting. Realize everyone is dealing with the same and make sure your team knows that’s okay. Ultimately the inevitable comic relief of the right situation can provide some much-needed stress relief and team bonding.
  • Keep reminding your team that their safety is a priority. That doesn’t mean you need to repeat talking points about safety measures in every single interaction. It does mean you should regularly ask your teams if they are safe and remind them it’s important to you. Good leadership means showing you care for the individual beyond the job and it can help relieve the anxiety many people are feeling.
  • Accept that schedules are going to change. Humans are not robots sit in front of a computer without interruption for 8 or more hours a day without interruption. People need breaks to be productive—studies suggest a 5-10 minute break every hour or so can help improve productivity. Trust your team to get the work done between meal preparations, homework help and movement breaks. Don’t focus on when it happens or how it gets completed.

Tip No. 2: The best place to start is to get yourself really organized. Before COVID-19, you likely had annual, quarterly or even weekly priorities that aligned to bigger company objectives. Many of those organizational goals are going to change because of this crisis.

That doesn’t mean adjustments can’t be made, but realize that the quick course corrections you could accomplish with a team huddle in the hallway before are now going to be done virtually—and take longer. Before you communicate new and immediate priorities to your team, have your own work in good order. That means:

  • Check in with your leaders. What priorities have changed? Once you know that, then you can re-align your team goals and strategies based on those larger organizational changes that you can have an impact on.
  • Determine what team projects won’t change despite the crisis. Is a report due by a legally required deadline? Do the terms of a client contract require a project still be delivered by an agreed date? Once you have important deadlines mapped out it will become clear what projects you can move to the back burner.
  •  More of your time will be spent touching bases with individuals and teams, so adjust your workload accordingly. A higher level of communication is required to keep your team aligned and engaged during these uncertain times, which takes time. You might need to assign some of your tasks to team members. That’s good. It gives someone a learning experience and confidence that they have your trust.
  • Make sure you are 100% on top of your organization’s latest messaging and information about the current crisis. You want your messaging to be completely aligned with that of the organization. This means staying in touch with HR and employee communications colleagues right now. It will also ensure you have the information to answer questions from your team, even the tough ones. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t speculate. Commit to get the information and get back to the employee. You want to be a reliable source of truth for your team—especially right now.

Bryant Hilton is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. He specializes in manager communications consulting. 

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