Lockdowns have forced people from workplaces and into their own homes. Teams have had to abandon the office and work from home to stay safe, keeping jobs, organisations, and the economy afloat.
While physical isolation is a highly effective strategy to stop the virus from spreading, the resulting separation, loneliness and disconnection from our working world and other people makes it hard for many people to cope.
Covid has negatively impacted the mental health and well-being of millions of people. The cost of human suffering defies calculation. As leaders, we must shoulder the impact of separation and work to protect the well-being of our people.
Solitary confinement has been used as a punishment for centuries and still is. Removing access to other people is painful to us. We are social beings, needing others for love and companionship. We need other people to be able to see ourselves. They are our mirrors; without them, it can be hard to maintain a coherent sense of self. Work for many people is the primary means of that social contact.
Now that physical connection is severed, how can leaders create relationships? While isolated, how can leaders develop a sense of connection and create a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves?
One of the biggest things people lose when locked down is the daily routine and the personal and social boundaries that the workplace affords us. Imagine if your boss turned up at your front door and said, I’m here for the meeting. Working from home means they have, in a way, now comes the work of managing this new and weird new normal.
We are in this together, like it or not, for how long we don’t yet know. Here are seven practical leadership strategies to maintain connection and well-being amongst your virtual and dispersed team while we are locked down.
1. Make your invisible self-seen
Remote working is devoid of the symbols and rituals of communication the physical workplace afforded leaders. You sat at your desk, and your team could see you running here and there. Your connection was implied just by your proximity.
In its place, there is now distance creating a deafening silence. Your role as a remote leader is to break and punctuate this silence with meaningful connection, creating a sense of meaningful connectedness.
Your team needs you to know more than ever that you are there for them and that you care, not because it’s your job to care but because you do. The level of care and support you provide will directly impact how your team manages lockdown.
If your leadership style was ‘hands off’ before lockdown, you are likely to be experienced as invisible by this point. If you were previously a hands-off leader, you might be struggling with what to do now.
Leaders need to develop a framework of meaningful contact with their people; however, this contact needs tempering so as not to be experienced as “checking up” on people working from home. Over time you will achieve this balance.
Your action here is to facilitate the conversation with your people as to what support they require. Remember that this support will change depending on workflow and the length of the lockdown. Your favourite leadership colour just became chameleon.
2. Structure Determines Outcome – Create a Scaffolding that Supports Well-being
Structure determines outcome in all things. Many people enjoy the workplace’s structure and rituals; working from home is like being a novelist with writer’s block. The terrifying expanse of a blank white page stares back, screaming, where do I start? What should I focus on?
Others will relish this change. Some will struggle and find it hard going.
Create structure by creating anchor points of connection that are peppered throughout the working week. This signals that people won’t spend the week alone and isolated; there are interactions to look forward to.
These interactions act as marker points from which to organise other tasks and meetings, providing both a social scaffold and a wireframe to organise and complete other work assignments.
Here are a few scaffolds you might find helpful: –
- If you had monthly or fortnightly one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, consider having shorter, more frequent meetings – this gives you more chances to check-in and connect.
- Create a Start of Week Team Email – What key team meetings and activities have you planned for the week – What happened that the team can celebrate from the week before? What do you have planned for this week?
- Have a Monday morning check-in or coffee at 10 am to start the week off.
- Hold a meaningful discussion about team well-being making it a priority.
3. Be a Meaning Maker – Help Your Team Find the Meaning in their Work.
The pandemic continues to threaten our mortality. At times this can make the work we do seem meaningless, even ridiculous. The pandemic has forced us to examine our lives’ meaning and purpose, including what we do in our daily work.
For some, this threat to life is the first time they may have dealt with such feelings. It is critical to understand that this existential crisis may be impacting different team members in different ways, be vigilant to changes in individual behaviour.
It’s more important than ever for leaders to be honest, display empathy and understanding while at the same time help people to find meaning in their work.
Helping your team make this connection is essential for maintaining its purpose and sense of cohesion. Knowing why you do what you do is vital to preserving your teams’ sense of purpose and well-being.
4. By Some Bricks – Become a boundary Builder and Defender.
While tedious, commuting provided a switch-off time, creating a barrier to being available for many leaders. Wonderfully train tunnels still have poor mobile reception, and bus conversations are just too noisy to manage; bliss!
Working from home can end up as a long, endless blur between your sanctuary, your home, and your job. Falling out of bed to sitting in front of a laptop provides no separation between the worlds of life and work that we inhabit.
Working from home for many leaders has meant others see them as being available at 7.30 am or 8.00 am or well after 7 pm, as they no longer travel. Meetings and contact spillover like water, looking for any cracks they can fill.
As leaders, we need to model the behaviours we expect others to adopt and display.
Hold frank conversations about when it’s OK and expected not to be available. Encourage people to block out an hour at lunch and exercise or do something relaxing that is not about work.
Make it OK and encourage your team to log off no later than 5 pm.
Be a boundary builder, put the structure back into the virtual day so that people feel OK to log out and enjoy their home life.
Talk with your team about not answering emails after work hours; make this the way you work together.
Make it OK to turn your camera off if you are tired out from numerous video meetings. When we sat in offices, it was entirely permissible to leave the room to use the bathroom. Now, viewed as unprofessional or uncommitted. Let’s work to put the human element back into working with each other.
If you have a separate work phone, turn it off. Put it in a drawer away from the addictive desire to ‘check in’. Email is little like cocaine; it never stops at one. Notice when you bargain with yourself around dysfunctional work habits. Notice when your team does this and talk about these issues together and openly.
5. Go to the Pub – Keep your Team’s Social Interaction Alive Online.
One of the things that erode when working from home is structure.? Are you still in your morning pyjamas?
Coffee and lunch breaks can seem unimportant when there is no one to share them with. These are the first things to disappear; the day becomes one long slog sat in front of the computer.
People working from home can become overly concerned about managing impressions; if emails sit unanswered on arrival, others may think them lazy or off watching Netflix. As leaders, we want to reduce anxiety, not pour petrol onto the fire.
Having a virtual lunch is a leader’s way of modelling that taking breaks is normal, good for you and expected. Creating rest breaks is about leaders saying and modelling that working from home is not eight hard hours of pounding a computer keyboard.
This may seem obvious; however, how you communicate with your people will be one of the key factors to help them keep their heads above water and protect their well-being. What behaviours leaders’ model is the new normal. Ask yourself what message does the way you work to send? How might your people interpret this?
6. Become a Time Lord – Bring the Distant Future to this Week.
The pandemic has shrunk the world we live in, our lives have contracted becoming so much smaller., Going to the supermarket is no longer a burden. It has become something to look forwards to, a chance to go outside and see actual people.
Most long-term plans people made have been put on hold indefinitely. Due to travel restrictions and strict quarantine conditions, many people have not been allowed to travel interstate or overseas, even to say a final goodbye to lost loved ones.
As humans, we are inherently future-orientated. Some psychologists define depression as the inability to imagine a positive future state. Not being able to plan forward generates a sense of hopelessness and despair.
As leaders, we need to focus and create nearer future horizons that we can still reach. What are we achieving or completing this morning? What are we doing as a team by Wednesday or by the end of the week? What is our goal for this month?
By setting shorter terms goals, we refocus our longer-term future and zoom in, no pun intended, on what is happening in the short term.
Bringing in the focus closer helps in giving your team goals to focus on.
Setting shorter-term goals also generate feelings of agency, giving us the sense that we control some part of our lives.
Creating shorter-term goals provides something to be completed and then recognised and celebrated by your team, adding to your people’s overall positive emotional capital.
We know from the coaching psychology research that achieving goals generates positive emotions and encourages future goal-orientated behaviour. It’s the positive emotional snowball as leaders we need to keep rolling.
7. Positivity – Be the Light in the Dark.
The crucial role of any leader is to create a positive view of the future that others want to support and develop. Leaders cannot talk about the light at the end of the tunnel; they need to be the light in the tunnel.
Lockdowns are far from over; here in Australia, we hope to emerge by Christmas. However, this might feel like an eternity to your people who are struggling to make it through this week.
We know from the research that experiencing more positive emotions is likely to create a more positive effect; we also understand that positive emotions act as an immune buffer that helps us deal with and recover more quickly from negative emotional states.
Positive emotion acts like a vaccine helping to fight off and recover more quickly from negative situations. It is our immune buffer that helps maintain our well-being. We need to ensure we keep it healthy.
I would stress that with don’t want leaders running around like Poly Anna with fistfuls of sunshine and unicorn dust, that’s likely to lose all your credibility and have the effect of increasing feelings of hopelessness. As leaders, we need to authentically acknowledge the gravity of the current state but focus our efforts on moving through it.
Develop a plan to safeguard and increase the positive emotional capital in your team. Use the practical strategies in this article as a framework to preserve your team’s well-being.
Finally, leaders must safeguard their well-being; this is a tough call during a tough time. Identify and develop a network of supportive people and leaders who can support you. You have a challenging task ahead; no leader is an island; we must support each other.
It’s our bodies that are locked in and locked down. Our minds are as free as they always were. Lockdowns are a challenge to our minds; this is where a focus on well-being by leaders is the most valuable strategy to make it through, emerging stronger with a greater sense of purpose with which to meet the future.