“As we create distance for physical health, we must remember that isolation threatens the very thing that makes us uniquely human – the ability to interact with one another through friendship, empathy, and compassion.”
2020 marked a turning point in many ways. After several months of remote leadership and social distancing amid the COVID-19-crises, people are finding themselves in unchartered territory. The term „social distancing“is constantly part of our daily life and „quarantine“ is used to connote both protection and prevention.
As the novelty wears off and the crisis follows us even at the beginning of 2021, leaders both in their workplaces and in our communities will face a different set of challenges brought about by the lack of eyeball-to-eyeball interaction, and the impact of leadership will become more important.
Creating and sustaining a healthy work culture
We’ve all heard stories of kids stealing their parents‘ headsets to say hello to all the other faces on the laptop screen, or parents having to turn on a kids‘ online karate class to make sure the little ones are entertained while they work next door. In some ways this has now welcomed as a break from all routines. With a reduction in long commutes, and increased time with family at home, “work-life balance” is becoming more manageable although it is often a challenge to do equal justice to both. Meetings are more efficient with people less likely to pontificate on a conference call, and experienced telecommuters know that socializing only happens if you dial in five minutes early.
One thing that suffers, however, is organizational culture. Culture defines how people act, how they resolve conflict, whom they trust, and to whom they turn when challenges arise. Strong cultures are built when people have shared context, form relationships, solve problems, and learn acceptable ways to react to both verbal and nonverbal cues. In great organizational cultures people show they care, take time to listen, and reach out to one another in times of personal stress. The famous coffee break with colleagues on the floor where the latest office talk is shared, the word-play exchanged prior to meetings, the notorious check of soccer results before meetings start or the power play exercised in meeting rooms on the seating order seems to be gone for good or bad. In terms of efficiency this may not be a bad thing. But to me, this is the ultimate glue what creates trust and a community. Now, with a new year and same challenges ahead, I hear a lot of people openly admitting that they are feeling exhausted with a sharpened and prolonged lockdown in place, having kids at home doing home schooling and still managing a business and family life. However, as the period of uncertainty continues, they and their teams must be able to take the pulse of the wider organization.
My best tips to act as a real People Leader!
• Hold virtual informal (weekly check-in) and formal (town halls) meetings. People need to see their leaders during times of uncertainty! Providing people with information about what the company is doing to stay safe, work with customers, and help in their communities will keep employees engaged and connected. If possible, open up to Q&A, encouraging everybody to ask questions in real time. As many shy away from talking openly in larger settings, send your teams in smaller group rooms where they can have a more protected atmosphere to open up what really bothers them. Now, that everybody is more technically-savvy using Zoom, Teams and alike, leaders can devote more time to what teams really care about.
• Communicate your actions. You may need to do things differently in a crisis. You may need to adjust directions, speed of implementation or review frequencies. People may not understand until you let them know why, and your actions can easily be misconstrued when you alone are privy to information. Take time to share and bring the team along. Even at the peak of a crisis/escalation take a break to think and review your goals, roadmaps and KPI achievement while calibrating your customers and stakeholders demands and capabilities. Pro-actively align and partner with your vendors to develop worst case scenarios. You want to survive and manage the situation together as a team.
• Ongoing invest in trust, psychological safety and integrity! As a leader you’re a reference point to many colleagues when uncertainty and pressure is high and old success patterns do not work any longer. „If you can take risks without your team beating you up, you’ll be more likely to succeed. That’s what psychological safety is about.“ To build trust, which then will create psychological safety of a groups you may need to solve conflicts. To give and receive feedback seems to be easy but it’s not. The process is impacted by many aspects (experience, cultural background etc.) including the human desire of being liked. To do that I use diverse very interactive formats. Instead of talking about each other I insist on talking with each other in small groups, re-boot or team workshops, – if needed supported with a professional facilitator.
• Look in on employees who are new to the company or to a job. Nothing is worse than joining a company, or being sent on a new assignment, and then not being able to integrate. Check in with those who are still learning the ropes, use the buddy concept and nominate team members to share and give advice. Make sure they feel looked after. In my team, we regular organize morning coffees twice a week or “walking-phone calls” to get fresh air in particular during the season with limited daylight.
For leaders, this surreal reality world brings new challenges to organizations and our wider society for more weeks and months to come until the pandemic is really over. As social distancing impacts a cohesive work culture, it also impacts those who find themselves living in isolated environments, experiencing tremendous stress and loneliness. As medical experts seek resolution to the virus, great leaders in organizations and in our communities need to think about how to combat these social challenges. As we create distance for physical health, we must remember that isolation threatens the very thing that makes us uniquely human – the ability to interact with one another through friendship, empathy, and compassion.