We are in the midst of a massive social movement — think about it, almost overnight hundreds of millions of people are staying home to save the world. In countless large and small ways, we are changing our behavior to be helpful and safe, to provide safety for strangers, to follow the instructions of our companies, mayors and governors. If you step back and see the bigger picture– it is quite amazing. Way to go, People! That said, these are super disorienting times for us social mammals. If ever there was a time for team leadership, it is now.
So now millions of workers are working from home. The company actually sent us home. For most of us, this 100% work from home scenario is new terrain. We are adjusting, but we need help. There has always been talk about leaders—but whether you like your leader or not, we are wired to orient to them. Especially in times like these. Under stress we look to leaders to know where we are, and our need for connected, empathic leadership is immense.
This situation has triggered a lot of stress responses in both leaders and the people they lead. One stressed employee stated that they needed to go in to the office to do their work. “No! Absolutely, not!” was the answer from the team leader. The employee believed that the only way to manage the stress she felt by the office being closed for the next month, was to double down on her beliefs and familiar routine. The boss’ words cut through the denial. With a few minutes of discussion, a lot of empathy and some problem solving, the employee could see her way to being productive while working at home. But it took staying in the conversation and it took holding the fear and the feelings.
Human beings are social creatures and creatures of habit. We thrive with routine, structure and some degree of predictability in life. For most, the shift from normal life routines (a commute to work when they listen to music or podcasts, school, shopping, working in the office with familiar meeting rooms, cafe, cubicle and accessible co-workers, etc.) to this new normal, has happened with shocking speed. This shock is evident and is a normal response to this kind of stress. What helps? Routines and reminders of familiarity. We need familiar points of reference – you are my leader, this is my team, this is what we do.
People need leadership – from their company CEO and their team leader. I have worked with hundreds of leaders over the years. It is always true that employees need and appreciate direction and empathy from their big leaders (CEO, mayor, etc.), and their closest leader (team lead). In times of crisis and ambiguity, this direction and empathy is 100% more important. So, all of you leaders from top to bottom: Step Up and Step In. Host the meetings. Be open to new ways of working. Ask for what is needed at this time because this is a time to experiment. It is possible, no, inevitable, that when we regroup back in the office, we will be different, and have learned new things. That is what humans do, we learn.
Like it or not, this is actually a time to create new patterns and a new normal. One team I know is starting each day with a video check in. They take the time to connect human to human to listen and hear how each member is adapting to their new normal. They are meeting each other’s kids (and pets) virtually, as the little ones come over to see who is on the screen. The times when the kids were hidden from view is over. Suddenly, the pictures on the desk can talk! The leader of this team knows that the team needs this connection before they can dive into divvying up the work.
Ask yourself, “What do they need?” then ask them, “What do you need? How can I help? How are things going for you?” Get used to these questions because you will need to ask them over and over as we all adjust. Challenges will present themselves. You want to be ready to help, to listen.
People need reassurance. Your team needs to feel your presence. Connect, check in, let them know things will be ok, because they will. One woman I spoke with said it this way, “Get on the video, get dressed and put your lipstick on. Be optimistic.” Things may change, but we will get back to our routines sometime soon. Each individual needs to feel that they matter to you. You are a proxy for the organization and even for community and society. In direct and indirect ways, you help them know that they matter. That their feelings are real, we are in this together, your work matters, and we will manage through this time together.
People need empathy. Let them know that you understand that it must be hard for them to have this disruption in their life, to have to manage themselves, and their kids and find their way with work. Listen. Take the time. Put aside your own worries and concerns and be present for your team members. Listen to your heart and imagine what your team members are feeling, notice your own reactions to change. Take a deep breath and reach out. For many leaders, this time may offer an awakening to empathetic leadership that will serve you well. A team leader I spoke with today shared how he realized that he didn’t know much about his team members’ personal situations, and that in the past this wasn’t something that they shared with him. Suddenly, he was learning about challenges they faced at home. I am proud of him. He is rising to the occasion and listening as his team members figure out how to actually work at home.
People need some slack. The corporation may not love to hear this, but it is a fact that productivity will be negatively impacted, for the moment. If you lead your people with the values of empathy, respect and service, and practice these behaviors, it is likely they will come roaring back to even higher productivity and engagement because of your resonant actions during this time.
I am thrilled that there are so many teams in the workplace and our communities. Too many groups are unsafe, uninspiring, counterproductive. Leaders, it is time to rethink, relearn and reinvigorate the teams you lead (and the teams you are on). In this time of change and uncertainty, teams foster life, safety and a profound sense of belonging. Exactly what we need now. Within this smaller structure we can support one another while helping our organizations accomplish the work we do. Hitting our milestones while changing how we work won’t be easy, but will help us feel good. Team success, in turn, will help our organizations maintain and overcome the inevitable challenges down the road. Connected, within our teams, we will make our way through this extraordinary time.
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