Reconnecting after the lockdown

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Written by Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay on 28 July 2020 in Features
Features

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay look at the duty of care leaders must exercise to bring cohesion and connection back to work.

2020 has marked a significant watershed for many organisations. The landscape has changed for a lot of people and it is impossible for employees and their leaders to carry on as though nothing had happened and resume business as usual.

During lockdown, for months on end, the majority of organisations had all but ground to a halt, with many staff on furlough and only a skeleton staff remaining, and some suffering job losses, with more threatened, as financial pressures have bitten hard. Many previously successful organisations are faced with large debts and an uncertain future.

In some markets there has been a sea-change in customer demand and changes in the whole customer environment, with some consumers reluctant to pick up their previous consumption and spending patterns.

For example, supermarkets and other retail organisations have seen a big increase in online purchases. Many organisations, such as the airline industry, are seeing long term changes which are radically affecting the shape and size of their businesses.

Are former methods of performance management and control still workable as some have got used to working from home, some still in the office; or are new approaches called for?

Now lockdown is easing, what does this mean for leaders and their teams?

A different leadership approach

Many organisations’ priorities and working environments have changed, with people often saying 'we knew where we stood before all this happened, now we’re not sure'.

Many leaders are sensing a distance when people have come back to work - not just physical, but social and emotional - with new safety regulations, multiple ways of working such as partly at home, partly in the office and some returning employees who have been out of the workplace for 12 weeks plus.

These changes pose particular problems and questions for how leaders can reconnect with all their employees. How will work resume with social distancing measures? How to keep in touch with remote team members who are still working from home?

Are former methods of performance management and control still workable as some have got used to working from home, some still in the office; or are new approaches called for?

The challenges of new working environments

Team members may not all be physically present in one location, so how can the manager rely on the same relationships and engagement? Physical presence may no longer be required. Social distancing will feel strange and difficult.

Leadership under complexity and uncertainty

When managing in this new multi-location and Covid-secure environment, leaders need to clarify with team members what is expected from them. Despite this strange environment, everyone needs to be clear how they are performing and getting feedback.

Management is no longer looking over everyone’s shoulder: it involves leaders supporting their teams and ensuring that there is an effective two-way communication flow.

Potential erosion of team cohesion

Teams may well find they no longer feel like 'one team'. People can start to feel disconnected and lose that original sense of team cohesion. The team leader will often need to work hard to ensure that people still feel connected and part of the team.

It is also essential that the manager makes time for regular one-to-ones with each team member to help them feel part of the team. 

Team meetings take on more prominence, where much of a team’s sense of unity can come from. Even these become more problematic as online meetings become the norm.

To heal any rifts that distance has created, leaders may also need to consider holding more whole team events to allow team members to address issues the team is facing. Covid-19 restrictions may require innovative informal ways to make this work and build social contact, such as online quizzes and activities.

Technology

Technology use through such apps as Zoom or Teams has quickly become an important communication enabler. However, everyone needs to feel that they well understand and are comfortable with how best to use that technology. L&D have an important role to play here.

A checklist of key issues for leaders to address

Below are some leadership issues to help you form a view of how you need to manage in your workplace, in what is frequently described as the 'new normal', though it will feel strange to many people.

Communicating the business position

In a period of uncertainty, it is all the more important to give people updates on the business. People may well crave for reassurance and certainty, which you may not be able to give. It is important to tell people what you know and keep them up-to-date regularly. Also be mindful to point out positives and help people to see the part they can play, reminding the team of their strengths.

Allow emotions to come out in the open

Many leaders are finding they need to take time to be responsive and listen. Their critical role as leader is to provide a safe space where people can open up to how they are honestly feeling, and to work with both positive and negative emotions.

People may be pleased to be back at work, but perhaps fearful for the future, so allowing people to say what they really feel, not the 'right' thing, is it is essential to avoid bottled up emotions coming to the surface which can cause damage to working relationships.

Be alert to team member wellbeing

To provide a healthy and motivating environment for their team, leaders need to watch out for any signs that all is not well. In the 'old' environment, leaders found it relatively easy to see team members on a regular basis; this allowed them to be in-tune with their team’s personal wellbeing and how well they were integrating with the team.

Social relationships at work are an important aspect in many people’s lives. Those who have been furloughed or who are working remotely can experience conditions where some people feel isolated and it may have affected their mental health. Others may feel anxious about new structures and miss peer support.

Offer help and support

It is also essential that the manager makes time for regular one-to-ones with each team member to help them feel part of the team. This allows leaders to make themselves available to offer help and support as it is needed. In complex workplaces, some working at home, some in the office, it is easy to neglect those out of sight.

One of the lessons from fewer team members at work during the pandemic is that It may be that you are able to let the individual achieve more without detailed supervision.

The more unstable and uncertain the working environment, the more communication with individuals becomes important. To retain motivation, trust and commitment, people will only give of their best if they feel valued and respected. More than ever in times of disruption, you should be interested in them as people and demonstrate respect.

Give regular feedback and listen

Giving regular feedback and listening must form part of the shifting environment: is the old way still working? How are people responding to new situations? Leaders should give both motivational and developmental feedback on an on-going, continuous basis - however busy or hectic the environment.

We need to remind ourselves that sincere praise and positive recognition can help a lot in tough times. Such recognition and praise also help people to free up and offer innovative thinking and be creative in problem-solving.

Place a renewed emphasis on solving issues together

As new situations emerge, solving issues together as a team encourages ideas from the whole team and full participation, which can be motivating and energising; this can be just what is needed as old certainties come under threat.

This process will also foster a climate of togetherness, of people working together and valuing the diversity in their team. We worked with one team recently whose manager encouraged a high degree of creative thinking and gave individual team members responsibility for turning their ideas into actions.

The trust this demonstrated in their team meant that it was often successful and where there were occasions when things did not go to plan, a climate of learning from mistakes was fostered.

Support development

Short term task issues inevitably predominate in the next few months. However, we should be mindful that development is a powerful motivator and that many on-job opportunities can stretch and develop individuals, even in the most difficult of environments.

The important role of HR and L&D professionals

  • HR and L&D professionals have an important role to play in encouraging leaders to work with their teams to reconnect and adapt to new ways of working and tackle inevitable problems with honesty and purpose.
  • Leaders may need support to adapt their leadership style, for example to encourage greater empowerment, to be better communicators and listeners and to encourage team problem solving.
  • L&D should make available one-to-one and team coaching to deal with the process of adapting to these new ways of working and solve current issues.
  • Good regular communication is important to keep people informed and avoid damaging and energy-sapping rumours. HR and L&D will often be proactive in this process.

Summary

Many organisations will be eager to get back quickly onto an even keel. First, however, in response to these new times, leaders must direct their attention towards how best to respond to new working conditions, its problems and opportunities.

To face up to this changing future, many people are recognising that they must reconnect with their teams. With this fast-changing environment, leaders will need support from HR and L&D to meet this challenge of how they can work best with their teams and their colleagues.

 

About the authors

Sarah Cook is MD of the Stairway Consultancy at sarah@thestairway.co.uk; Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield University’s Centre for Executive Development at s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk

 

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