Building a Team in a Pandemic

Jodie Fox
April 8, 2020
Jodie Fox

Since the social distancing restrictions have begun, each day feels like about a week. The speed of changes happening across the economy and broader society mean that day to day life has slowed to a snail’s pace in comparison.

I was doing a Wine Zoom with a friend the other night (I quite like the Wine Zoom, can we keep it when this is all over?) and she said to me that people have either lost their jobs and are in desperate fear of not being able to pay their bills or they are busier than they have ever been.

For those of us who are still in work, while we are grateful to still have the income and the purpose that this provides, the social isolation required to manage the pandemic has created many new challenges. Our clients in Human Resources are bearing the brunt of this, they are setting up working from home resourcing, dealing with stand down provisions, reduction in hours and the heartbreaking process of processing redundancies all while working from home with children around, uncertain internet, worrying about elderly parents and friends and relatives they can’t see. It is enough to make anyone dive for cover.

That people are stretched and stressed by all of the change and uncertainty is not surprising, it’s also no surprise that this has a negative impact on employee wellbeing and can lead to feelings of stress, rigidity and avoidance which in turn leads to inappropriate actions or inaction at work. Unfortunately, the increased uncertainty at work goes hand in hand with negative workplace behaviour and we have seen an uptick in the number of complaints received by already stretched employers.

The good news and great responsibility of leadership is that the wellbeing of employees can be influenced by leadership behaviour. In times of change, laisezz faire leadership doesn’t work. Leaders need to be involved and hands on.

So instead of diving for cover, here are seven suggestions to help build your team in the time of Pandemic.

1. Making Sense of Change

One of the most important jobs a leader has during turbulent times like the ones we are living through is helping their team understand and make sense of what is happening. Sensemaking leads to a shared understanding of the situation and therefore of collective action. Sensemaking is mainly about role modelling the organisational values and shared future goals. It is grounded in belonging, and workplace culture. You don’t have to have all the answers: Leaders help their team have a conversation about charting a way forward and being clear about their purpose and goals.

2. Hold Tight to your Values

Situations like the one we find ourselves in are exactly why organisational values are so important. In times of enormous and fast moving change, you can’t manage by directive. It’s not possible to update and enact the rules with sufficient frequency. Values-driven cultures, by contrast, are dynamic and are capable of adapting to new conditions in real time. Values can be used as a ‘measuring stick’ to establish behavioural frameworks to guide ways of working even when the world turns upside down.

3. Clear Communication and Lots of it

There are a million things to do and everything take longer, but the fact remains that your team needs you now more than ever. Communication is key, but so is a focus on clarity of purpose, direction and work instructions and expected standards of quality. When they are geographically isolated, people can’t easily check the way of doing things from watching others or get that small but vital piece of information that helps them do their job. You’ll need to regularly check in with people using thoughtful and deliberate engagement to check how people are going as you can’t see or pick up nonverbal clues.

Train your employees, and practice yourself in the art of conversations that matter. Cultures that are able to have honest two way conversations in a ‘no blame culture’ will fare better than most in navigating rapid change.

4. Make use of Technology

If the pandemic had struck even five years ago, we would have been in a very different situation from a digital perspective. In the last few years, capabilities for teleconferencing have improved to the extent that it really is possible to, if not take the place of person to person contact, at least make a good substitution. MS Teams, Zoom, Google Meetings, Skype are just some of the platforms that you can use to connect with your team individually and as a group. At Worklogic, for example, we have transformed (relatively!) seamlessly to being able to conduct our Investigations Reviews and Training Virtually, making use of available technology.

5. But Don’t Let Technology be the Point

If you are (like me) actually pretty excited about the possibilities for digital transformation in the next year or so, you need to bring the team along with you. Make sure the tech you do have functions well and ensure that everyone knows how to use it, how to troubleshoot and who to call when things aren’t working. Whether you are using Google meetings, Zoom or meeting Face to Face, continue to observe meeting courtesies, make sure everyone has a voice, don’t let people cut over people and if the tech glitches, have a protocol for returning the subject at hand.

Online collaboration tools can facilitate team building discussions and working together on common projects and teleconferencing platforms allow us to have morning tea, group meditations, fitness sessions, birthday cake and of course Friday night drinks. The point is the people and not the technology.

6. Trust

Trust in your team has never been more important than when you can’t be with them every day. It’s important that you trust your team to do the best they can in times of change. If you try to remotely micromanage and second guess their decisions when they are already under stress, you are setting your team and yourself up for failure. Communicate expectations for outcomes and results as clearly as you can, be available as a soundboard and a resource and then take a deep breath and let them get on with it! Trust flourishes best in a no blame culture, where people feel able to admit to and talk about their mistakes and workshop what they could do better.

7. Emotional Intelligence

Empathy to the situation that your team members are in is so important. Isolation by itself is hard enough (there’s a reason they used it as punishment in our most notorious penal colony!) but some of your team will be worried about their parents, children, partners, friends or not seeing anyone. Being aware of what is going on for people in your team at the personal level helps with adapting to meet individual needs and will help the team as a whole. A good question to ask is ‘What can I do to make your work easier?’

Encouragement and appreciation for an excellent job goes a long way to keeping the team together and on track.

While you are having empathy and emotional intelligence, spare a little for yourself. The social distancing restrictions and all of the chaos that have come with it are tough on everyone and team leaders are working hard and stretched as well. It’s good to be vulnerable and cut yourself some slack. Hang in there and your team will too.

About Jodie Fox

Jodie Fox  is passionate about helping people and organisations manage workplace conflict in a productive way. She specialises in workplace investigationsworkplace reviews and mediations to address and resolve complaints and foster a positive workplace culture. An experienced employment lawyer, she works with clients from a diverse range of industries providing pragmatic and strategic advice. She is a knowledgeable and engaging writer and speaker.

Please contact Jodie for an obligation free consultation via email or call (03) 9981 6558.

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