Managing Through the Uncertainty of COVID
By Cathy Bamji and Donna Godfrey
Business leaders are adept at maneuvering around a variety of bumps in the road - the ebb and flow of consumer demands, global economies, environmental changes, budgeting and funding. One might think COVID-19 is just the latest challenge. But this crisis comes with added complications and threats, a trifecta of uncertainty, loss of control and social disconnection. Managers are understandably drifting a bit in a time when focus, empathy and a steady hand are important.
What Are We Experiencing?
Tele-working and remote workers are not a new trend in the United States. According the Federal Reserve, “the share of the labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years.” (Thompson, 2020) Organizations, large and small, have focused efforts on designing processes and systems to ensure a more effective environment for remote workers. Government agencies have created protocols, work agreements, best practices and training for employees and managers. But COVID-19 has tested these organized plans and revealed cracks in the well-thought-out structure.
Time and space have allowed for reflection and the questioning of purpose, priorities, and direction. Underneath the buzz of work and family obligations, people are worried about the sustainability of this work-from-home environment. At the extreme are those paralyzed by anxiety and who have begun to question every choice they ever made. In the absence of information and direction, the brain begins to make assumptions and create stories. The loss of peer interaction degrades creativity and “breaks the social bonds that are necessary for productive teamwork” (Thompson, 2020). These issues and the resulting confusion have people contemplating career decisions and polishing resumes.
Putting Things in Context
Understanding what is happening from a scientific perspective provides insight and guidance for managers wanting to maintain an empowering and productive work environment (Rock, Van Bavel, & Sip, 2020). The SCARF Model (Figure 1) provides a structure for addressing the multiple threats presented by COVID-19 (Rock, Van Bavel, & Sip, 2020), such as:
UNCERTAINTY – threats to health, finances, the economy. When will this end?
REDUCED AUTONOMY – lack of control, conflicting information and advice. What’s the truth and where do I fit?
REDUCED RELATEDNESS – social distancing, decreased connection and support. How will I get my work done?
Figure 1. The Scarf Model
This research shows the need to steer people towards more adaptive actions – normalize, empathize, and label experiences. Make the implicit, explicit. Fight the tendency to panic, and focus people on the work to be done.
Going back to the basics will help – communication, process, tools, and resources. As important as these are, they are incomplete without a foundation of trust and compassion. It must be acknowledged that communication in this environment will take longer and that productivity expectations may need relaxing as people navigate the new landscape.
COMMUNICATION – open, honest, and often. Share what is known and unknown and when the next communication will come. Pay attention to the choices available.
- Host individual conversations. Clarify situational circumstances, re-prioritize, and discuss appropriate expectations. Take note of individual strengths and discuss the best way to leverage these.
- Beware of HPIS: High Performer Invisibility Syndrome. In a virtual environment, with projects, timelines, and budgets in flux, it can be easy to lose track of top performers. They are working on their own, producing for the company, without issues or problems. They may be overlooked while managers focus on problems or poor performers. However, these are the very people that no company can afford to lose. Take the time to check in, recognize, and motivate ALL employees.
- Keep people aligned and connected. Insulation and polarization more easily occur in a virtual environment, as people spend most of their time talking to and interacting with a limited number of peers. It is easy to lose sight of the larger mission and the part each person plays. 'All Team' or 'All Company' virtual meetings can help.
PROCESS – structure with individual flexibility. Allow more autonomy especially given the increased complexity of home-schooling and caring for others with special needs.
- Develop boundaries and guidelines. Share availability, needs, requirements, shifting roles, how challenges and changes will be addressed, and how success will be monitored. “It is all about accomplishment, not activity” (Wingard, 2020).
- Create a plan, together. Gather the team via videoconferencing to discuss issues, needs, priorities, strategies for being effective and opportunities to impact the community. Articulate feelings then move on to discuss how all will work together (Gallo, 2017). Focus on shared goals and be explicit about the part each person plays.
- Formalize Mentorships. In a traditional office environment, people often get mentoring and on-the-job coaching organically. These casual interactions are missing in a virtual environment. More structured check-ins with a coach or mentor are needed to integrate and support team members.
TOOLS & RESOURCES – provide required equipment; encourage the free exchange of ideas. Ensure employees have the tools to do their jobs.
- Purchase quality equipment. Invest in good sound and videoconferencing tools, computers, phones, and printers.
- Set up a workspace and routine. Consider privacy and security issues when setting up a space to work. Establish and communicate a daily routine for the benefit of peers as well as family. Use transition rituals to demonstrate to yourself and family members when you are ‘at work’ and when you are not, e.g. when the door is closed, you are at work, when it is open you are available.
- Encourage informal virtual gatherings/exchanges. This promotes creativity and relieves stress. You can use a Slack channel, or simply host regular Virtual Happy Hours or Coffee Breaks. Limit the time and consider a theme.
Collaboration is Key
Most work is collaborative in nature. This collaboration requires intention, attention, and trust. With each interaction, work to ensure clarity of understanding and an appreciation of circumstances. Encourage the free exchange of ideas and be explicit about what you know. Provide as much autonomy as possible by remaining flexible and helping others see the choices they do have. Practice and encourage self-care.
Gallo, A. (2017, March 8). How to keep your team focused and productive during uncertain times, Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/03/how-to-keep-your-team-focused-and-productive-during-uncertain-times
Menabney, D. (2019, September 10). Why you need even more trust with a remote team, Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenmenabney/2019/09/10/why-you-need-even-more-trust-with-a-remote-team/#982d6e03667d
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1-9. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ac92/8982c7a7c3d694d8b53c1290673395795766.pdf?_ga=2.192353450.1894347623.1591024496-374149132.1571671337
Rock, D., Van Bavel, J., & Sip, K. (2020, March 13). Webinar Coronovirus: What science says leaders should do. NeuroLeadership Institute, Retrieved from https://hub.neuroleadership.com/coronavirus-leadership-mar2020
Thompson, D. (2020, March 13). The Coronavirus is creating a huge, stressful experiment in working from home, The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-creating-huge-stressful-experiment-working-home/607945/
Valet, V. (2020, March 12). Working from home during The Coronavirus pandemic: What you need to know, Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/vickyvalet/2020/03/12/working-from-home-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-what-you-need-to-know/#466b94691421
Wingard, J. (2020, March 13). Leading remote workers: The Coronavirus’ impact on effective management, Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonwingard/2020/03/13/team-working-at-home-because-of-coronavirus-heres-how-to-lead-them-effectively/#144f5fa43162
Cathy Bamji, BCC, GCDF is a certified Life & Career Development Coach focused on helping people in transition, from students moving out into the world to people facing mid-career and next-career challenges. Additionally, Cathy volunteers her time facilitating Adult Bereavement Groups through CaringMatters, a non-profit in Montgomery County MD. She can be reached at LiveLife@cathybamji.com and www.cathybamji.com
Donna Godfrey is a trainer, experienced coach and organizational development consultant. She specializes in helping healthcare professionals transition into leadership positions. By using real world examples and interactive teaching techniques, Donna helps her clients develop leadership skills and a personal communication style that is both comfortable and compelling. She also focuses on helping her clients anticipate, navigate, and lead others through significant change. Donna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.godfreytraining.com