15 Apr Stop Self-Inflicted Performance Problems: 4 Strategies to Help Businesses and Newly-Virtual Employees Succeed Together
Unreasonable and often unspoken expectations are pitting businesses and newly-virtual employees - who need to be working together - against each other. However, with flexibility, intentional connection, courageous communication, and prioritization, we can find the alignment we need to emerge from this stronger and better positioned for success than ever before.
In a matter of weeks, the world as we knew it and the way we interact with that world has shifted and morphed into something we can’t quite identify. An enormous, external force has pushed us into rapid, large scale change as organizations and as individuals. Previously compartmentalized personal identities are colliding with work identities, and we’re stepping into entirely new roles along the way. We don’t have a clear understanding of what the end or anything in between looks like, and there is a “false” friction emerging between business and employees as a result.
Businesses are searching for certainty – certainty that they can predict, plan for, and drive positive outcomes despite what is occurring around them. Many are resorting to fear-based, command and control approaches as they wonder, “are home-bound employees actually working right now?” Employees are searching for compassion and understanding as they do their best to devote appropriate attention to competing priorities without sufficient time or energy. Unreasonable and often unspoken expectations are pitting people who need to be working together against each other.
These challenges may seem insurmountable, even inevitable, but there’s a way to approach our current circumstances to generate positive, long-term outcomes. With flexibility, intentional connection, courageous communication, and prioritization, we can find the alignment we need to emerge from this stronger and better positioned for success than ever before.
Organizations have launched into overdrive to determine how to weather the economic storm. Many businesses face immediate threats to their viability if they don’t determine how to keep work moving forward, revenues coming in, and employees safe.
There can be a natural reaction to push downward onto employees. Organizations want to ensure that every employee is just as “productive” as they were prior to stay at home orders so that they have a better chance of keeping the organization and everyone’s job intact. With lightning speed, teams are being asked to perform their duties in virtual environments or in new arrangements in their existing physical space. Work is the same, it’s just harder to do.
Instead of gathering in a conference room for meetings, people need to collaborate and creatively problem solve, virtually – a conundrum that is exacerbated by the flood of cortisol and adrenaline actively working against these cognitive functions. Without being able to pop into each other’s offices (or stand up and talk over a cubicle wall), we need to determine how to get in contact with each other expeditiously and effectively. Quick collaboration and team learning from afar are critical.
Juggling parenthood while working, caring for additional family members, teaching school aged children, co-working with significant others and roommates, and counseling friends have all become the norm along with a variety of additional responsibilities. My husband and I currently share a basement office with monitors and chords zigzagging across a crowded table.
Chart paper covered in multi-colored scribbles flutters on the surrounding walls. Our nine-month-old sings (screams) with joy and frustration intermittently as we rotate cuddles with email responses. Between conference calls, I’m in contact with loved ones whose underlying health issues have gotten exponentially worse over the last few weeks. I feel real fear at various intervals throughout the day.
My meticulous planning, deep self-awareness, and ever-growing self-care toolkit didn’t prepare me for the novel coronavirus. Under normal circumstances, I can easily identify when I’m moving from daily anxieties to overwhelm. But now – a deep, sharp pain radiates down the right side of my neck, yanking my shoulders upward. Priorities swirl through my head, paralyzing me with indecisiveness. A pit at the base of my throat leaps upward, nervous giggles almost escaping my lips. I race to try to get things done and yet can’t seem to finish anything. My ribs ache, as the little muscles between work overtime to try to hold my tired spine upright.
With no end in sight, it can seem desperate. Our normal approaches aren’t working quite as well as before. For many of us, this kind of rapid change, competing demands, and unknown has quite naturally led to overwhelm and a range of negative emotions: fear, anger, grief, defeat, anxiety, disdain, annoyance, frustration. There’s a snowball effect.
Creating a Win-Win
I’ve seen many emails and memos perfectly crafted by communications departments about the importance of showing up for employees and being understanding of the added challenges people are experiencing. Dissonance between words and actions has created enormous pressure for employees who are already enduring an immense amount. As organizations, how do we show up for employees and keep things moving forward simultaneously?
Balance in all of this is not a personal issue; it’s about the environment we create for our people. When we say, “I understand what you’re going through” and immediately ask people to do more work, we’re neglecting to recognize the impact of our actions. If we want employees to show up as their best selves and create real value for our companies, especially when they don’t know what the other side of this all looks like, it’s our responsibility as leaders, managers, and co-workers to help each other to process, acclimate, and excel.
The Four Strategies
We can do things differently. We can create an environment for people to thrive and move work forward sustainably with four strategies for managing and motivating people in these times of uncertainty:
- Be flexible.
A lot has changed, quickly. Employees are juggling competing work and personal priorities, navigating disrupted schedules and routines, and assuming new responsibilities. They’re simultaneously experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions as they work their way through the transformational curve. Rigidity in schedule, micromanagement, and additional requirements can quickly lead to overwhelm, frustration, and diminished relationships.
Meet your employees where they are, and allow flexible work schedules and task completion whenever possible. Late starts, long breaks, early ends, late evenings, and different length days should all be an option. Capacity, capability, and motivation will oscillate throughout the day and vary from day to day. Allow employees autonomy to determine how and when they do their work to best capitalize on their energetic ebbs and flows. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Check In.
Human connection is a basic need as critical as water, food, and shelter. Stay at home orders can easily lead to feelings of disconnection, not to mention the range of emotions employees are experiencing without their support networks. Additionally, employees are encountering new challenges absent of typical opportunities for learning and collective problem solving. Energy reserves are depleted and productivity often plummets.
Schedule check-ins weekly with direct reports and frequent collaborators. Send a recurring meeting invitation to ensure that these important meetings don’t get forgotten or skipped. Use these meetings as opportunities to demonstrate compassion and empathy, help people process, and identify resources. Providing people with anchors, consistency, and built in opportunities for support is incredibly helpful when there is so much instability. Consider meeting as a team every morning or afternoon for 15 minutes to build in an extra layer of peer support, trust building, and accountability.
- Communicate Courageously.
Uncertainty and the unknown can be really, really scary. Even though you may want to have all of the details perfectly ironed out, frequent and transparent communication is far more effective in crisis than delayed and ambiguous niceties. It’s okay to not have all the answers. In fact, being vulnerable and letting people in along the way creates an opportunity for connection while simultaneously minimizing the chance for people to suffer in advance.
Even when it’s uncomfortable and you’re afraid of backlash, frequently tell people what you do and don’t know as well as timelines for next steps. Create an intentional plan for “Big C” and “little c” communication. Send broad information out via email and build in plenty of opportunities to talk through, clarify, and reinforce these concepts individually with employees. Work with employees to solve the problems you’re facing and collaboratively find the best solutions.
- Clear the Path.
By the time employees sign on for work under normal circumstances, there’s already a backlog of tasks to sift through. Layer on a constant news feed, frequent interactions with loved ones, new office mates (anyone else know the ins and outs of sales calls now?), and COVID-19 related tasks, and you’re destined for disaster. Employees want to succeed and get all their work done, but the stakes are high and already strained balancing acts are becoming more difficult with each passing moment. More and more gets added to an already full plate, making it an arduous endeavor to stay motivated.
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Let me say that again. PRIORITIZE. Determine what the top 2 to 3 priorities are for your organization AT THIS TIME. This is not a time for guessing games and individual evaluation of strategy. If you can’t prioritize, how do you expect your employees to do so? Be intentional and eliminate noise. Get super clear about what you are trying to achieve and help your employees to identify individual priorities that align with the current organizational strategy. Analysis paralysis is real, especially when we’re pouring from empty cups. If you want more done, give people less to do and get rid of impediments that may block them along the way. Small wins will catalyze more small wins and big wins will follow.
This is a difficult time period for everyone. At work, we need consistent actions that remind us we’re all on the same team working toward a shared purpose. “Pushing through” without clear priorities is a fast track to burnout. The businesses that will enjoy the most success during this time and beyond will be those that are flexible, resilient, and able to leverage the creative energy and focus of a newly-virtual workforce. We NEED something different than a return to the status quo as we “re-emerge” from stay at home orders.
Use this time as an opportunity to strengthen trust, learn to motivate each other, and find new processes, approaches, and ways of doing business. Together.