With anxieties riding high and job security precarious, there has never been a more crucial time for strong leadership. But directing, calming and inspiring fragmented teams that have had change thrust upon them, is not easily done from afar without planning and infrastructure.
As such, those who find themselves taking an unscheduled crash course in 100% remote leadership right now will be learning that, when it comes to virtual management techniques, one size does not fit all. And they may be realizing the impact of disruption affects different people–mentally, emotionally and operationally–in different ways.
Without the buzz of the office, extrovert personality types who get their energy from people, may be mentally struggling in isolation. Those who are wired to be fearful of change may be finding productivity a challenge with new technologies to learn and new routines to forge.
Meanwhile, your most resilient and agile workers may be pushing on, determined to do their bit to get the business through the crisis, but are putting themselves at higher risk of burnout.
Identify high-risk employees
To steer different personality types through lockdown and self-isolation toward better times ahead, you first need to identify who is likely to need the most support.
Dr Lucy English, vice president of research and science at meQuilibrium, says workplace disruption can be most damaging for two subsets of employees called “soulful sufferers” and “stretched superstars.”
The first group, she says, is high in empathy, making them great co-workers. But they also carry high levels of stress and a higher risk of anxiety and depression, leaving them prone to burnout and absenteeism. English recommends offering help with emotion control skills.
The second group are go-getters who want to do it all. While they are highly agile and resilient people who thrive in environments of change and opportunity, they also have high levels of work-life conflict that are a drag on their full potential. English says: “They need help uncovering the inner conflicts that fuel their time-management stress.”
Given the circumstances, work-life conflict is likely to be weighing heavily on most employees. If budget allows, consider offering access to courses on some of the many training and e-learning platforms, as well as business coaching, psychotherapy, and peer mentoring and support.
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Be sensitive to the fear of change
Looking at personality types in another way, Dr Terrell Strayhorn, president of Do Good Work, says the threat of change is most daunting for workers who are Type-A–defined as goal-oriented and controlling–and Type C, who are logical, prepared and prefer stability.
And it’s not actually change itself that workers fear, but how it makes them feel, says Strayhorn. “Change activates a threat circuitry in our minds and feelings of uncertainty or ‘the unknown’ expose worries about failure, rejection, or criticism. Help workers identify and recognize those core emotions.”
Studies show individuals cope better with change if they are clear about the value it brings. So, leaders who’ve long been suspicious of remote working need to do something else: keep their misgivings to themselves, and promote the benefits of home working, as well as reminding employees why it’s necessary to stay inside and safeguard the health of their neighbors and loved ones.
Dr Jim Guilkey recommends leaders also apply “the building block theory” which involves starting with simple concepts and building to a more complex, comprehensive approach to change. He says: “For example, if you are implementing a technology-based software package, only concentrate initially on basic functionality. Once they become comfortable, include more advanced operations.”
Promote communication to critical
Right now, most of us will be feeling, very acutely, our deep-rooted desires for real and meaningful human connection. And extroverts, who get their energy from people, may be struggling more than their introverted coworkers. Businesses need to consider, seriously, the impact of distance and isolation for those members of the workforce who rank higher on the extrovert spectrum.
Consider increasing the use of video communication, which increases the social stimuli available to extroverts in conversation. A 2011 study found that faces have increased motivational significance for these individuals.
But understand, too, that different people will have different communication preferences. Get your employees to signal theirs on their digital workplace user profiles and be willing to compromise accordingly.
Be human, and available
The most powerful thing any leader can do in a crisis, for all their people, is to show humanity.
Do this by making yourself available across multiple communication platforms and be transparent about the state of the business. Host live Q&As on your internal social media feed, write posts and record short videos for internal publication in your digital workplace, encourage and get involved in non-business chatter. Take part in the odd virtual social activity your employees are busy organizing to boost morale.
There is a virtual equivalent of an “open door policy.” Make your calendar public and invite employees to book slots so they can ask questions and so you can find out how well people are really coping. Remote leaders need to rely on their powers of intuition far more than those in close proximity to their workers.
Sara Sutton, CEO of Flexjobs says: “In the office, you can be a bit lazy and take for granted that you’ll visibly be able to see if somebody is having a hard day. But as a remote CEO, I really have to pay attention to more subtle cues, like someone’s tone of voice or whether they’ve missed meetings.”
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