September 2nd 2020 | Online

Managing from afar: Supporting your team during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, organisations across the UK -- and, indeed, across the globe -- have experienced significant change to workplace practice. In order to observe advice on social distancing, many offices have closed with employees now working from home, some of whom for the first time in their careers.

This sudden development presents specific challenges. Under normal circumstances, flexible or remote working is a planned procedure with agreed parameters and expectations. However, in the context of the current crisis, there has been a sharp transition to all or most staff working remotely for many organisations. This transition will be particularly acute for organisations for whom remote working is not common practice, and for managers who are now tasked with managing their entire teams from afar.

Understandably, many managers are facing concerns about team performance and cohesion as they confront this new managerial task and change in circumstance. For managers as well as their staff, a sudden need to operate remotely requires a shift in mindset, to accompany that of circumstance and context.

For that reason, we at Dods D&I have compiled a short summary of some of the common challenges that managers are now facing, as well as several solutions and an insight into the practices we ourselves are implementing as a team.
 

Core considerations for the initial weeks

As teams become dispersed, a key challenge for managers will be to prevent detachment and encourage cohesion. For teams that previously worked in close proximity, the sudden transition to working remotely presents disruption both to how the team functions as a whole, as well as to how individual members operate. Managers may be concerned about social isolation and disconnection amongst their staff, as social contact is suddenly reduced both personally and professionally. A potential drop in motivation or productivity may be of concern, as well as increased distraction.

To combat these concerns and find new ways of moving forward, managers must first of all take into account how the shift in context and circumstance – both related to, and outside of, work – will specifically affect individual staff members. Staff with children or caring duties may be juggling conflicting responsibilities or pressures related to the welfare of family members, whilst other staff who are living alone or in flat shares may also be experiencing challenges, negotiating working in their living environments. Furthermore, some staff may also be experiencing worries related to the COVID-19 pandemic in their personal lives.

Patience, understanding and a certain flexibility in expectation, both with one’s staff and oneself, are therefore crucial for managers during the initial working-from-home period. There are several key actions which managers can take to mitigate against negative implications for productivity and teamwork in the weeks to come, however.  
 

Communication is key

In times of uncertainty and change, structure and clarity wherever possible is the ultimate remedy. Ensuring that no employee feels ‘out of the loop’ is a vital first step. This relates to the regularity of team meetings and one-to-one catch-ups, as well as to updates from the wider company around business continuity planning and how other teams are faring.

Regular check-ins from managers are advisable to ensure that performance management remains ongoing and clear; expectations around deliverables, timeframes, and guidelines must be clearly communicated in order for everyone to cooperate effectively.

A structure of more informal team communication can also foster team harmony and provide support to staff, especially in preventing isolation or loneliness as interpersonal contact is radically reduced. In addition to regular work-related check-ins, the Dods D&I team meet for 30 minutes each day over video conference to engage in fun activities. On Mondays, one team member will teach the rest a new skill (such as origami, sign-language or the ‘cup song’); Tuesdays are for ‘through the key-hole' tours of our respective home offices, featuring our various pets. On Wednesdays, we’ve agreed to have a ‘show and tell’ class, whilst on Thursdays we partake in a table quiz. Fridays are for BYOB (bring your own breakfast!), where we come together first thing to discuss the week gone by and look forward to the weekend. See above for an action shot!

Different tech platforms have been central in ensuring that communication flows easily and effectively across our team. Instant messaging on office platforms allow for quick questions, whilst video conferences have replaced one-to-ones and team meetings.
 

Take care and stay well

A final tip for managers is to accept that these are unprecedented times, and thus some anxiety or unease of one’s own is natural. Managing expectations whilst not having complete answers -- as one is caught between the processes of senior management, the questions of one’s own team, and broader societal uncertainty -- may prove trying. In addition to the aforementioned challenges of maintaining consistent and effective team interaction, the current ask of managers is significant. Employees will naturally look to their managers and read managerial responses as they seek to understand for themselves how to react and interpret recent changes. Staff may also seek or require more emotional support and encouragement than usual. Managers need to be aware of this, and also to understand that openness, compassion and positivity fosters trust – a vital ingredient for the coming months, in ensuring that teams hang together.

Such support is just as important for managers as for staff, and thus reaching out to peers and managers of other teams for mutual support is vital, to continue to deliver one’s best work, support one’s team and protect one’s wellbeing – as are other steps such as eating well, placing boundaries between work and home life, and connecting with friends and family.

As a concluding note, we at Dods D&I would like to leave you with the message that the coming months will present challenges of varying degree to everyone, and so please know that you are not alone. Support and solidarity can be found from us and your peers as we all seek to adapt to extraordinary circumstances. Over the coming weeks, as public gatherings are suspended, our aim will be to foster online community with you, our audience, and to provide content that will continue to inform and inspire your work.

We’ll be sharing video footage from previous conferences, slide decks and topical articles, as well as finding new and exciting ways to bring our most popular speakers to your screens. If there’s anything you would particularly like to see from us, that would help you at this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out to claire.walmsley@dodsgroup.com.