16 April 2020
Working from home during Coronavirus Pandemic

To suggest that we’ve entered unchartered waters while in the vice-like grip of a global pandemic would be a statement of the “bleeding obvious”.

And for businesses and professional service firms, the new normal has a majority of our workforce working remotely from home; often while trying to juggle young children (and at times, home schooling). But with all these distractions and competing responsibilities many workers simply can’t meet normal productivity expectations or workloads.

With revenue disappearing for most of us in business, simply paying wages and salaries is becoming a feat of herculean proportions – and in normal times a business might look to standing down those work-from-homers that aren’t being productive or perhaps rescind the arrangement – but these are not normal times – and perhaps we just need to adapt?

In challenging times, controlling costs is an absolute necessity but so too is leadership.

And the way we, as business owners, treat our employees in times of trouble speaks to the principles and values that we reflect at a personal level.

Terminating or standing down long-serving and loyal team members might at times be necessary but doing so, before it becomes a last resort, can permanently destroy trust and respect for management.

But perhaps even more troubling is the issue of an underperforming remote workforce and how best to nurture, manage and lead a workforce that is connected only by a wireless router and webcam.

For many workers, receiving a full time pay check is a necessity; but caring for kids at home, a coronavirus reality.

Work From Home

So, before a business makes the decision to cut back or stand down situational “underperformers”, I wonder if some considerations of management should include:

  • The pandemic is temporary but wounds to management’s credibility will endure;
  • As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – there’s nothing like a storm to shape the culture of an organization – and how staff are treated in a crisis won’t quickly be forgotten;
  • Unless you’re the President of the world’s biggest economy, candour, humility and trust are attributes of great leaders;
  • If business leaders check up on remote team members by sending an email at 4.55 pm to see if they are still at the desk ( or kitchen bench!) or even asking them to keep their web-cams on during work hours, only serves to send a message that they simply aren’t trusted;
  • Psychological safety is a primal need of workers in these unsettled times and organisations that meet this need will earn the enduring trust and respect of their teams;
  • Empathy in the face of adversity can make for transformational changes in relationships and strengthen the fabric of a work community.

I have to admit that the prickly issue of productivity deficits were like pebbles in my shoes when we were first forced into remote working arrangements. Especially when Zoom meetings were punctuated by the sounds of screaming kids, barking dogs and washing machines on spin cycle. But flexibility is the reward for the acceptance of a lonely telecommuting work engagement.

Managers who demand defined working hours are tone deaf to the cries of the trapeze artist workers who find themselves struggling with competing demands on their time. For what it’s worth, my (newly discovered) tips for leading a work-from-home workforce:

  • Empathise, listen and respect individual circumstances. You will need these people when we get to the other side of this canyon;
  • Connect and keep in touch – Google Teams, Zoom, Skype or Webex are useful ways to hold virtual meetings – but keep them short and spend the time informing, listening and making decisions, not on waffle or being circumlocutory.
  • Be clear about expectations, prioritise, manage workloads but be realistic. Now is not the time to set up anxious staff for failure.
  • Lead by example – “Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut the mustard with staff who are reading between the lines as to what management really wants – these folks are concerned about keeping their jobs. If management tells them not to travel but the GM travels herself, what message does that send?
  • As Harvard Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury says, we should “move to asynchronous work”. Every member of the team will have different times of day when they are best able to get their work done – perhaps it’s sparrows for some or the midnight oil for others, but if we accept that we don’t all need to be working at the same time of day it will be pressure valve release for all. What’s wrong with allowing our employees to work to a syncopated beat? Let’s just get as much done as we possibly can.
  • Show the team that you trust them. Be grateful. Give praise. And send positive messages despite the frustrations of a life now spent in isolation.

Accept that employees might not be as productive as normal. Get over it. Admonish them because of their personal circumstances and you’ll lose their trust and confidence. But give them flexibility, show them understanding and be effusive in words of encouragement, in time they will repay your kindness in spades.