The pandemic era brings unique challenges. We’re experiencing uncertainty about the future and have little or no consensus on the way ahead. It’s tempting to manage the situation in detail when what’s required is exceptional leadership. In this blog Leading Change outline six key practices for leadership in crisis situations.
The phenomena of geographically dispersed, remote and virtual teams aren’t new. Many teams have already adapted to work more effectively this way. But the pandemic era brings some unique challenges. Many teams were not configured to work remotely, have large numbers of colleagues working from home and all are affected by a pervasive uncertainty about the general situation.
Challenges or opportunities?
The challenge for leaders is to ensure people feel engaged and productive when isolated from other team members. Some will cope better than others with isolation. They don’t know exactly what the immediate future holds and there isn’t much consensus about when things will return to some kind of ‘normal’. And we don’t think the situation will ever fully return to business as we knew it before the pandemic. How can leaders use the pandemic to ensure that the next normal is better than it was pre-pandemic?
Teams familiar with dispersed operations, particularly those operating in dynamic and uncertain environments have, and take deliberate steps to reinforce, a strong culture and agile working practices. What can we learn from them about how leaders imprint a strong culture when teams are dispersed?
What leaders need to do
These guidelines are a long-term strategy for ensuring business is successful and can adapt to change. Some of them may be applied as a quick fix to help the current situation.
1. Connect people to the organisation’s intent, focused beyond current operations.
When people are dispersed it’s hard to make them feel they are still part of a connected whole organisation. In the military they talk about being ‘mission-focused’. Regularly remind people what you’re planning to achieve and why it’s important: clear intent provides a single unifying purpose everyone can relate to.
2. Ensure people have a consistent picture of the current situation.
People are getting information from multiple sources, some reliable and some less so. Experience shows that situational awareness is an essential enabler for distributed decision-making.
Leaders need to ensure they own this space. Regular and focused team calls allow you to provide a single version of factual information affecting everyone and confirm your understanding of the current operating environment your staff are experiencing. Use a focused discussion about the overall situation to provide context and baseline all your team calls.
3. Develop a narrative to help guide people through the crisis.
Make time to talk to colleagues collectively and individually. As many of your routine communications will be to individuals and small groups you need to develop a consistent narrative about survival, success in that context and how to achieve it. Ask yourself the question: what will get us through this and what part will people need to play? Be flexible. Colleagues cannot be expected to be ‘always on’ when working from home for extended periods. They will have to adapt to additional distractions and responsibilities. One busy editor we spoke to recently has had to adjust his working day to fit in home-schooling and an office space at home that doubles as a family room!
4. Distribute authority to information.
When people have clear direction about intent, they can operate without the need for constant intervention from leaders. Use this alignment to distribute authority to the people on the front-line of your business who can see what’s going on and make effective and timely decisions. If you don’t take the opportunity to do this, team members will not feel empowered and may default to a ‘wait to be told’ mindset.
5. Develop and evolve working practices.
Use your team to develop a set of basic team rules/principles for operating apart to help people engage in and understand how they need to operate. Many teams simply try to maintain the way they operated before dispersal. It’s not likely to succeed. Leaders need to continually evolve and update to eliminate unhelpful working practices and iterate new ones to maintain engagement and productivity.
6. Build trust.
Be honest about what you know, don’t know, or know but can’t tell people. Be clear what support is available. Make yourself available for regular brief individual check-in calls and listen to what people are experiencing.
It’s hard to replicate the office ‘buzz’ which helps invisible transfer of information. Keep communications flowing, transparent and two-way. Encourage people to set up social calls with each other. Demonstrate through your actions it’s OK. Remember to listen to team members and don’t let anyone become digital introverts!
Even when the pandemic inevitably ends, things are not going to return to the way they were. Business will be different. Use the opportunity provided by the pandemic to develop ways to keep in touch, keep engaged and focused on what you are trying to achieve. Develop agile working practices that improve the way your business works in the longer term. Stay flexible!
About Leading Change
Leading Change is a specialised consulting practice devoted to organisational effectiveness. We help organisations to succeed in uncertain and dynamic business environments.
Find out more about Leading Change by visiting www.leadingchangeuk.com
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0203 170 8026