Monkey Puzzle Blog

Work from Home Covid 19

Advice for leaders during enforced home-working

We are living and working in an increasingly unknown territory. No one quite knows how the COVID-19 virus will play out in the long run but what is becoming increasingly clear is this - many organisations are on the edge of mandatory working from home.

This is going to test them and their people like never before. Which means, as a leader, you are going to need to lead in ways you’ve never had to before.

This article has been written to help leaders by anticipating some likely scenarios and looking at what can be done to minimise the impact on wellbeing and productivity.

Working from home - an important distinction

Many of us are getting used to working from home. It can act as a balance between interaction with colleagues and the space sometimes needed to focus and manage other aspects of our lives. However, for many of us, it’s something we’ve chosen to do, we are happy with it and the reason it works is that we still feel a part of our work-related social networks.

The key difference here will be the word ‘mandatory’. Enforced working from home will not be optional, there will be no flexibility or freedom of choice about it. Over time our social networks will become increasingly remote. It will effectively be work imposed quarantine and studies have shown that extended periods of isolation can have a highly negative psychological impact leading to depression and anxiety.

What’s even more worrying - these problems take some time to deal with. The damage can last long after any return to work.

Where we are now

Colleagues are beginning to talk about the virus, organisations are quickly creating policies, people coming back from holidays are self-isolating. There is a ‘we’re all pulling together’ novelty about it. People will use the time working from home to close off tasks they’ve meant to do, they’ll Skype the office, productivity may even improve as we get through that to-do list. Inevitably it won’t last.

When the pressure mounts

Within a few weeks the pressure will mount on personal relationships and family life, couples may have to live and work at home for long periods. For those whose social life is so wrapped up in their work and colleagues, it will start to feel intolerable. What’s more, those already experiencing difficulties such as poor mental health or family strain may experience a deterioration in wellbeing much sooner than others.

The impact on work and productivity

People will start to feel disconnected, start to doubt themselves and the quality of their work compared to their absent co-workers. With no one to collaborate with, bounce ideas or just simply share a joke with, this loss of interaction and associated emotions will seriously impact productivity.

This is going to be the most challenging time for people and their organisations. There is a risk of paralysis as social networks completely break down and depression takes hold. In general, isolated workers will experience loneliness and depression and anger and fear may become their main drivers.

The importance of their work will be overshadowed by far more immediate day to day problems right at home.

Leading through turmoil

So what can leaders and their organisations do to hold their fractured and remote workforce together?

Managing a remote workforce isn’t a new challenge but managing a situation of mandatory isolation is. We’ve described a scenario where people will be removed from their social networks, a physical connection will be lost and these pressures may affect people in different ways.

Tips for leaders

Stay connected. How can your people best stay connected during this period? You’ll need to ask them, we are all different and the teams we manage will work in different ways. What works best for them?

Keep a look out. In particular, those with existing difficulties may be more dependent on their work for social interaction so could suffer more than others. These include people with mental health issues, relationship problems, and family difficulties.

Be accessible. More so than usual, you should expect to be accessible. You are going to be in-demand, especially in a crisis, but that’s why you are a leader. Respond to people as quickly as possible. You may need to build a team to help you with this.

Clear direction. You may need to change your leadership style, becoming more directive. Your people may need (and actually welcome) clear direction that helps them maintain their focus and therefore productivity.

Show recognition. Everyone will be working under increased pressure, some to breaking point. Recognition can go a long way in helping to cope. No one wants to feel they are on their own and not being recognised. This goes for your line managers too. Everyone needs their immediate boss to rise to this challenge.

Engage regularly. Now is not the time for a vacuum in communication. Be sure to do what you say communication wise. Keep in touch regularly, when you say you will. People will be depending on it.

Trust your team. You will be tested in ways you haven’t been before. You can’t do it all and nor should you try. There will be people giving 110% in challenging circumstances. Your trust in them and recognising that effort will engage them just when it’s needed most.

Explain the why. Everyone needs to know why things are happening. Absence is the enemy of clarity and can lead to people being more focused on their own issues - which may be considerable. Explain and repeat if necessary.

Balance facts with emotion: People need facts but emotions can run high, particularly when no one really knows how long this can last. So give real information and avoid projecting any negatives too far into the future which may cause undue strain. It’s your call on just how much people need to know. This is a tough one to balance.


In conclusion

There will be a lot of unknowns in the coming months but we can be sure of one thing - as people deal with the drastic change to their daily lives, organisations will experience a greatly reduced level of quality productive work. It will be the organisations and leaders that have anticipated the challenges ahead that will best be placed to minimise the psychological effects that damage people - and productivity.


For further information

The Lancet: The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it.


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