Working through the Coronavirus Crisis

The consequences of coronavirus

We are currently in uncharted territory: a travel ban between the US and Europe, sport events and music festivals postponed.

And, what is going to happen to work? How will we all work through the virus? One UK estimate suggests that 1 in 5 staff may be off work with illness at the peak. The knock-on effect of the virus will be huge. Stock markets are already making massive downward adjustments and some businesses have failed, such as the UK airline Flybe which recently went into administration. A few companies might struggle with the opposite scenario with a considerable increase in demand.

There are also potentially some unintended positive consequences of the virus. For example, China and Italy have seen a massive drop in air pollution as people travel less. If one is very optimistic, it is conceivable that we are glimpsing a possible future society which is less frenetic and more sustainable.

The most immediate solution for many workplaces is to send their employees to work from home — a solution that is becoming rapidly more prevalent. This week, major institutions in London were system testing their contingency plans by identifying one day where the whole company worked from home.

What the science of wellbeing teaches us about dealing with crisis

During the 2008 financial crash, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world was Iceland. Despite the economic hurt, personal wellbeing levels in the country didn’t plummet. When researchers compared the 2009 scores with 2007, they found no overall change — despite unemployment rising from 1% to 8%, a recession and currency devaluation.

So, what was their secret? Iceland is a small country of 360,000 people. Because of this, they have a stronger sense of community and they knew they were all “in it together”. Individuals didn’t blame themselves and they felt that if they supported each other, they would make it through the downturn.

In short, they proved that large shocks to systems do not have to be terrible. They are disruptive but if people and groups are resilient, they can bounce back. The three qualities they had that ensured they could cope were:

  • Maintaining strong relationships
  • Ensuring a sense of togetherness
  • Supporting those who are most directly affected

Last time I talked about the traits needed to survive a corporate setback with your workplace culture intact. Combined with what we learn from the example of Iceland, your company can prepare for the leap to remote working.

The challenges of working remotely

Being short-staffed and having more people working from home provides logistical challenges. However, it is vital not to overlook the human challenges as well. With people not being in the same building, it will be important to find new ways of connecting with team members and colleagues.

Communicating by email or messaging services can maintain business efficiency, but all too often, it loses the personal touch. This is not surprising. Humans evolved to pick all sorts of non-verbal cues from people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, as well as body postures. These cues are missing from written text and can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and false conclusions. We rely on these cues to read situations and understand people’s intentions. They also help us to build trust and psychological safety — critical factors in maintaining positive team dynamics.

How to build a successful remote team

It’s not impossible to build team trust remotely. You just have to be far more intentional about it.

Invest in good video conferencing

“Seeing” the faces of colleagues will help everyone feel more connected because we pick up cues based on eye contact and body language. However, there are a few issues with video services. If we look at the people on the screen, we’re diverting our eyes from the camera. Remembering to sometimes look directly at the camera will increase connectedness, even though it’s a little awkward. Laughing together about the awkwardness will only help. The spirit of being all in it together is needed to preserve the team relationship.

Be empathetic

People will have different challenges when working from home. For many, it will be a new experience and they may not have a quiet place to work from (they may also find that their new commute from the kitchen to their workstation has its own set of distractions). Try and encourage people to create new rituals in how they work. Most people can only concentrate for about 50 minutes at a time. Encourage people to get up, stretch, take a walk outside or have a five-minute break.

Keep the chat going

In an office environment, we can always find a colleague to get a coffee with. These side conversations are very good for morale and for getting to know colleagues. Remote teams use software like Slack, Teams, or WhatsApp for instant messaging and document sharing, but they can also serve a social function. Encourage this kind of social chat between team members and participate it in it as well — becoming isolated is not only miserable; it is bad for business too.

Explicitly check in with people

Remote teams need more management to coordinate effectively. This means checking in with your teams on not only what they are doing, but how they are feeling as well. Remember, working remotely will be disorienting for some people.

Beware of being too intrusive

On the other end of the scale, some line managers may end up checking in too much due to their nervousness of not being able to “see” their team working. Having clear daily or weekly goals and checking in on progress is good, but pinging people every hour to see if they are working will make them feel infantilized and decrease trust. There is a balance to be struck and talking about the challenges of finding this new balance with your team will be a good way of actually finding it.

Measure and monitor team morale

With large parts of organizations going remote, it will be essential for senior and people leaders to have new systems in place that enable them to keep in touch with their teams. A weekly people check-up will allow leaders to monitor and track employee experience across the whole organization. The Friday Pulse platform which I created is designed specifically for this and can help organizations better manage this massive disruption to working patterns.

The coronavirus is undoubtedly here to stay for a while, and we will be feeling its disruption for some time. However, disruptions don’t have to be entirely negative — they can also be opportunities to innovate. Having your team work remotely might open doors to possibilities that you hadn’t considered before.