Its not just WFH, its WFH during the COVID-19 pandemic!
The switch to WFH for many organisations was a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, motivated initially by the need for social distancing and subsequently necessitated by lockdown measures. Many organisations scrambled to decide on technical solutions e.g. laptops, WIFI, bandwidth, migrating information to the cloud, headsets, mobile phones, Zoom, MS teams, Office 365 – the list goes on. The media was full of WFH guidelines – outlining how to technically and organisationally establish and manage remote teams. Most of these guidelines did not address the less obvious challenges facing these teams, such as reduced staffing levels, altered service level agreements, mental health challenges, anxiety and stress.
To manage teams effectively during this crisis we need to recognise that WFH and WFH-‘during COVID-19’ are entirely different monsters.
Hadn’t we done this before
Many IT, InfoSec and Privacy teams had already been technically able to work from home for many years, as they often had to provide out-of-hours support, or deal with system failures or privacy breaches which could occur at any time or day. So those of us who were already managing these teams were confident about our team’s ability to adapt to a full-time WFH capability. Our teams were also well versed in business continuity and had a detailed continuity plan with regular testing and revisions. This is the advantage of security teams – we are innately aware of disaster recovery. We therefore expected that WFH during COVID-19 would be the same as WFH – and it wasn’t.
As the COO of an Irish Privacy and Security SME, I had worked between home and office for many years and managed teams who too worked between home and office. However, none of us – myself or the team – were fully prepared for the multiple challenges of WFH ‘during COVID-19’.
The New ‘Under-The-Covers’ challenges of WFH during COVID-19
The biggest challenge of all was not technical – it was dealing with the change in the personal circumstances of the team. Many of our team now had young children or teenagers at home, husbands and wives sharing WFH spaces, the time needed for shopping for groceries was extended with queues and reduced hours, home supports such as housekeepers and gardeners etc were no longer available, getting out for a walk to get headspace was now reduced to a 2km per day trip – the list is endless. I had one team member, who had to take a professional exam online during COVID-19 whilst her two teenage sons were in a loud and physical battle on the stairs. She described being engulfed by ‘rage’ (not a word we expect to hear in the workplace) and being completely distracted by the battle outside the room. She was concerned that it had affected her test score.
We also faced other challenges not typically associated with WFH e.g. anxiety about sick friends or family, anxiety about close family’s underlying health conditions, frustration at lack of exercise, loneliness, feelings of isolation, increased financial insecurity, fear of pending recession etc.
Managing the team in this environment demanded a huge amount of self-awareness, team awareness, empathy, patience and understanding. This gave rise to my writing this article, in the hope of sharing with you what I have learned so far.
Five key areas to address in managing your teams WFH during COVID-19
- Fix you first
As a manager, it is important to be aware of the conditions and circumstances of your team members. However, many of us forgot to recognise that our own circumstances during COVID-19 had dramatically changed. Ensure that you address your own challenges first, before addressing those of the team. In my case I invested more time in the mornings – starting work most days around 7 order to leverage my household’s morning quiet – when my teenage kids were at their least demanding.
- Encourage boundaries
I discovered (in its absence) that the commute to and from the office created a boundary from my home to work life – a preparation time for work in the morning, a decompression time in the evening. When the commute became laptop to kitchen – these boundaries and their benefits were lost, and I found myself making dinner whilst still processing work in my head. Encourage everyone in the team to recognise this need for boundary and encourage them to find the boundary that works for them e.g. a walk, a run, a book, TV, a crossword etc. I decided that for me, I would close my working day with some tai chi. Encourage your team to set new boundaries over their time, space and working day. Also encourage your team to take holidays and PTO – decompression is so important during times of increased anxiety – even if all they do is watch all eight episodes of Tiger King on Netflix.
- Lead with Kindness, Patience and Understanding
Recognise that each person in the team has had to adapt to changed circumstances really quickly with little notice. How aware are you about their particular circumstances? Are they single parents? Do they have young children? Do they have elderly parents? Is someone in their family sick? Does anyone have underlying health conditions? Are they doing exams? Will these changes financially impact them? Reach out to each of the team members and try to understand their particular circumstances and concerns. Explore if you can adjust work demands to suit their new environment. Perhaps they can start work early? Perhaps they can do work that requires less interaction with others so that they can work flexibly in their own time. Perhaps they need some time off.
Don’t forget to let your team know how proud you are of their continued achievement, highlight their successes at team meetings, support their failings, and go out of your way to highlight their good work to the rest of the organisation.
- Make a virtual space for ‘quality conversations’
Quality conversations within the team are the ones that occur at the tea station, on the stairwell in passing, or at the lunchtime table etc. Its where often we get insight into what’s really going on for the team. Online lunchtime sessions such as ‘virtual sambos’ can reduce the soullessness of ‘eating alone’. Friday online drinks from 5-5.45 can be a good too, helping everyone decompress for the weekend. These virtual quality conversations are also an opportunity to invite fun into the WFH space by including Jokes, Quizzes, Riddles, Competitions, Games etc.
- Performance Management
Performance management can also be difficult under the challenging times presented by COVID-19. However, the metrics that were applied pre-COVID-19 should remain unchanged. Don’t evaluate the job performance of the WFH team differently from pre-COVID-19 performance evaluations. However – do consider reviewing the company’s targets, and the team’s targets. Don’t be afraid to revise them if they are now unachievable. Achievable targets are so important for positive team spirit. Implement online Tech forums – where team members can drop in questions that other team members might be able to answer and can provide team support. Have daily team calls up to a maximum of 30 mins – where project progress can be monitored and issues tabled.
Are there some members of the team who are now working less than they did before as a result of lockdown rules? Are there some members of the team who are now working far more than they did before a result of COVID-19? Can you as manager redistribute work in the team to re-balance this equilibrium. Can you establish a training schedule – delivered by the team to the team. I established a training program where privacy courses were provided to the security team, and security courses were provided to the privacy team. These courses were delivered by team members who were expert in a particular topic or task.
Recognise how COVID-19 has the potential to negatively impact your teams trust. Team members become more distrustful when they feel insecure about their jobs. Publish company figures. Involve them in the business but shield them enough from the business if it will create undue anxiety in them. Involve them in continuity plans for the future, the triggers that may ignite cost saving measures etc. Be optimistic and focus on company values.
Every business is different and every team is different, but during COVID-19 – the one thing remaining constant is ‘change’. Recognise and respond to these changes for both the team and the manager and respond accordingly.