When we saw the mid-March email announcing temporary office closures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many of my coworkers and I presumed we would spend a few weeks working from home, watching a swiftly flattened curve go by in the news. We would be back to work—back to normal—in no time.
As weeks of Zoom calls, rapidly changing business needs, and increasingly sobering news about the pandemic stretched into months, it became clear that The New Normal is still a long way off. As I sit here writing, it has been more than five months since I last set foot in my office or had a face-to-face meeting with any of my clients, coworkers, or employees.
I am proud to say my team did make a very smooth transition from in-office collaboration to virtual operation. The pivot has not been without challenges, frustrations, hurdles, and tough emotional realizations however. As we continue in this odd work-from-home of nearly half a year, it’s time to admit this is the shape of our lives for some time to come.
Moreover, as our communities grapple with return-to-school policy decisions, supply chain disruption, fluctuating pandemic hot-spots, economic instability, and general uncertainty, it has become clear that we can no longer simply stay put and hold out for The New Normal.
Leadership in Crisis
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol shared survey research indicating the mental health impact of the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on work and productivity. They cautioned managers to stay transparent, model healthy behaviors, and encourage connectedness to support employees’ mental health through the uncertainty.
Similarly, researcher Jennifer Howard-Grenville explained in an article for the MIT Sloan Management Reviewthat the “swift and large-scale exodus of white-collar workers from their offices” left many feeling abruptly torn from the normalcy of their organizations’ cultures. She explains that to preserve culture through this uncertainty, managers should call attention to positive cultural events, dialogue, or performance and find innovative opportunities to celebrate and highlight their organizations’ founding ideals, powerful stories from the past, or new wins.
These articles and many others offer managers and executives a great deal of insight for leading in times of crisis. The conversation surrounding leadership through this pandemic is rapidly growing and changing. In fact, a simple Google search for “leading in COVID times” yields more than 1.7 billion results, ranging from blog posts and op-eds to more substantially researched articles and in-depth collections of work like those from the Center for Creative Leadership.
There are many sound resources available for leaders to consider in navigating the COVID crisis. However, the tone threaded through much of the popular conversation is suggestive of a temporary crisis followed by a definitive transition into the post-pandemic era.
While this is fairly hopeful thought, after several months of working-in-limbo, it’s time to practically consider the possibility that effective leadership now involves dealing with current scenarios, continuously adapting to emergent demands, and strategically handling unknowns over a much less temporary span of time.
To lead effectively, we can drop the suspense of waiting for the New Normal to begin. Instead, we need to start reshaping our perspectives to lead in the The New Dynamic.
Long-Term Leadership in Uncharted Territory
Leaders must innovate approaches to sustainably balance safety, productivity, operations, continuity, growth, and progress. Leading in COVID times can’t be a question of simply steering through a temporary crisis: it must become an active process of flexibility, learning, and momentum to usher in the new shape of work in a dynamic era. The following are a few practices and questions to consider.
Revisit the band-aid solutions. Work-from-home scenarios, community lockdowns, social distancing in work locations, protection of essential workers, changing childcare demands, process disruptions, resource shortages, and funding issues all needed fast, decisive management action. What temporary decisions or solutions from a few months ago should be revisited before they slowly solidify into a new status quo?
Keep up conversation on emerging needs. Actively encourage dialog that helps you understand the pulse of your team and the needs of your employees. The novelty of working from home may wear thin or a family care situation may change abruptly. What was a simple project six months ago may have turned into an impossible time-sink. New customer needs or client demands may dramatically shift your employees’ working experience. How will you go about keeping the lines of communication open?
Create focus on the right outcomes and de-prioritize what doesn’t matter. Consider the core outcomes you need to see, recognizing they may be different than they once were. Continually work to communicate and clarify the focus for your employees, and clearly set aside those projects or tasks that are simply not important for now. Where can we create stronger focus on the true priorities? Are there time-sinks or poor process holdovers distracting your team from them? How can we address these?
Employ empathetic concern. The new dynamic calls for a great deal of emotional understanding and flexibility. As days and weeks run together in a blur of changing demands, emotions can run alternatively high and low across a team. To lead effectively in such a potentially stressful environment, managers must tune into and respond adeptly to the emotional landscape of the team. Where can we re-calibrate our expectations for productivity, quality, timeliness, or communication to both drive progress and remain empathetic to our teams?
Model flexibility. To create and foster an adaptive mindset across a team or organization, model it. Encourage learning, growth, wellness, and focused productivity. Recognize that in some employee households, hours of uninterrupted work time are not feasible. In other cases, employees who live alone may be starved for interaction. Don’t ignore challenges or overwhelming moments on the team; find ways to model and cultivate resilience in handling them through transparency, candor, and dynamic management.
Managing in the New Dynamic
We need to bring the best of our flexibility, emotional intelligence, and practical focus to bear in forming a new brand of resilient and strategic leadership.
Managing in the New Dynamic means each leader needs to find better ways to create momentum and focus. It means delivering on our business goals by leveraging both humanistic and innovative approaches. It means empathetically advocating for learning and adaptable momentum over the long term when it can feel like the whole world has been put on hold. It means ushering in the future of our world rather than waiting for it.