Leading through Isolation: Part I

Loneliness, anxiety and depression were feelings,  I recall surfacing when interviewing folks who worked from home full time.  While many see remote work as a benefit and would take a cut in pay to work from home, it struck me how many employees reported struggling with feelings of isolation and inadequacy.  There is limited human contact, of course, and all communication is done through a screen and telephone.  More than that, there was a feeling that they were missing something by not being near others.

Much of the time, the ability to adapt and thrive is a result of strong leadership efforts.  During this COVID-19 pandemic, many people are working remotely for the first time and are uneasy, or even afraid, of the experience. Managers may be leading remote employees for the first time as well and are unsure of whether they are doing it correctly.  Am I communicating too much? Too little?  Can employees be trusted to do a good job without close supervision, especially with the stressors of a pandemic?  Leveraging our time in researching and working with remote teams, we have some advice for leading in this changing environment.

Strong leaders provide reassurance

Remote employees often feel the need to overcommunicate what they are doing in an effort to prove their conscientiousness. Leaders remove that fear with explicit expectations. Reassure your team that you trust them to accomplish their work like usual. Set communication norms on an individual basis.  Pay attention to signals that are telling you someone is uncomfortable. For instance, if you start hearing from Sally eight times more than usual, she is probably struggling even if she does not have a specific concern. Good coaching questions are in order. Be reassuring and reiterate the new normal for your team.

Strong leaders provide a connection

Technology provides an amazing advantage. Communication is streamlined and you can convey a thought in just a few words via chat or email. When uncertainty is in the air, the value of a phone call or video chat is greater than ever. Maintaining that connection and checking in on a person’s work needs as well as leaving time for their wellbeing and mental state is critical. This is the time where an emotionally intelligent leader will shine.  Sharing your own vulnerabilities so that others feel comfortable sharing theirs builds connection and loyalty.

Strong leaders provide structure

Visionary and strategic leaders tend to inspire and motivate employees, highlighting the big picture and the end goal.  However, in times of uncertainty it’s best to start small before going big. Remote employees are likely to worry about tactics and logistics, looking for their leader to provide structure and a roadmap for getting the day-to-day done. Even if you’re a leader who likes to stay big picture, now would be the time to reel in the kite strings and come back to earth, practicing your ability to think about the details. Spend extra time checking in on the mundane and routine tasks while people are getting comfortable with their new reality.  Then, once folks are settled, you can move back into your strategic comfort zone.

Your role as a leader is critical to helping your team weather this pandemic in a way that builds resilience and competence. Bonds created during times of crisis are the most powerful; it’s why war buddies become lifelong friends and why those who have their lives saved by others are connected forever. This worldwide crisis provides an opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of your employees.