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COVID-19 Diary: A Play in Three Acts

(The following is a work of fiction drawn from everyday life from the last six months. As a personal coach, it represents the composite experience of a number of clients and organizations navigating their way through this global pandemic). 

Our story begins with an email to all employees informing them that, starting next week, they should plan to work from home, practice social distancing, wear a mask when they go out, wash their hands frequently, and avoid crowds. The company will be following national and local health authority guidance on how to re-open safely according to the success of measures to control the pandemic’s spread. Stay tuned for further information.

Act I begins with planning and action on all levels. First, with schools also closing to prepare for virtual learning, daycare arrangements become a high priority. Making sure at-risk elderly parents are safe with access to health care and other needs requires immediate attention. Harried parents spend the weekend setting up or augmenting a home office for two working spouses and work-stations for school-age students. Empty-nesters find their college-age kids showing up for an unplanned semester at home while newly graduated students plan to save rent while continuing their job-hunt from home.

For those living on their own, they ask, “What I am going to do with only these four walls to look at? What happens to my work-out routine or my pottery class? Can I still see my friends? What about my job? Who do I know who will need help managing all this? Should I get a pet?”

The mood of my coaching clients is frenetic, anxious and uncertain. For many people, the ability to order and plan their daily lives is fundamental to their mental health. The uncertainty of navigating these twin crises of a global pandemic and the economic downturn is particularly challenging.

As Act 1 unfolds, clients power through because they have to, adapting on the fly, hearing that this will be “the new normal.” They open Zoom accounts and schedule meetings while making sure to submit their kid’s homework through the right on-line portal.

In Act 2, clients develop new schedules, working later or earlier than normal, trading off daycare responsibilities, and figuring out when the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and other essential errands get done. Many clients report that they are starting to get some control over their lives. They also say, pointedly, that this is not sustainable.

How can leaders and managers help? For Act 3, what practices can leaders employ to help their teams navigate through this situation? Dealing with uncertainty and managing teams remotely will require dialing up your self-awareness, deep listening, empathy, and relationship management skills. Here is some help that helps.

Check-In and Listen Between the Lines

Asking “how are you doing?” is not just chit-chat. Go a bit deeper to learn what is truly on the minds of your colleagues. You may find that they reveal burdens they are carrying that are now quite close to the surface in a way they were not before COVID-19. Listen for clues as to whether someone needs more attention, more space, or information that you have or can get, to respond to where they are right now. Add an additional check-in for the team or an individual if that is what is needed. Ask about what they are doing for self-care.

Strive for Clarity

Remote management may remove the body language, tone and mood from your communication. With so much uncertainty about the pandemic and its long-term impact, some team members will want more information, even if leaders don’t have all the answers, they may have more to share. Others want to be sure they are meeting expectations and appreciate clarity on schedules, deadlines and expected results. Better for leaders to err on the side of communicating too much than too little.

Manage Different Needs

Colleagues may have distinct and specific needs that require different approaches. Some value autonomy, so clarity with a light touch is appreciated. Others enjoy thought-partnering and working with feedback where a leader needs to be available. Still, others may feel overlooked or lost and need extra attention and encouragement that they are being seen, heard and acknowledged. Interestingly, some clients report that team dynamics changed by going virtual, where skilled facilitation made meetings more inclusive. Ask for direct feedback and suggestions of what they need to succeed. Then be sure to follow-up.

Find ways to vent, relax and celebrate

Recognize we have lost the social aspects of our work-life, including morning coffee, office parties, and breaks for walking with a colleague in need. Challenge yourself to figure out creative ways to vary routines with celebrations, recognition or “no agenda” meetings. Give folks a chance to step away from their desks with creative ideas like sharing a talent online, leading a scavenger hunt for oddball household items, or taking turns doing a “home office tour” to change up your virtual gatherings.

Don’t normalize what is not normal

A former colleague complained that she was tired of hearing that this is “the new normal.” Instead, she described it as “people working from home during a global pandemic, trying to get things done.”

A large part of our workforce has shown incredible resilience in dealing with an unprecedented health crisis. The long-term impact on our collective and individual health is still unknown. In the meantime, skilled leaders and managers need to lead with added empathy and responsiveness that this crisis demands.

Neil Levine retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years. He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy. Neil is a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success. Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983). In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.

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