#38: The Covid-19 episode - Helping our unexpected remote workers

I'm recording this on Tuesday the 21st May 2020.

At this point, in the UK, we have been under lock down for 4 weeks.

UK rules discourage person to person interactions as much as possible.

While we are able to leave our homes for work, shopping and daily exercise, we are encourage to minimise this as much as possible.

Where they can, businesses are being encouraged to work from home.

In this episode I wanted to talk about helping your staff with phycological safety and motivation.

This episode will mostly focus on supporting those that have suddenly found themselves unexpectedly working from home.

Most of the of the advice however is universally.

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Published: Wed, 22 Apr 2020 15:52:32 GMT


The Covid-19 is undoubtedly an unsettling event for everyone. Very few people are not feeling the affects of the pandemic on their day-to-day activities.

In this episode I want to talk about how we as business owners and leaders can help our teams cope with those affects.

Specifically I want to concentrate on phycological safety and motivation.

I introduced phycological safety back in episode 11;

Wikipedia describes it as:

"Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career"

And I talked about the 3 types of motivation as defined in Daniel Pink's book Drive in episode 34 - Biological, External and Intrinsic.

The Biological drive are things like the need to eat, drink and sleep.

The External drive are things like reward and punishment.

The Intrinsic drive are things we do for our own enjoyment and a sense of purpose. These are aligned with our personal sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery.

So with everything happening, why am I focusing on those two points?

With everything that is happening, there is a huge cognitive load being put on our staff.

They will have fears for the health of their family and friends.

They will have fears for their jobs.

So many worries will be filling their minds.

As business owners and leaders it is our responsibility to include the mental wellbeing of our staff during these times.

Both for their wellbeing and the long term success of the organisation. The less they have to worry, the lower the cognitive load, the better they are able to cope and perform their roles.

While your focus maybe on weathering the immediate storm; as I talked about in the last episode, a myopic over-focus on the immediate can be just as dangerous as the current problem we are trying to avoid.

We don't just need our organisations to survive the current crisis, they then need to be able survive in the months and years following it - which certainly wont be easy.

And for that we need our staff.

As I've said before; to have a successful organisation we need:

To produce something that your customers value.

And to have happy, engaged employees.

And for that we need them to feel phycological safety and to be able to tap into the intrinsic motivators.

Before I talk about some of the things I'd recommend, I do acknowledge that there will be very hard decisions to make as business owners and leaders.

I well understand that sometimes, for an organisation to survive, unpalatable decisions need to be made. I've been there. I've had to make good people redundant when the organisation has taken a down turn.

No matter how much you don't want to, sometimes those decisions simply have to be made.

And unfortunately, as a business owner or leader, that decision may fall onto your shoulders. Its not an enviable experience wielding that much control over an individuals future.

While it doesn't make the job any easier; many other owners & leaders will unfortunately be having to go through the same activity. You are, unfortunately, not alone.

So, onto some actionable recommendations;

Foremost, over communicate.

Many organisations are poor at communication at the best of times.

In times of uncertainty and normal communication channels are disrupted by remote work; it pays to over communicate.

Keep all of your staff informed as best as you can on the state of the organisation, the industry, their jobs - anything that could help to set nervous minds at rest.

It may seem obvious to you - the state of the organisation - but few of your staff will have the visibility you have.

Even if you are an organisation largely unaffected by the crisis; communicate that - that is a great thing to be able to tell your people.

If you are in the unfortunate circumstance of having to take negative actions, share as much with your staff as you can do. If you are reducing hours or making redundancies - be clear on why you have taken those steps.

There will be some financial modelling behind your activities - where possible share that.

It can be very difficult for staff to understand your actions when, to them, the organisation seems just as active.

And then keep communicating.

If you plan to review the situation in a months time, then share that - and what will be important for that review.

While as before, I acknowledge that you may not be able to share everything; it is too easy to fall into the trap of sharing nothing. The fear of sharing something that may later have a negative affect will often put people of sharing.

The lack of information however opens the door for guesses, mis-interpretation and gossip - which can be so much more dangerous that the potential risk of sharing the wrong thing.

You may have done considerable modelling telling you that, while the business seems currently unaffected, that over the next three months you will see a significant drop off. A drop off which is likely to affect the viability of the organisation for the next 2 years.

But if that isn't shared with the staff, they may see the actions to reduce their hours, when the organisation appears health, as opportunism by the leadership team. An effort to get more for less by sweating the staff during a difficult time.

This could easily result in your staff becoming demotivated and disenchanted - at exactly the point that you want them to pull together.

Its very easy for an absence of communication to lead an individual to have concerns over their livelihood. Very quickly an individuals focus will be on the Biological and External motivators - they are worried about the money available to feed and home themselves and their family.

Your over-communication should aim to reduce those worries.

I'd also recommend allowing staff to submit questions so that you can draw up a list of Frequently Asked Questions. You may not be able to answer them at the time, but at the very least, you should be able to acknowledge that the question is important and at what point or what factors would allow you to answer it.

This all helps to build a sense of us all being in it together.

With regards to communication; if you have regular one-to-ones with your team; I recommend maintaining them - its a great way for that bi-directional communication flow.

If you haven't previously been doing one-to-ones, I would suggest introducing them ... Slowly.

If your team isn't used to sitting down with you once a week, then introducing it can cause a level of anxiety in its own right.

  • Is the boss checking up on me?
  • Do they think I'm slacking?
  • Maybe they are going to let me go?

You get the idea. As I've said before, if there isn't clear communication, then fears and anxiety will fill that void.

So tread carefully; make sure they know this is a two way street - and primarily its focused on them and what will help them.

Its important to acknowledge as an organisation that there will be a productivity drop.

If you organisation has suddenly had to become remote; it will not be as productive as it had been. That is a simple fact.

While at an individual level, some individuals will find they work better remotely - maybe because of less distractions, as a whole this will not be the case.

It takes time and practice to build up a similar level of productivity when remote.

And while it can be done, you can assume it is unlikely to occur during the Covid-19 crisis.

A combination of the cognitive load caused by the affects on the crisis will pretty much guarantee that.

As such, again, communicate that this is understood AND accepted.

People will have genuine anxiety brought on by concerns over their personal productivity.

They have been thrown into an environment in which they are not used to working.

They may have children, pets or spouses in less than ideal spaces.

To be blunt, they need to know that its ok to give themselves some slack. Everything will not (and should not) be perfect.

Again, make sure that is its communicated - and that you understand why it will be happening.

They need to feel safe - otherwise the build up of anxiety can quickly lead to poor mental health.

As a species we are inherently social creatures, so keep that in mind to.

In the office we have those personal moments with our colleagues, those water cooler moments.

Sometimes is maybe work related; other times is simply part of having a human connection.

And while working from home can seem a very attractive idea; some people will struggle with the lack of contact.

People who choose to work remotely often comment that they enjoy occasionally going into the office or even working from a coffee shop for that feeling of other people.

Due to the crisis however, many new remote workers have been forced into the situation - they didn't have a chance to prepare for this way of working.

And now of course they don't have the option to pop back into the office or work in a coffee shop.

Many organisations have recognised this and put into place means by which their staff can have those more human moments.

Some have gone with the a drop in style always-on video meeting. You can jump in whenever you want to connect with whoever else is there at the time - very much the virtual equivalent of the watercooler moment.

Others have organised mass gatherings on platforms like Zoom for a party office feel.

Many remove software development teams have learnt that having their camera on AND being able to see their colleagues while they work can have a profound affect on their feeling of togetherness.

Again, communicate, see what your teams feel will work best for them. If in doubt, experiment - use the experimental mindset that I've discussed so often.

On a more practical note;

Make sure that your staff have approriate equipment for a working day.

Many people will have left their offices thinking they would be going back within days. Many will not have taken the necessary equipment to work properly.

They may not have enough computer monitors, a decent keyboard or mouse.

They may by sat over a dinning table using dinning chairs - never designed or intended for a full days work.

They may have poor internet connection. Fine for watching a film of an evening or doing their online banking - but not practical for multiple householder members working from home while the kids are home.

Where possible, make sure that your staff have everything to make them feel comfortable and able to work.

For monitors, keyboards, mice or chairs - if possible allow them back into the office to collect. If not buy new ones and get them shipped.

If they have to go out and purchase them themselves, make sure that you are assuring them that their out of pocket expenses are covered.

For internet; order them mobile hotspots - they can be with them in days and can provide much better connection than home broadband.

At the start of this crisis, the week prior to the lockdown, I invested in a mobile broadband from 3 Telecom. This was in addition to the 2 ADSL broadband lines I had available in the house.

With three adults working remotely and all three heavily reliant of internet connection; it was a worthwhile investment to make sure that we had enough bandwidth and resilience.

Again, communicate with your people, understand what would help them to be better at what they do.

I wanted to end this episode with an assertion that remote working can be good.

I know some people that are considerably more productive by not being in the office.

I know personally that I can generally solve problems faster and more effectively if I've not spend 2 hours in a commute to be surrounded by a variety of noisy distractions.

When this crisis is all over; I honestly hope that reservations over remote working are changed for the better.

For too long, too many organisations have felt that if they can't see their employees, then they can't be working.

They feel they aren't getting their pound of flesh.

Remote work won't be for everyone. And I expect there to be a good number of people that will joyously return to their offices when able.

But for now we need to support those that have been thrust into the situation without choice or preparation.

In this episode;

I've reminded you of the importance that phycological safety and intrinsic motivation has on the well being of your staff and on the success of your organisation.

I've reminded you that, as business owners and leaders, it is our responsibility to protect that phycological safety and intrinsic motivation in our teams - and more so during the current covid-19 crisis.

I've advised on the importance of communication - in both directions. On being open and honest with your team. On asking for what they need to know or have to do their best work.

I've advised you to think of the practical things - like computer equipment, chairs and internet.

All of these things are things we should be doing as professional business owners or leaders anyway. These things are how we can get the best for our organisation at anytime.

During this crisis; let us do more of it.