Phil Ivers – Head of UK Operations and Independent Suppliers at Gazprom Energy, talks team leaders through what he has learnt during the pandemic and how to lead their teams to success.
Leadership is a learned skill and 2020 has certainly given us many lessons. Business and team leaders have had to continue to adapt and improvise their processes as they guide their teams through a multitude of unfamiliar external and internal challenges that provoke anxiety, uncertainty and frustration.
Challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to be long lasting, making it crucial for businesses to invest in their leadership processes. Leaders have been given a narrow window to rethink and reset many of their practices and there is significant pressure to get it right in order for companies to prosper in the future. Many of us had plans for improving efficiency prior to the pandemic and have used this shake up as an opportunity to bring them forward, allowing us to implement new practices in a measured and largely premeditated manner. It is clear that investing time and resources into leadership can have a considerable pay off for the future of any business, making it something that should be built into any long-term business strategy.
Challenges of lockdown
In leadership it is crucial to put the wellbeing of your team before anything else. Not only does this create a positive work environment, boosting staff morale also has a direct impact on your business’s bottom line. The move towards remote working has meant that team leaders have had to stay in tune with their team’s metal health, workload and productivity without any face-to-face contact.
There have been many reasons that employee wellbeing has taken a hit this year. The obvious one is the anxiety provoked by the pandemic for those with underlying health conditions, or pre-existing mental health conditions, that may have been exacerbated by lockdown. Individuals with childcare demands could have also seen a rise in stress levels while juggling work responsibilities and home schooling. Those with vulnerable family members may also have been burdened with additional responsibilities such as food deliveries and arranging Covid-safe care.
Job security is an anxiety that has been felt by many, due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Many staff have either been put on furlough or have seen this happen to their colleagues. With so much uncertainty still to come, this is an ongoing issue in which team leaders need to continue to offer clarity, honesty and reassurance where possible.
Managing workloads has a significant impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. While balancing too much work can cause stress and anxiety, resulting in substandard performance, it is also important to ensure staff have enough work to keep them motivated. Many individuals are looking to employers to provide structure, which seems impossible to find elsewhere. Having mentally stimulating work provides routine and helps people maintain a sense of purpose.
While some employees have welcomed a home working set up, there will be some that are keen to return to office life. Many employees may be missing a significant part of their social life that was previously found at work. Those living alone may have little contact with anyone on a daily basis and the void in their social life could have a direct and detrimental impact on their work/life balance, causing social isolation. Those in shared living spaces, such as with housemates, may also be finding remote working challenging if they don’t have access to a quiet and structured office space. On the other hand, many other people have found that their anxiety is heightened by the idea of returning to the office and the possibility of being exposed to the virus.
While employee wellbeing is number one, we cannot escape the reality of the looming economic recession, adding extra pressure to continue to push employee performance. Striking the right balance between the two can be challenging, particularly at a time when there are so many external pressures. It really comes down to intuition – trying to understand which situations are appropriate to push that little bit harder and which may need a softer approach.
While these challenges can seem overwhelming to manage, there are some straightforward tips that can help with leading your team to success:
Lead with honesty and transparency: By now everyone is aware of the pressure on businesses and understands that these are trying times. While it may be tempting to hide any concerns you have from employees, it is likely they will know that you are doing just that. By offering transparency on aspects of the business that may concern them, you will show that you respect and value them as employees, and this will more than likely be mirrored by your team. At the same time, it’s important you keep morale high, so offering realistic optimism such as sharing the plans that the business has to move forward, can help relieve some of their anxiety.
Avoid knee-jerk reactions: Making decisions in the midst of uncertainty is extremely challenging. There is a pressure to react in the moment but making the wrong call can sometimes have detrimental effects and leave you with more work in the long run. Make sure you take the time to pause, assess and anticipate, before you act. Avoid making permanent long-term decisions in temporary situations. We found that while we have implemented flexible and remote working at present, this is something that would need to be reviewed before making it a permanent policy. If you feel that there is pressure from your team to make snap decisions, communicate your thought process with them and reassure them that you may be taking longer to ensure you’re making the right decision for your team and for the company.
Keep your team motivated: The move to remote working can mean that your team may be facing a distracted workflow, especially when they are sharing their workspace with family or housemates. Now is a great time to introduce flexible working. This allows your team to manage any distractions at home and select working times when they know they will be focused. A great way to keep your team on track and motivated is to use incentives. This doesn’t need to be a costly expense; it could be something as small as announcing praises on team video calls or preparing a virtual event as kudos to everyone’s hard work. If you have some money to spend, then sending out a small food hamper delivery to your team for them to enjoy during work is a great way to make them feel apricated.
Keep up regular communication: It is vital team leaders take steps to ensure they facilitate comprehensive communication with their team. While face-to-face meetings may not be a possibility, video calls and conferences offer a good alternative. Schedule regular meetings that are pre-planned with staff members, as you don’t want to overwhelm your staff with an abundance of meetings that may distract them from their day-to-day tasks. Work with your staff to establish a time that suits you both and make sure you have a clear set of discussion points prior to the meetings, so that time is used efficiently. For times when video calls are not a necessity, use a workplace messaging platform such as Skype. In this instance it could be a good idea to introduce a cut off point for calls or messages to give your team downtime as you approach the end of the working day.
Implement a structured return to work policy: At a time when lockdown rules are constantly changing, your team will be looking to you for stability. When it comes to planning a return to the office, make sure you have a comprehensive plan that addresses any concerns your team may have and puts their health and safety at the centre. An effective strategy may be to begin on a voluntary basis, allowing those that are keen to get back to the office the opportunity to do so, while taking a more gradual approach for those that may not feel ready. Offer information and consultation to staff on returning to work – keep them up to date with any changes and let them know that their voices are heard.
Pay attention to workloads: While the world may have come to somewhat of a standstill, many people have experienced an increase in workload during lockdown. Offering training on time management can be a useful resource to staff that may be struggling to adjust to the new working environments. Sending a message on your work messaging platform at the end of the day, telling everyone to enjoy their evening is an effective way to deter people from working too late. Your regular video calls are a good time to ask staff if they are managing their workload, so try to have it as in item on your agenda for each meeting.
Advocate employee wellbeing: It is important that you communicate to your team that their wellbeing is a priority for the business and demonstrate empathy for the anxiety they may be feeling. Encourage regular breaks and allow enough time on lunchbreaks to accommodate exercise. Implementing virtual social activities can be a huge benefit for team members that may be feeling isolated. These activities could be
anything from a virtual pub, yoga classes or team quizzes. It is important to remember that solutions for mental wellness are subjective and what may work for one person, may not for another. As a company, we have seen a huge benefit from the use of our Mental Health First Aiders, who were trained prior to the pandemic. This resource has meant that employees know they have someone they can talk to, who can provide knowledge and expertise in a safe environment.
Leading with empathy and stability is the best way of managing these uncertain times. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that our staff are the lifeblood of the company and should be treated as such. Showing your team that they are your priority more often than not means that this positive sentiment will be reflected in their own work. While the pandemic has left many businesses in challenging situations, it has also given us new opportunities and lessons to be learnt. Investing in leadership now will plant the seed for your business to flourish in the future.