Sad, wilting desk plants. Film-covered coffee cups. Calendars still turned to March. When I popped into our offices a few weeks back, the abandoned desks were a sobering reminder that we’ve been at this work-from-home experiment for nearly 10 months now. What was supposed to be just a few weeks is quickly approaching a year . . . with no end in sight.
The pandemic has brought many challenges to the way we work. But one of the most pernicious is the state of limbo that employees have been left in. Forecasts about office returns have come and gone, as successive waves of COVID-19 dash plans to go back—plus, we’re in the midst of political and social turmoil and an economic roller coaster. It’s no wonder most of us are feeling a little unmoored.
With everyone drifting in a sea of “what ifs,” it’s important for leaders to bring stability to work in whatever ways we can. All too often, however, we focus on surface-level optimism instead of actions with true impact. The familiar rallying cries about flexibility, rounding a corner, and keeping your chin up sound good but can fall flat in practice.
Over these past months, I’ve seen from trial and error what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t. For other leaders out there, here are some tactics that may be worth letting go of.
Overindexing on “nimbleness”
Conventional wisdom says companies need to be nimble during a crisis. This has its merits (in fact, agility is one of my company’s values), but this has limits.
As businesses, sometimes we do need to turn on a dime. During 2020, we’ve been pushed to make quick decisions over and over. But there’s a tipping point where “nimbleness” becomes “chaos.” Uncertainty in the workplace causes stress, depression, and anxiety. So if there are any opportunities to provide certainty right now, we’re taking them.
For instance, we just let our Boston team know that we won’t be considering a return-to-the-office plan until the end of Q1 at the earliest, and that there will likely be some remote component to work going forward. Google has done something similar, committing to remote work until July 2021 at least.
With timelines on a vaccine still vague, there’s no way to know when we’ll be able to get back together. In the meantime, it’s important to offer what guide rails we can.
Knowing all the answers
Amid the chaos of the crisis, it’s tempting for leaders to cut through conflicting information with pat answers and quick decisions. But here’s the thing: Literally no one has all the answers right now, so drop the act.
In a context where there are no historical precedents to fall back on, it’s instead critical to collect input from those around you—especially people who stand to be immediately affected by your decisions—and strive for a shared understanding before acting.
As we work to craft a reentry plan, for instance, we’ve quickly realized that business needs have to be balanced with human needs. Instead of dictating what’s required, we’re asking. When would employees feel comfortable returning? Under what circumstances? What obstacles are standing in the way?
One team member has teenagers who are fairly good at keeping themselves on task during the day; another coworker has to push work into the evening so they can focus on childcare during the day. A one-size-fits-all solution, as decreed from higher up, just isn’t going to cut it.
And beyond helping you clarify your next move, employees who feel heard are 4.6x more likely to feel empowered and successful.
Lots of holiday parties are being preempted this year by COVID-19. And it’s easy to see why companies would dispense with the ritual, considering we can’t actually get together and the overall mood might not exactly be celebratory these days.
But that’s a big mistake. Both anticipation of an upcoming event and a steady routine are hugely beneficial to mental health, and ritualistic social routines such as staff get-togethers check both of those boxes. Not to mention that social events boost engagement, and engaged employees are more productive, more satisfied, and more likely to stick around.
So, yes, it’s important to preserve the holiday party this year, even if it’s just sending out party favors and toasting in our separate homes via Zoom. And I’d go further than that to say that it’s okay to laugh, have fun, and savor a moment of real joy and camaraderie every so often. The prevailing mood may be serious, but we need to appreciate those flashes of happiness when they come our way, not suppress them.
No longer trying to be the rock
Leaders—at least, in the old-school definition—are supposed to be unflappable and infallible: a source of constancy in times of confusion. Right now, however, acting like you’re immune to the confusion and stress isn’t believable or helpful.
In our last quarterly meeting, I acknowledged that every single one of us, me included, was running on empty some days. With 270-plus faces looking back at me over Zoom, I told the team that my only expectation is that we all be human. Honestly, I got choked up. And if a tear or two had fallen, I know everyone would have been fine with that too.
When it’s real, vulnerability builds trust between leaders and their teams. And trust creates strong, productive companies: employees at high-trust businesses are 76% more engaged, 74% less stressed, and 106% more energetic. Modeling this as a leader, especially during times of unrest, is critical.
Despite the fact that business is booming for some professed fortune tellers, we can’t predict what’s going to happen next. Casting aside leadership stereotypes and preconceptions, and getting real and human with team members, may be the most powerful leadership tack of all.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the author as the CEO of his company. He is currently on the leadership team of Buildium.
Chris Litster is the leader of Buildium, a platform that helps property managers become more efficient and profitable.