Managing a team during coronavirus poses many unexpected challenges, as leading during uncertainty often does, but never one so sensitive as grief and all the different ways it manifests.
As we all very well know, COVID-19 has caused significant loss of life, and while you or your direct reports might be grieving the loss of a loved one, you might also be grieving significant changes to your daily routines or the shift from working onsite to working remotely. These are all normal emotions at this time.
So, how do you as a leader steer your team through unprecedented circumstances and such weighty emotions, while also dealing with some of those emotions yourself? Accurate assessment of needs, transparent communication, and establishing personal boundaries are integral to the mental and emotional health of you and your company.
How to know what your direct reports need
There are three key steps you can take to assess your direct reports’ needs. First, avoid making assumptions. Although it feels like we are all going through the same things, your direct reports may be dealing with some complex situations, such as not having enough money to pay bills or having to care for sick family members. Try not to assume that you know what their needs are or how they must navigate their grief.
Next, ask open-ended questions that enable your direct reports to provide useful feedback. The onset of COVID-19 has left many people grieving a lack of control over their own lives. When you ask your direct reports how you can best support them during this time, you empower them to regain some control over their next steps.
Examples of good questions to asses direct report needs:
How can I be most helpful to you during this time?
How would you like to use your meeting/one-on-one time today?
What do you feel your greatest challenge will be during this time?
What are one or two changes you feel we can make as a team to ease this transition?
The third (and perhaps most important) part of assessing your direct reports’ needs requires you to practice active listening. When you speak with your direct reports, focus on what they are sharing with you. Eliminate distractions, reserve judgement, and ask for clarification when needed. An example of this is: What I heard you say was that your greatest concern at this time is having consistent child care? Did I get that right?
How to appropriately share information with your team
The most efficient way to share information with your team is to separate fact from fiction. Information about the virus is circulating quickly, and not all of it is accurate. Avoid sharing sensational news or speculation that is designed to spark fear. Get updates from reputable news sources and keep an eye on directives from your company’s leaders.
Another key to appropriately sharing information with your team is to be consistent in the medium you use. Instead of sending important updates through emails, video chats, and instant messages, choose one medium that is accessible and convenient to use. If you can, use the same platform you used during normal working conditions. For instance, if you and your team typically used Slack to communicate and exchange information, continue using that. Your direct reports will appreciate having a central (and familiar) place to find work updates.
Now, you may be thinking that it’s best to hold off on sharing work updates until you know the facts. Since these updates may include sensitive topics, such as layoffs or budget cuts, it is best to wait. However, in some cases, you may want to give a “no update” update. For many of your direct reports, getting a lackluster update is better than being left in the dark. For example:
I know many of you are wondering whether we will need to eliminate some jobs due to budget concerns. While I don’t currently have any updates on this yet, I will be sure to keep you all informed. I know it’s hard to wait on this kind of information, and I really appreciate your patience.
Make it clear that you’re available to talk and will answer any questions they may have to the best of your ability.
How to step back if you're the one grieving
You’re not immune from grief at this time, and it's okay to take a step back if you need to. Although you don't need to divulge all the details of your personal life, you can set clear boundaries that make it easier to navigate your grief and enable your team to do the same.
Choose a time frame for your team to reach you. Be clear and polite in letting them know that, outside that time frame, it may take up to 48 hours for them to get a response. An example of this communication may look like this:
I appreciate how well you all have done to stay connected during this time. Please know that I am doing my best to do the same. During the work day, the best hours to reach me by email or phone are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Outside these hours, I may be away from my computer/phone. However, your messages are important, and I will respond as soon as I can within 24–48 hours. Thank you for being patient!
In addition, ask your own manager about personal leave during this time. Whether you're working from home or onsite, you may need a day (or two) to regroup. Check to see if your insurance company covers telehealth counseling sessions so you can work through your grief while social distancing. Stay in tune with your own feelings, maintain flexibility for yourself and your team, and reset as many times as you need to.