Being a great leader can be a challenge in the best of times. But in the worst of times, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, being a great leader can be a stretch for even the savviest of experts. In addition to managing a difficult business climate of constantly evolving COVID-19 mandates, rising prices and supply chain bottlenecks, employees are experiencing unprecedented burnout after more than 18 months of juggling the emotional and mental toll of the pandemic at work and in their personal lives.
In difficult times, particularly ones that stretch on for months, it’s natural to fall into a leadership slump. But with the mass exodus of employees culminating in what is being called the Great Resignation, there’s never been a more urgent time to recommit to the values that made you a great leader and learn new skills to carry you and your team forward during and after the pandemic.
Craig Fischer, former director of leadership and organizational development and clinical faculty member for the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, has spent the past 15 years coaching and consulting leaders to drive organizational change. His work includes coaching the College of Medicine’s physician and administrative leaders during COVID-19 and bringing those same lessons to medical students as part of the college’s unique leadership certificate program required for every MD graduate. Though he’s seen nearly every issue leaders and organizations can experience, he says the pandemic is unique.
“COVID-19 created a convergence of business, employee, health and community issues that few leaders have ever faced, not to mention the impact it had on their own personal lives,” said Fischer. “For awhile, everyone was just in survival mode, but now we’re seeing all the cracks from those months of stress on the business and the team, particularly as the work-from-home model persists. It’s time for leaders to re-focus on their employees or risk erosion of the company culture, the workforce, and the bottom line.”
Not sure where to start? Fischer offers eight tips to help you lead your team during the remainder of COVID and beyond.
- Get clear about expectations
Focus on the work that needs to be done and describe it. What do team members need to do and by when? What kind of check-ins are needed and what kind are desired? Caution: this is a real opportunity to take an inventory of and re-think work. If you used to have 20-30 hours of meetings a week, now is the time to evaluate whether every hour of that time is necessary. Ask, what do we need to a.) perform well and b.) stay connected?
- Institute health and wellness check-ins
Good leaders check on their teams. Without the benefit of the hallway check in, you’ll need to make this a bigger part of your work. Without prying, make sure every single meeting and one-on-one you lead has a pulse-taking element. If you didn’t historically do this, institute it as a new practice. You need to have a health map of your people in your mind and model caring for each other.
- Get curious
Ask your team what they want and need. It came as a surprise when some of my introvert colleagues were thriving many months into the pandemic, relieved to have more time to recharge. Extroverted team members suggested and created a Slack trivia contest to keep people connected and increase social connection. At the WSU College of Medicine, we created a series of 30-minute virtual coffee breaks on Thursday mornings where staff and faculty shared a hobby or skill with their colleagues. The silver lining of COVID-19 is we’re all in it together – be curious and your team will likely share many useful and valuable suggestions.
- Be creative about hours, work demands and communication
If you do the above well, you’ll find out some of your team members are doing well and others are struggling to balance everything. Offer creative solutions to help your team perform such as flexing or shifting hours, holding Slack meetings instead of Zoom, and more.
- Double, no, triple your appreciation of your team
Be specific and sincere – appreciation has never gone further than during a pandemic.
- Re-think meetings
Are they serving your team well? Are they too long? Are you using the right tech? Which ones can you cancel or shorten to free people up? Subtraction is often the answer, but not always. You may consider adding a 10-minute Monday huddle or a Friday afternoon Zoom happy hour to increase connection. Allow people to multi-task during meetings (they will anyway). Relax about people turning off their cameras whenever they want (it helps with Zoom fatigue). Invite everyone to join by phone or do a walking meeting wherever they live. Experiment and see what works best.
- Consider less
Yes, this means adjusting expectations, cancelling meetings, and sending fewer emails. If you consider everything your team has been balancing these past 18 months, ask yourself what you can do to help them refresh and perform at their best. It might be doing less, but with a bit more time and focus. Remember, this goes for you too.
- Take care of yourself
Times have never been tougher for leaders, and many of the ways you used to refresh (concerts, travel, the gym) may be diminished. Take stock of how you’re doing, at least weekly, and consider resources outside of your family to help support you. Coaches, counselors, or a professional online coffee break with fellow leaders can go a long way to helping you lead the way you want to and the way your teams deserve.