When I wrote about managing a culture of innovation during times of rapid change last month, I was thinking about our upcoming leadership transition — a strategic, well-thought succession plan — which pales in comparison to the rapid change since then because, of course, COVID-19.
While all the best practices still apply, we’re adding new ones to the mix at rapid-fire pace, in real time, during this surprise and involuntary — let’s not sugar coat it — forced experiment with social distancing, essential-services only and remote working.
Like all businesses fortunate enough to remain operational, we’re learning as we go, adapting and evolving every day to stay safe and secure, connected and collaborative, engaged and productive. From home, of course.
Because we’re living moment to moment, the lessons I’ve learned and tips I’ll share about reinforcing workplace culture during this crisis have yet to withstand the test of time or undergo extensive studies. But they’re working for us right now, helping us continue to innovate and serve our people and our clients, and I’m happy to share them with you.
First and foremost: Trust rules
Everything I’ve read, studied and experienced about workplace culture confirms it: Trust is the foundation of a great place to work. In fact, according to studies conducted by Great Place to Work Institute, employees of companies with high-trust cultures are:
- Eight times more likely to give more than what is expected on the job
- Nine times more likely to be committed and inspired to adapt quickly to new ways of working
- 14 times more likely to believe their leaders have their best interests at heart
Given the demands our team members are facing right now with all the challenges of working from home, grieving the loss of normalcy and control and anxiety about protecting and/or caring for loved ones, it’s more important than ever that we continue to strengthen the culture of trust in our workplaces.
Not just the trust our team members have in our leaders, but also the trust we have in our people. And the level of trust needs to be stronger and more resilient than ever, or it will break down during this time of crisis, potentially causing long-term damage that we will need to repair — along with everything else we will have to recover — when we return to the office.
So while the focus on trust is nothing new, we suddenly have to trust each other in new ways. We have to trust that our employees will be productive, even if we can’t see them being productive. We have to let go of the idea of “presenteeism” and the pre-iPhone meaning of “face time.” We have to rethink our notions of “showing up” and punching in.
Because guess what? Our team members are adults. They have strong work ethics and they want to be productive, to contribute, to have an impact and make a difference, even from a distance. And it’s our job to give them the trust and tools to do their best work. Here’s how:
Be flexible with how and when people work
If telecommuting wasn’t part of your culture before the pandemic, you may have been apprehensive about how you would maintain productivity during this time. But this should reassure you:
- 80% of companies on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For 2020 list already offered the option for employees to work from home
- 37% of the staff at those organizations took advantage of the opportunity to telecommute
- These high-trust companies experienced a 30% increase in innovation compared to before they offered the option of working remotely.
So hopefully, now that we’re well into the current work-from-home mandate, you’re seeing positive results, as well. While this isn’t the best time to experiment or test and expect big profitability because of the huge downturn in the economy, it does provide a lens into your remote workforce’s general levels of collaboration and engagement.
To get the best results — the highest levels of connection, collaboration and productivity — we’ve learned to let go a little, which is difficult. But by freeing our people to work their own way, on their own schedule, we see greater ideation and engagement as a result.
It makes sense, of course, especially now, when many team members are tag-teaming parenting duties with their partners and juggling homeschooling kids with delivering food to elderly relatives. Or needing mid-day naps because they’re losing sleep worrying about a sick or out-of-work loved one. So be flexible with how and when people work and you’ll be rewarded with their best work.
Grow closer, even while apart
This may be hard to believe, but I’ve gotten to know our team members better, and in deeper, more meaningful ways since we started working remotely. Seriously! I’ve also seen their houses and met their kids and furry friends.
I think it’s because our conversations have become more intentional and deliberate. Before, I would say hello to a team member in the kitchen while getting a cup of coffee and perhaps hear about their commute to work that morning, house project or client call about to happen. Or, while walking by a colleague’s office, I might pop my head in to quickly ask about their weekend, child’s recital or for an update on a project.
But now, all of our managing partners and I randomly video-call team members throughout the week to check-in and see how they’re doing. These are relaxed, no-agenda social conversations that often last 15 to 30 minutes. They give us an opportunity to catch up, connect and gauge everyone’s emotional and physical well-being while deepening our relationships for the long-term.
All of our supervisors and department heads reach out to their reports several times a week, as well. Maybe it’s because of the technology — video calls and conferences — that we’re somehow more focused and engaged, less distracted or inclined to multi-task and are listening more carefully than ever before. As a result, these one-on-one conversations, especially with people I don’t normally interact with, have become delightful high points of my week.
I’ve learned one team member’s daughter just landed her first contract as a professional ballet dancer. Another makes maple syrup and grows organic heirloom mushrooms! Another is in kind of a funk, overwhelmed by the challenges of working from home, homeschooling a child with special needs and holding down the fort while her partner, a health care professional, works long hours.
As a result of these random and deliberate video calls, ultimately, I’ve learned the importance of being intentional with my conversations, visible and present, empathic and compassionate, even if I don’t have all the answers. Which leads me to something else I’ve learned.
Ask for help moving forward
It’s OK to let your people know you don’t know how this will all play out. None of us do. And there has never been a better time to ask for help making the tough decisions. In fact, you can use this opportunity to let your team members know how much you appreciate them, value their experience and wisdom and welcome their ideas.
Whether through regular focus groups, surveys, Zoom meetings or even an old-fashioned virtual suggestion box, be sure to include everyone from every department in the decisions and problem-solving, both for how you will get through the crisis and for what the workplace will and should look like on the other side. Because face it, we don’t have the cure. We can’t fix the situation alone. But we can ask for help in getting through it. And we can listen.
The benefits of doing so are numerous: People feel appreciated and involved, which enhances their sense of belonging and engagement. You build credibility as an authentic, human leader. And you likely will get some valuable insights to guide your way forward.
Give control where you can
Many of your team members may feel helpless at times, overwhelmed by the loss of control we have over what is happening to so many aspects of our lives, from work to school to workouts and recreation.
We can’t get haircuts, go to the gym or even get our teeth cleaned! So if you can, try to give your people control over an aspect of their work life. This is especially important if work has been slower than usual, which can cause anxiety and opportunity for that anxiety to fester and grow. So if you don’t have customer-focused work to keep everyone busy, think about assigning internal tasks or putting teams together to solve a business problem.
Maybe your website needs updating, your mailing lists could be scrubbed or your computer files organized. At Dixon Schwabl, we’ve encouraged our team members to write blogs for our website and case studies about projects completed over the past year. In addition to getting work done that often gets put on the back burner, we’re providing an outlet and channel for anxiety and nervous energy and an opportunity to feel productive and valued doing meaningful work.
Balance realistic with cautiously optimistic
While we don’t know how this will turn out and we hesitate to make promises, we do need to talk about the future with as much hope as possible. For example, we can talk about shifting the focus from growing the business and profits to simply covering expenses. Or how, if necessary, we will apply for government assistance to make payroll. And if you have or will furlough employees, explain that this allows them to get jobless benefits and healthcare coverage while leaving the door open to hire them back as soon as possible.
Look, of course your plans are tentative — everyone’s are. But talk about them, share and invite participation in shaping the path forward through COVID-19 and beyond. These conversations give people confidence in their situation, and in you as a leader: According to Great Place to Work, employees are twice as likely to have confidence in leaders who provide a clear path forward. So do what you can and be as transparent as possible.
Communicate and meet with consistency
In these uncertain times, any bit of certainty feels like a breath of fresh air, something we can count on. So we’ve continued to have our existing standing meetings and have established new routines to bring predictability into our work weeks.
Every Monday, for example, supervisors check in with their reports. Just to say hello, see how folks are doing and offer support. Every Tuesday, individual departments hold videoconference meetings so people can catch up, socialize — thank goodness for Microsoft Teams and Zoom — and stay connected. Every Wednesday, we have our all-agency meeting as usual, except instead of spilling out of a large conference room, into our lobby and up the stairwell, all 100+ of us are visible in little squares on gallery view in Zoom.
And every Friday, I send out a “DS All” email to everyone with a recap of the past week of “work-from-home” and an update of plans for the following week of it. This consistency is just the kind of regularity we all need now, and helps build trust and confidence and a semblance of normalcy in an abnormal world.
Stay true to your core values
More than anything, we need to keep on keeping on according to our core values. You know this and I know this, but when we’re stressed and in crisis mode, it’s easy to lose sight of our purpose and MO. But of course, now more than ever, our people need that grounding in their lives, that inspirational sense of being part of a community, something bigger than themselves.
And for those team members, and I assume there are many, who may be struggling physically, financially and/or emotionally right now, it’s critical that we lead with kindness, generosity and compassion. After all, it is on us to support each team member as we can. Whether by listening, adjusting work expectations, having a meal delivered or sharing information about the resources available through the Employee Assistance Program.
Never mind the data and analytics. This isn’t the time for number-crunching. This is the time to care for each other above all else. And to model that warm, people-centric behavior by reaching out and being there. Ask about the relative in the hospital, the kids fighting for attention. And listen to the responses with sincere, heartfelt compassion.
Your people are the seeds in your garden. Tend to them now during this turbulent storm and they will bear fruit and flourish on the other side. And know this: Your team members, your customers and the community will remember how you treated each other, how you made people feel, during this public health crisis. Their estimation of your company, your brand, will be no more, and no less, than how you tended your garden.
Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a Best Place to Work.