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Leading through the pandemic: 6 practices for better employee engagement

Sheldon Romer
As COVID-19 continues to challenge teams, leaders should recommit to foundational practices.

A client of mine recently told me a story illustrating something I’ve been routinely hearing during conversations with business leaders.

After a year of working from home, the firm’s employees recently began alternating weeks at home and in the office. My client decided to throw an outdoor luncheon to bring people together again.

“It was awkward as hell,” she reported. “Mask or no mask? Do we hug? How close should I get to people? And what in the world are we going to talk about?”

Prior to COVID-19, workplace gatherings prompted none of these questions. The office wasn’t awkward, at least for most of us. Instead it was just … normal.

More than a year ago COVID-19 forced us to burrow into our homes. For many, that meant radically novel work environments: Zoom meetings, kitchen table desks, commutes counted in steps rather than miles.

As we emerge from our dens and tip-toe our way back into the office, we will encounter workplaces in the midst of radical evolution. Among many other things, my client’s observation reveals that our muscle memory for simple workplace socialization and collaboration has grown weak, with so many months of toiling remotely and alone.

During my more than two decades of executive consulting, I never before have encountered so much dramatic volatility and transformation. Through it all, leadership has been essential.

I spent the year engaged in conversations with leaders about the unique challenges confronting them. They tell me they are working longer hours than ever and experiencing more anxiety throughout the day. They are exhausted and not devoting enough time to taking care of themselves. The leaders I speak with miss the impromptu meetings and spontaneous conversations that forged friendships, sparked camaraderie and often led to especially fruitful innovations and efforts.

I asked one leader, in the natural foods industry, what was the biggest difference in his workplace between now and last year. He said people are not as close. Camaraderie has leaked away.

“Nobody was hanging out after work for a full year,” he told me. “That has an impact. People are in their own little cocoons now, even when they are in food production and work side by side.”

COVID-19 challenged one of the foundational tasks of leaders—building strong teams. It will continue to confound as the pandemic drifts further into the rear-view mirror.

As I listened closely and counseled leaders about ways to lead out of the pandemic, themes emerged. Businesses can offer radically different work environments; law firms, natural foods brands and hospitals share little in terms of what it means to be “at the office.” But the bedrock of great business leadership remains steady, regardless of the nature of the work.

Instead of changing how leaders go about succeeding at their jobs, COVID-19 spotlighted the things that always are vital, but sometimes get forgotten or ignored. Leading through the pandemic did not compel thoughtful leaders to try new things. Rather, it reinforced commitments to foundational practices.

1. Good leaders connect with their colleagues

Face-to-face connections dominated our old work worlds. The people at desks and offices around us. The in-person meetings. The lunch breaks and clear-the-head walks with work friends. Many of us spent a third or more of each weekday with our colleagues. Connection happened, and it improved our lives. We are hardwired as a species to feel one another’s energy.

For many people, COVID-19 diminished the volume and quality of connections.

Even as COVID-19’s hold over our lives weakens and physical interactions begin returning, it is unlikely their volume will soon replicate the pre-COVID environment. I tell leaders that while the chance encounters in the hallway might not happen as often as before, online meetings do. Same with phone and one-on-one online conversations. Those encounters are opportunities to deepen connections.

I urge leaders to begin every meeting and conversation now, regardless of whether it’s virtual or old-school in-person, with a conscious, deeper check-in. Rather than just passing through niceties in 30 seconds and then pivoting to business, I strongly encourage leaders to open up space for more profound conversations.

We all have endured immense upheaval. In some cases, it amounts to personal chaos. Ask colleagues about their weekends, their loved ones, their dogs. Try to make interactions so welcoming that employees feel free to talk about their poor sleep last night, their melancholy about 15 months of being homebound, their eagerness for this summer’s rescheduled family reunion. If they enjoyed a fabulous hike a few days ago, let them know you want to hear about it.

Invite people to share their challenges and their joys. It takes a bit more time, but it makes a big difference.

COVID-19 forced us apart for a long time. We may now be merging once again with a more familiar world of human interaction, but it will be different. Less face-to-face connection seems likely for most of us.

I found that COVID-19 hatched some healthy practices among skilled and nimble leaders. One of them was this decision to enrich connections as a way to make up for some of what COVID-19 siphoned away from human interaction. The pandemic-driven commitment improved connections while we all worked from home. It has the power to continue to augment and reinforce collegial relationships as we begin working side-by-side again.

2. Good leaders listen deeply

Listening and leadership complement each other in powerful ways. There is no such thing as a good leader who lacks listening skills. Listening is essential for effective leadership.

I urge leaders to practice listening with partners, friends and colleagues. As the listener, pay close attention. Try to restate what you hear.

The next step is to ask clarifying questions. For example, “I understand that the distribution pipeline is completely rearranged thanks to COVID. Are the changes due to workers being worried about the elimination of mask mandates and skipping work, or instead is consumer demand changing how goods are being distributed?” This demonstrates not only that were you listening, but you were listening closely; that you were engaging with the words.

Finally, offer encouragement. If we continue with the same conversation, the leader might say, “That’s interesting about the evolving nature of consumer demand during COVID. Please tell me more about this. These are valuable insights.”

Now more than ever, good leaders must focus on listening skills to gain full understandings of what is going on with individuals and across organizations. For many of us, we are just beginning to reengage with a world we last visited more than a year ago. In many ways, the straddle between COVID-19 hibernation and vaccine-prompted social liberation is more baffling than life during lockdown. Robust listening helps build sturdier relationships and more nimble companies as the world of work rapidly evolves. It is simply essential. Do not hesitate to commence practicing immediately.

3. Good leaders communicate, communicate, communicate

In fact, they overcommunicate.

We aren’t connected in the same manner as pre-COVID. Those bonds, often borne out of physical proximity in offices, were powerful communication vectors. Messages would get filtered down from leadership about new initiatives. People would talk about them in lunch breaks and meetings, during chance encounters in hallways. Messages spread quickly and got repeated often.

COVID-19 degraded those once-trusty channels. As the virus recedes, some ad-hoc communication practices hatched during the pandemic might remain relevant. One of them, in my opinion, is the pressure among leaders to press their case with upped repetition and patience.

Leaders make decisions every day that impact multiple people, sometimes entire organizations. COVID-19 compelled savvy leaders to repeat their messages and announcements over and over again. Eventually, they sank in.

It was one of COVID-19’s more sanguine consequences. Good leaders never assume they are being heard.

4. Good leaders inform

A paralyzing, anxiety-charged experience: waiting for results after a medical test. In the absence of information, people tend to plunge toward bad places. Reliable information, on the other hand, dampens and in many cases eliminates anxiety.

People now are information-starved about their workplaces. They hop on Zoom calls and exchange texts and emails, but it’s not the same. The situation is creating information vacuums. The lack of information saps morale and heightens anxiety and worry.

I found that especially wise leaders during COVID-19 made a point of routinely keeping people in their organizations up to date about things that matter. Let’s say the business is having a tough time clawing past COVID-19, even as so many businesses suddenly are thriving as the world reopens. Cash flow is down 30%. Things seem dire. Instead of sitting on the information, I believe it makes more sense for leaders to help colleagues understand challenges, and to ask for their help to come up with solutions.

Chances are everybody already knows that things are not looking good—and they are stewing about it. Rumors hatch out of nowhere and go viral. It’s extremely unhealthy. Being up-front with colleagues, even about difficulties, tends to at least dampen some of the anxiety. From there, people desire working together to figure out solutions.

5. Good leaders build trust

Among other things, the Year of COVID hatched quite a lot of distrust. People lost trust in politics, medicine, government, employers and much more. The erosion of trust is bad news for leaders. Of all of the foundations upon which strong leadership depends, trust is the most important. The spine.

The pandemic and its aftermath doesn’t change how leaders go about building trust. It remains essential to demonstrate reliability, competence, sincerity and good intentions. The importance of transparency is even more vital.

I have always advocated for exposing vulnerability among leaders. It is a powerful trust-building practice. But during the pandemic I found that openness about vulnerability was even more essential.

The leaders who enjoyed the greatest success with crafting and maintaining trust during COVID-19 revealed to employees how the pandemic was affecting them personally, as well as their families, friends and colleagues. The fear among some leaders is that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. But it’s just the opposite. Offering windows into vulnerability broadcasts strength.

This practice should not evaporate as versions of pre-COVID workplaces take shape. Today’s rate of change is extremely unsettling, even though in the United States we increasingly view the pandemic as recent history rather than today’s news. Trust-building remains just as vital.

Shrink from making assumptions about how well you are trusted; assume it needs work. The phrase “lead by example” is a good one. Keep it close. When it comes to strengthening trust, honoring the phrase is even more important.

6. Good leaders seek support

Leaders often feel alone. Responsibility for connecting, communicating and much more rests with added weight on their shoulders. They often don’t have colleagues with whom they can share their challenges and struggles.

I have found that one of the most important aspects of strong leadership is being OK with uncertainty. Lack of clarity is common in business in general. Add a pandemic and its unruly aftermath, and not only is it assumed, it’s extreme; instead of the usual fog, we might look out into darkness. The uncertainty can precipitate anxiety. People like to anticipate what’s next. With leaders, understanding next week and next year is a big part of the job.

Reject navigating across so much uncertainty without a safety net. Instead, turn to colleagues, friends and family for support. Tell them about challenges. Seek their input. Support decision-making with feedback and different points of view. When times are especially uncertain, it helps.

In addition, do not forget self-care. Schedule it, if necessary. It could mean playing the guitar, taking an hour-long hike in nature, writing in a journal. It is critical. Work can grind us down—we devote a good deal of our mental attention to the stuff of meetings, reports, presentations and the rest of it. Pivoting away from these things, if only for a brief time every day, is critical.

The self-care component of leadership reverberates far beyond the individual carving out time to go on a trail run. People who take care of themselves are better able to show up and serve others.

Brighter days ahead

With so many Americans now finally vaccinated, there is light at the end of this dark tunnel. Unfortunately, we still don’t grasp the tunnel’s length. We will emerge this year into a new world. Much will seem familiar, but the landscape also will include changes from the pre-COVID environment.

We turn to leaders of all stripes—in fields like government, medicine, business and nonprofits—for guidance through this unique terrain. Now is the time for the leaders among us to meet the challenges with kindness, integrity, grit and ingenuity.

Following this list of practices, gained from hours of conversations with leaders during COVID-19, is a good place to start.

P.S. Note bad COVID habits

We humans are an especially adaptable species. Some of us adapted to living above the Arctic Circle for generations. Others spend their lives in jungle villages or urban downtowns with far more concrete and asphalt than nature.

After a year of COVID-19, many of us have adapted to a new workplace normal, one that merges home and business in fresh ways. Some of the things to which we are adapting surely are beneficial.

Some leaders with whom I have consulted this year, for example, dreaded what COVID-19 would foist upon their workplaces. Would work-from-home practices demolish productivity and collective creativity? In many cases, I am hearing that the experience actually improved many aspects of work life and business success. Some executives who anticipated leaping back into five-days-a-week commutes as soon as possible now say they prefer hybrid environments, with more options for employees to work remotely.

Many companies now are announcing plans for hybrid work environments, ones that never would have even been contemplated prior to COVID-19. Even Ford Motor Company told its 30,000 white-collar workers in March that the work-from-home experience borne out of COVID-19 will remain an option for employees “indefinitely.” Office visits, the company said, will likely revolve around meetings and group projects.

If COVID-19 diminishes demand for daily commutes to office buildings and replaces that wasted time with productivity, that’s probably a plus.

Other burgeoning customs are not serving us. For example, some of my clients have mentioned that when they hold video conference calls, many employees have their video cameras turned off. To these clients I say, “Wait a minute. Tell me more about this.” Most of them respond that employees might have just stepped out of the shower or haven’t gotten dressed for work. Whatever the reason, they didn’t want to appear on camera. And my clients, even though they lamented the habit, hesitated to make changes.

We need to be careful about what we are adapting to. I have found that during COVID-19, leaders have abdicated stepping up to employees and saying it’s not OK to turn off the camera. We want to see you. You are important. We want to connect.

What do people, including leaders, want in meetings? Presence and participation. If you are going to be there, be there.

As our work lives continue to change, leaders must pay close attention to the shifts. If they benefit workplace culture, great. Keep them. But developments borne out of COVID-19 that undermine team-building have no place in our collective office future. Identifying them and jettisoning them now, before they metastasize into widespread and hard-to-break habits, is critical.

Sheldon Romer spent 24 years as the co-founder and CEO of Rudi’s Organic Bakery, a preeminent organic bread bakery. That rewarding experience inspired Sheldon to pivot his life’s work toward strengthening other healthy organizations through coaching, consulting, team-building and becoming a trusted advisor.

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