COVID-19

3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees
3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees 1000 668 Jason Lauritsen

Regardless of when this pandemic ends (which feels like never to me right now), the way we work will never go back to how it was before.

Sure, offices will open and some people will return to their cubicles, but many won’t.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about work over the past several months, it’s that work can be done successfully well beyond the walls of the office—sometimes even better.

What this means for how organizations and leaders decide to change policies and reshape office environments is yet to be sorted out. But there is one thing for certain.

We are going to be managing employees who we can’t “see” in the office every day for the indefinite future. Remote work is never going away. In fact, as remote work expert Laurel Farrer put it this week as we discussed this topic as part of a panel, “soon we won’t even call it ‘remote’ work anymore. It will just be ‘work’.”

So, while it may take a while to sort out what this all means in the big picture, there is one thing we can focus on right now that will have an enormous impact on our teams and their ability to perform: We need to get really good at managing remote employees.

Why Do We wonder?

Over the past week, I fielded a survey of several hundred managers asking about their biggest challenges or questions related to managing virtual teams. There were a lot of great insights in the responses (more on that to come).

One group of responders took me back to the days when we used to gather around conference room tables to discuss employee engagement concerns. The challenge they raised sounds something like this:

“It’s hard to know how my team is doing/feeling/working when we are all remote.”

I get it. If you’ve only managed people in person at a traditional work environment throughout your career, you’ve likely come to rely on your ability to observe people around the office as a way to get a “feel” for how they were doing.

So, when you can’t see your people every day, it feels like you are somehow powerless to know what’s going on.
Ironically, this same conversation used to happen around that nostalgic board room table long before “pandemic” was a common word in our vocabulary. Even when we could see our people every day, leaders would find themselves together wondering about how employees were really doing, how they felt about what was happening at work.

My guidance to them then is the same as it is today.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees

Feeling like we don’t have a good handle on how our employees are feeling isn’t a new problem. Remote working arrangements have just made it feel more acute and painful.

Not knowing is definitely problematic. It leads us to make assumptions, and that’s never good because we rarely assume the right things.

If we remember that work is a relationship for employees, then perhaps we can learn from other relationships in our lives where this same issue arises. I’ll use my wife as an example.

On top of trying to survive a pandemic, my wife is running a campaign to be mayor of the suburban community where we live. She’s got a lot going on. Running for office is the equivalent of a giant popularity contest. Being in it requires thick skin and an ability to keep things in perspective.

Angie does a pretty good job of this, but I know there are times when it’s hard and she’s struggling with the stress. But, I don’t always know exactly when. And despite knowing her better than any other human on the planet, when I make any assumption about how she’s feeling, I’m almost always wrong.

When I act on those wrong assumptions, it has sometimes even made things worse. Piling more stress on top of what is already a big pile. So, I try not to assume.

Instead, I do what we should all be doing more often. That brings me to my first tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #1: ASK

When we are wondering about how someone else is doing, we don’t need to make assumptions. We can ask.

This is true for our personal relationships—our significant others, parents, children, friends, neighbors, etc. It’s also true for our employees.

It used to drive me insane when I’d meet with my executive teams and they’d start to speculate about what employees thought about certain things or how they were feeling about others. I am sure they got sick of me saying it, but I used to point to a wall where employees were working on the other side and say, “We don’t need to spend time wondering about this, we can go ask them. They are right over there.”

Perhaps the most fundamental skill we need right now as we try to adjust and adapt to managing in this new distributed and virtual environment is the ability to ask meaningful questions.

Consider questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how’s your stress level right now?
  • What makes work hardest for you right now?
  • How do you feel about your work from home set up?
  • What was your biggest win this week—with work or just in general?
  • How can I help make your work day less stressful?

The key is to ask questions that get the employee to reflect and talk about what’s really happening for them. One of my friends shared with me that her boss’s boss recently asked her, “Are you having any fun?” This unexpected question caused her to really pause and reflect on how she’d been approaching her work.

Asking good questions is vital, but it’s not enough by itself. Hence, my next tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #2: LISTEN

Sounds pretty simple, but don’t be fooled.

In the survey results from last week, a number of people lamented about the inability to observe body language when interacting with direct reports and others in the office.

This is certainly a real issue when working remotely. It makes it that much more critical that we pay attention to people and listen to what they are (and aren’t) saying.

I’m not going to give you a lesson on active listening because you’ve likely heard it before (if not, Google it and you’ll find loads of great resources). But, I will offer up a few key suggestions.

  1. Do not multitask. It’s so tempting to check emails while on a video call or meeting. Don’t do it. Shut down any other open windows, applications, or tasks and focus on the person in front of you.
  2. Take notes. Write down what you are hearing and any questions that arise in your mind. When you ask good questions, you should get interesting responses. Writing down important details means you don’t have to try to remember them or hold them in your mind. This frees you to pay attention to not only what’s being said but how it’s being said. Is there trepidation or anxiety behind those words?
  3. Ask the follow-up question. The first response is often the least helpful. Learn to say things like, “tell me more about that” or, “why do you think that is?” The second (or third) question is often when you get to the most important insights.

If you really listen to your people, they will share with you what’s working and what’s not. They will share their challenges with you. They will tell you where they need help.

Which brings us to the last tip.

Tips for Managing Remote Employees #3: ACT

When you ask good questions and really listen to the answers, you should end up with a list of things that you can help. But, that list only matters if you take action.

You don’t have to solve every problem or address every need in the moment. But, you do need to do something to help.

When you take action to support your employees after they’ve shared a problem with you, it builds trust. The more often and consistently you do it, the stronger your relationship will become. They will begin sharing more important concerns with you.

Over time, you won’t have to work as hard at drawing out the issues because your people will know that you care and will help whenever they have a challenge in front of them.

Remote Management Impact in Three Words

This isn’t a new idea, just a refresher of a tried and true approach. Managing and engaging people remotely requires that we get the fundamentals right. There’s nothing more fundamental to fostering a positive relationship with your people than these three words:

Ask. Listen. Act.

These three steps taken regularly and with good intention will help you keep your people engaged and productive through the uncertain and changing times ahead.

P.S. One of the biggest challenges managers identified for managing remote employees is keeping them connected–to each other, to the organization, and to them as their manager. So, with my friends at Waggl, we decided to crowdsource some solutions.  If you click this link, you’ll be asked to share what’s been working for you to keep you feeling connected as a remote worker. You’ll also be able to see and vote for the best ideas submitted by others. Check it out now.  

Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again
Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my realization that I was suffering from burnout. The response to the post was both affirming and concerning. 

Affirmation came in the form of messages and comments signifying I wasn’t alone. Others saw themselves in my situation. They were feeling the same exhaustion and lack of joy. In those affirmations was born my concern. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks writing and speaking openly about my burnout and how I found my way through it. The more I talk about it, the more I hear from others who are suffering from something similar: burnout, COVID fatigue, stress, etc. 

As a result of what I’ve heard, I feel like I need to share what’s happened since I wrote that post. I took some very intentional and specific actions to get back to feeling like myself again and it’s had a dramatic effect. 

I’m a bit reluctant as I write this post for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in no way an expert on burnout or mental health. I’m only an expert on sharing my story and what I’ve learned from it. 

Second, I have found quickly that there are many different manifestations and intensities of burnout. My hunch is that mine was pretty mild and that I caught it relatively early, but I don’t know. 

Finally, I’m cognizant of the enormous privilege and advantages I have at my disposal. I am lucky. I have more flexibility (I work for myself), support, and resources than many do. Please know I am aware of this and that your situation may look a lot different than mine. 

I’m going to share what I did because it was incredibly healing for me. I literally feel like a different person today than I did when I wrote that blog. I’ll also share what I took from the experience as learnings. My hope is that something in there will be helpful to you or perhaps someone you know who might be stuck where I was.  


My Retreat

As I began to realize how worn down I felt, a friend of mine suggested that I take a few days and really unplug. Unplug from work, from tech, from the news. She suggested spending time just breathing and doing things like watching the sun rise and set. 

It sounded right to me, so I scanned my calendar and found four days where I had very little scheduled and anything that was scheduled could be moved. I blocked them off. 

When I told my wife about my plan to unplug, she made a suggestion. My parents were going to be gone for a couple of weeks camping, so why not go to their house to have some real time “away” from everything. That’s exactly what I did. 

Two days after I posted my blog, I packed my car and headed to my parents’ empty house. Ironically, while so many are struggling with social isolation right now, what I needed was some true time alone. 

Over the course of those four days, I had a few priorities. 

DISCONNECTION  I didn’t check email. I didn’t watch any news. I unplugged. The only people I talked to during the entire four days were my grandparents, who live in an assisted living facility near my parents’ home. Visiting with them in-person was good for the soul. In the evenings, I’d kick back and watch a movie I’d been wanting to see. 

SLEEP  I felt exhausted heading up there. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been sleeping. My Fitbit would have told you that I was getting about seven hours of sleep per night even as I was burning out. It wasn’t enough. Over my four nights away, I slept 9.5, 9, 9, and 8 hours respectively per night. My batteries were clearly run down.

SELF-HELP PODCASTS  The week before I left, a friend who had navigated through her own experience of burnout mentioned how much the Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us, had helped. I took her advice and binged a bunch of episodes along with several from the Dan Harris podcast, Ten Percent Happier. These were exactly what I needed. It was the closest thing I could get to some counseling or coaching as part of this experience. It was a reminder that just because you heard something or knew something at one point doesn’t mean you don’t need reminders and refreshers. One would think I should know that. Regardless, these podcasts and a few other random episodes from other sources gave me the tools I needed to reset my mindset. 

JOURNALING  Each morning, I spent about 30-45 minutes journaling. I use a technique for journaling where I decide in advance how much space I’m going to fill in my journal and then I write, without stopping, until it’s full. This part of the process was vital to pouring out my thoughts and making sense of what had been going on inside my head. By putting in the self-help content early, I had a lot to process and sort through over four days. Other than sleep, journaling was probably the most vital part of healing.  

EXERCISE  This is admittedly a regular part of my self-care routine. I run between 20 and 25 miles per week during the warm months. While on retreat, I kept up my running but also mixed in some long walks as well. Exercise alone isn’t enough for me, clearly, but it’s an important element. 

MEDITATION  Each morning, I spent 15-20 minutes meditating. I am still largely a meditation novice, but I love it and find it extremely valuable. I use the Calm app for guided meditations. 

Beyond these things, I allowed myself a lot of open space to do whatever felt like the right thing to do. One day, I went for a sight-seeing drive and listened to a podcast. Another day, I went for a meandering walk around town. Just the feeling of being off a schedule allowed some of my stress to ease. 

When I returned home from the retreat, I felt like a different person. I’d been able to isolate some really problematic mindsets and reset them to a more positive place. Plus, I felt whole and rested. I had energy and the joy had returned. I am not overstating this. It was transformative. 

What I think I learned

As I’ve had time to think about how I ended up in need of a retreat and how the retreat restored me, I’m going to hang on to a few things to hopefully help me prevent this from happening again in the future. 

  1. Retreats are powerful. The word retreat is defined as “an act of moving back or withdrawing.” That’s what I needed and it feels like what a lot of people need right now. We need to move back from the front lines of our lives, even if it’s just for a few days. When we move back and get away, we are able to get out of the busyness and see our situation from a different perspective. Creating space for retreat is incredibly important and valuable. 
  2. Ongoing self-care is vital, and exercise alone isn’t enough. I think when the crisis took hold in March, the adrenaline of needing to adapt and respond carried me through several months. I suspect that my exercise and sleep routine actually helped me stretch out how far that carried me, but I wasn’t tending to my mental health, and eventually I broke down. Going forward, I have a plan to be as disciplined about my mental health self-care as I am about my physical health. 
  3. We all need help in getting and staying well. I am fortunate that I have friends (and a badass wife) who provided me with suggestions and ideas for what I needed to do. I’m also grateful that I opened myself back up to some self-help content. My learning style responds really well to self-help, but it could have been counseling or coaching instead. The point is, it’s hard to climb out of a rut without some help. It’s also much easier to recognize and avoid the rut in the first place with help. 

As Paul Harvey used to say, “That’s the rest of the story.” My hope is that maybe it will be useful to you, someone you care about, or maybe in thinking through how to support your employees right now. 

And, if you are curious about what the mindsets were that needed a reset, the short version is this: I needed to replace judgment with empathy and scarcity with abundance. If you want to talk more about that, reach out and ask.  

Take care of yourself and those around you. We’ve still got a long way to go.  

working human
Employee Engagement Essentials Post-COVID
Employee Engagement Essentials Post-COVID 1000 555 Jason Lauritsen

I originally wrote this post for my friends at Workhuman. I asked their permission to share it here as well because I thought you might find it valuable. If you’d like to view the original post, you can find it here:  https://www.workhuman.com/resources/globoforce-blog/employee-engagement-essentials-post-covid

This week, all over the U.S., schools are reopening and millions of kids are heading back to the classroom. As educators and parents navigate their way through this process, there are big questions to be answered.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another post debating school openings. Rather, as I’ve been both watching and experiencing this process personally, it struck me that the challenge of school reopening isn’t too different from what organizations are wrestling with in terms of what the “workplace” looks like post-COVID.

At the heart of both issues is the reality that we are living through a global pandemic that no one was fully prepared for. The past several months have produced change at a pace we’ve rarely experienced. We’ve all been knocked off balance.

As we look to the future for both schools and our organizations, one thing is for sure – the future won’t look anything like the past. Too much has changed and there are too many new forces in play now. But not everything has changed.

The key to success on the road ahead is identifying the important things that have stayed the same and keeping sight of those as you navigate the key changes. Here I unpack what’s changed and what hasn’t for organizations that want to continue to engage employees through and beyond COVID.

What employee engagement essentials haven’t changed?

Let’s begin with two things that haven’t changed and likely never will for employee engagement. I like to call these the fundamentals. No matter how much the world changes, there are core needs employees need satisfied to stay engaged in their work. These were important before COVID, they are vital now, and they will continue to be critical in the future.

Communication

Communication is an essential ingredient to employee engagement and should stay at the heart of any effort to improve engagement and performance.

But I’m not talking about sending more formal email updates or posting memos on the company intranet. To drive engagement, communication is about creating greater clarity and reducing uncertainty for each employee.

The importance of communication can be summarized in three words: uncertainty kills engagement.

Uncertainty is dangerous because of how our brains have evolved to keep us safe. The fight-or-flight response means that our brains will frequently interpret an unknown stimulus as a threat and will trigger a response that preserves our safety. This helps us stay alive. If you are walking through the woods at night and hear a sound you can’t identify, it’s not bad to have a fear response and do what you need to do to stay safe (run, turn on a flashlight, etc.).

The problem is that the brain isn’t particularly discerning about the type of unknown stimulus. It generally reacts to that uncertainty in the woods in a similar way as it does to uncertainty at work. When we are uncertain, our brain fills in the details in a way that creates a fear response to help us find safety.

This is what makes uncertainty in the office really dangerous to engagement. Think back to the last time your boss requested an impromptu meeting with you and provided no explanation. You likely had at least a flash of anxiety or panic as you imagined all the negative things that might have prompted the request (“OMG, I’m getting fired”). Or maybe you started racking your brain for what you may have done wrong recently.

When we don’t know what’s happening, our mind creates a story that is often much worse than what’s actually happening. It’s our brain’s way of preparing us for something bad to happen so we can protect ourselves. We don’t need to be prepared for unexpected good news, so the default setting when we fill in the details is the worst-case scenario.

This is what makes communication so important. The key is to keep ongoing, two-way communication happening at all times. This includes manager check-ins, team meetings, senior leader forums, and employee surveys. Any activity that identifies areas of uncertainty for employees and attempts to replace that uncertainty with clarity is engagement communication.

If you want to fuel engagement today and in the future, invest more time and intention on communication to combat uncertainty.

Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, Don Clifton and Tom Rath from Gallup published the book, “How Full Is Your Bucket?” This was in response to a finding in Gallup’s employee survey data that 65% of employees reported receiving zero moments of positive recognition in the previous year at work. That’s two-thirds of employees who said they showed up to work every day for a year and no one ever offered up even a simple “thank you.”

On my optimistic days, I want to believe we’ve gotten better at this over the past two decades, but my experience suggests that any gains we’ve made have been small. Far too many employees still feel undervalued and unappreciated at work. And this was before the new era of remote and distributed work ushered in by COVID.

If we weren’t expressing enough appreciation to one another when we were in the same physical space together, this won’t likely improve when we are physically apart. This is a problem because we know that feeling valued and appreciated are drivers of employee engagement.

To meet this challenge, we have to think more broadly about how to create moments of recognition and appreciation. Employees should experience acknowledgment and appreciation from their manager through regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings. But co-workers can also play an important role. If you want to make huge leaps in helping your employees feel more appreciation, there are two places to focus.

First, you need to make appreciation and recognition a part of how you do things. This might mean having “shoutouts” as part of your team meeting agenda. It could also mean implementing a technology tool to enable peer-to-peer recognition and make it easy for all employees to share and receive. The other key is to teach people how to show appreciation. If we were naturally great at it, this wouldn’t be such a huge issue. Simple training, guidance, and role modeling have a big impact. The more people see and experience genuine appreciation, the more likely they are to pay it forward.

How has employee engagement changed post-COVID?

While the core drivers of engagement, like the two just outlined, haven’t meaningfully changed, there are some essential factors that have. These are not necessarily new considerations, but rather some factors that have been elevated in importance based on external forces.

Flexibility

A number of years ago, when I was involved in Best Places to Work research, we conducted some exploratory research to check our assumptions about what was most important to and valued by employees in their job. The results surprised us. Flexibility emerged as one of the most highly valued elements of the work experience.

Employees’ desire for greater flexibility isn’t new. Some organizations (pre-COVID) even used flexible work arrangements as a competitive advantage in attracting talent. This was effective because so many other organizations were telling employees that flexibility considerations, like working from home, were not possible.

Now that employees know what’s possible, there’s no going back. Employees now know that it was never a matter of it not being possible, it was that leadership didn’t trust them. Employees have proven that they can be productive away from the office, even at home under really hard circumstances.

Notice I’m using the phrase flexibility, not “work from home.” What’s changed isn’t necessarily that everyone wants to work from home. When the dust settles and it’s safe to go back to the office, the key question isn’t “do we or don’t we?” Instead, the opportunity will be to step back and, with feedback from your employees, to redesign how, when, and where work best gets done.

If your organization values having people physically together, work with employees to imagine and create a workplace experience that employees crave. Create a place where they want and prefer to be. Then you can give them the freedom to choose.

The bottom line is that post-COVID, if you intend to limit or dictate when, where, or how an employee does their work, you had better be able to defend that with a clear and legitimate business reason. Leader and manager comfort or preference won’t cut it.

Safety 

This may seem a bit obvious, but I don’t think it can be understated how important safety is in terms of an employee’s experience of work. When we don’t feel safe, that same fight-or-flight fear response that interferes with communication also causes all kinds of other issues (both psychological and physiological) that are detrimental to our ability to do our best work.

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs clearly illustrates the vital importance of safety, most organizations have not focused on this area unless they rely on manual labor to create value.  Even the concept of “psychological safety,” which has become popular recently, is relatively new.

COVID has reminded all of us how fragile our sense of safety can be. Even if we cared about safety in the past, most of us took it for granted, particularly at work. Going forward, feeling safe is now a primary consideration. It is essential to our ability to be at our best and engaged fully in our work.

To foster a feeling of safety at and about work, remember that safety is intertwined with trust. When you consider the people in your life with whom you feel the safest, it’s likely people who you also trust the most completely. You know they have your best interests at heart, would never do anything to intentionally harm you, and would do everything in their power to protect you from harm.

For employees to feel truly safe at work, they need to believe the same to be true about the people who employ them. Not sure where to start? Ask your employees. They will tell you what’s working and what needs work. Take that feedback and do something about it. Over time, they will develop deep trust that whatever needs to be done to keep the workplace safe (and otherwise functioning well) will get done.

More human employee engagement post-COVID 

The common theme running through the four factors highlighted here is a deeper understanding of and connection to the core needs of the human being who’s doing the work. COVID forced us all to stop and take some account of what really mattered as organizations. At the top of that list was making sure our people were OK.

Employers are more intertwined in people’s lives than ever before. This is both an invitation and a wake-up call. We’ve learned that our people are resilient, capable, and committed. We’ve learned that work can get done in ways we didn’t recognize before. And we’ve been reminded that our employees are people who are also spouses, parents, children, and community members.

When we put the employee at the center of how we design and manage work with the focus on how to enable them to do their very best work in the context of their often complicated lives, everyone wins.

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me
Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me 1000 555 Jason Lauritsen

I thought I was doing pretty well.

When our lives (and my business) got turned upside down in March, I hunkered down. I’ve been through some tough times before, so I knew that I could survive whatever was to come.

My wife and I figured out the “school from home” mess and made the best of it. And I went to work on pivoting my business for this new world. It felt like a puzzle to solve. While the circumstances sucked, they challenged me to learn and innovate. I even felt sort of energized at first.

I knew what I needed to do. Work hard. Focus on solving problems. Take risks. Go as fast as possible.

I’ve got this.

Then the start of the school year was suddenly upon us. Like many parents, Angie and I were confronted with decisions that felt impossible. Most critically, in-person or at-home school? We went back and forth for a while and finally made a decision.

Confronting the school decision seemed to somehow break me. I started to notice that I was exhausted all the time. When Angie would ask me, “how are you doing?” it became harder and harder to say, “I’m good.”

I started to notice that the energy I drew from “solving this puzzle” was diminished. Even the things that have always made me feel happy and joyful didn’t seem to be having the same effect. My resilience was waning.

I knew something was off but couldn’t figure out what it was. So I started doing a little reading and research. Before long, a lightbulb went on.

I’m burned out.

It’s been over five months now since the COVID bomb dropped on us. I’ve been grinding ever since. The stress and anxiety is ever present and I haven’t been doing the work I need to do to manage it.

I had plans to take some time off this summer to just hang out with the kids, but I always found work to do and suddenly summer was gone. I had a goal to meditate daily, but I let the habit lapse. Worse, I had replaced that with the comfortable numbness of a couple glasses of wine each night and whatever comfort carbs I could find.

Now that I’m aware of it, I am taking steps to heal myself. My energy is slowly starting to come back.

As I started to share this with friends and colleagues, I soon discovered that many of them were either feeling the same way or had navigated through the same challenge recently. I was surprised by how common this experience seemed to be.

Maybe you are in the same boat. Or maybe you recognize it in your partner, friend, or colleague.

This was just another reminder for me how important it is that we collectively work to support the mental health of our friends, family, and employees. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that their average weekly data for June 2020 “found that 36.5% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 11.0% in 2019.” That’s a huge increase in what was already a big problem.

If we don’t care for the mental health and well-being of our employees, even the best engagement programs in the world can do little to preserve performance levels over the long haul. This may be one of the biggest challenges that lies before us.

Today at the bottom of the blog, I’m sharing some reading and resources related to this topic that I hope you will find helpful. Now is the time to lean into caring for your employees (and yourself). Things will likely get worse before they get better, so we need to be prepared.

You matter. Your work matters. Now more than ever.

Mental Health Reading and Resources

  • As you strive to support not only the mental health of your teams, but also their overall wellbeing, there is perhaps no better resource than the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA). I’m sharing a page here where they provide access to several free resources related to mental health in the workplace. Resource: Mental Health at the Workplace
  • The most powerful thing we can do throughout this time for one another is to develop our empathy. This short post is a good reminder of how easy it is to assume we know what others are going through and, in doing so, miss an opportunity to really connect and help. Now is a time to use our natural curiosity to check in on those we care about. Read: Empathy Starts with Curiosity
  • Mental health isn’t a new challenge, but it’s becoming a more widespread and urgent one. COVID just poured gasoline on the fire. Now is a good time to get educated on mental health and why we’ve struggled with it traditionally. This can help us navigate a path to finding real solutions and support through work. Read: We Need to Talk More about Mental Health at Work
work from home
No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home
No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home 1080 599 Jason Lauritsen

A lot has changed over the past several months at work. This virus showed up and lit the status quo on fire. A majority of office workers now work from home. And we’ve been scrambling ever since. 

The most intense disruption has been felt in jobs and work that once happened in an office setting but is now happening outside the office, primarily in what we call “work from home” (WFH). 

According to data published by Stanford in late June, 42% of the U.S. labor force is working from home full time. When considered against the fact that 33% of the labor force is unemployed, that’s a huge share of working people now doing it from home. And it’s a reality that was almost unthinkable six months ago.  

As a result of this major shift, there’s been a wave of articles and proclamations made recently that “the future of work is here” and that the move to WFH is here to stay. 

In the words of the great Lee Corso, long-time college football analyst and coach, “Not so fast, my friend.”

In the midst of a whirlwind of change and uncertainty, it’s natural to grasp for certainty. It’s also natural to want what’s happening to somehow be the end of the changes. We are all craving some normalcy and a world that slows down a bit so we can start trying to make sense of it again. 

But it’s far too early to start drawing any definitive conclusions about how the way we work is going to look when this pandemic is finally over. Given that even the most optimistic experts suggest that early 2021 might be when things begin to turn, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us yet. 

It’s more useful to step back and consider what we know and what we’ve learned. These insights can then guide us as we try to prepare our organizations for what lies ahead. 


On the other hand, the necessity of survival forced changes that were long overdue. 

  • Employees who had been told for years that their job couldn’t be done remotely were equipped to do so in days. 
  • Employees not only demonstrated an ability to work from home, but in many cases their productivity has actually improved
  • According to many I’ve spoken to, projects that would have taken years to complete in the past have been completed in months. 
  • The artificial barriers between “work” and “life” were broken apart as the new workplace involved bedrooms and living couches shared with children, spouses, and pets.  

As the proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” 

There has been more disruption to the way work gets done in the past few months than in the previous decade. This virus forced us to cut through bureaucracy, red tape, and old school management practices to find a way to survive.  

And yet, both Gallup and Quantum Workplace have reported data that shows a dramatic improvement in employee engagement trends during the pandemic when compared to past years. 

What do we really know for sure at this point? 

We know that remote work is more viable and feasible than most expected. And we know that the reason we had not been allowing remote work in the past had little to do with it being possible and everything to do with management’s distrust of employees. 

We know that employees are far more resilient, resourceful, and committed to their jobs than most organizations assumed. Even in some really challenging situations (i.e. childcare, school from home, partner conflict, etc.), employees found a way to maintain productivity and get their core work done. 

We know that we are properly motivated, we can get things done and make things happen, even big complex things, a lot faster than we thought. Our slow, political, bureaucratic processes have been like anchors holding us in place. The bigger your organization, the heavier that anchor. 

What don’t we know?

The list of what we know is short. The list of what we don’t know is very, very long. That’s what makes jumping to any conclusions at this point dangerous. 

For example, we now know (and more importantly our employees know) that a majority of jobs can be done remotely. What we don’t know is whether they should be done remotely? Or if they should be done remotely all of time, some of the time, or none of the time. 

We have only been in this new reality of remote work for less than six months. We don’t really know yet how employees and their feelings will evolve.  When I started working from a home office, it took me years to fully make the transition and to learn how to be most effective in this setting (and I have the advantage of an actual home office). 

Some recent research from Quartz and Qualtrics revealed that “55% of people who switched from working outside the home to remote work at home said they prefer working from home when polled in early June.” But when you dig in deeper, the number is higher for those who work at a big company and lower for those who work in a small company. 

That data is from early June, before employees spent another few months isolated from colleagues and confined to their homes. We can only speculate at this point how employees are changing in both their attitudes and capabilities through this experience. Our workplace is going to emerge forever transformed. So too will our workforce

We don’t know yet the true impact of a fully distributed workforce. How could we? The fact is that we are running a giant remote work experiment during a pandemic. For me, working from home in the past was a combination of being in my office, on my couch, walking outside, using a conference room at a co-working space, and spending hours and hours in coffee shops both alone and in conversations with others. And that’s when I wasn’t on the road traveling. 

Today, employees are confined and limited to where and how they can work remotely. Work from home means “stuck at home” in a lot of cases, and it also means supervising children’s schooling, sharing space and duties with a spouse or roommates who are also stuck at home, etc. When the pandemic is over, a lot of variables will change and that means that some of what we think we’ve learned about how to shape work in the future may not be as valid as we think. An employee might come to hate working from home during a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to do it under different circumstances. 

What should you do now? 

Given all of this, how can you prepare your organization for a new reality of work that hasn’t fully arrived yet?

  1. Talk to your people. There’s been so much change and most of us have been just rolling with the punches, trying to take it all in stride and do the best we can. But it’s hard. You feel it and so does every one of your employees. Now is the time to dial up your frequency of employee communication and feedback cycles. Surveys, focus groups, one-on-one check-ins, and any other means of keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening with your employees is critical right now. Ask them how they are holding up and where they are struggling. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. And do something to show them you care.
  2. Treat all of this as an experiment. Things are going to continue to change, the variables are going to keep changing. So, continue to try new things. A good experiment starts with a hypothesis (what do we think will happen?), followed by a specific and intentional action or set of actions, followed by measurement. The goal of an experiment is to prove or disprove the hypothesis and then use that information to start the next experiment. In other words, keep trying new things and measuring the impact. Learn as much as you can about what’s working and what isn’t so you can build on that in the future. Take full advantage of this unprecedented time to explore and learn.
  3. Focus on enabling employee performance. Employees have proven they will rise up to the challenge of remote work, but they’ve had to bear a heavy load to do it. Figure out what employees need and make it easier for them to perform what’s expected and make it happen. If employees are working from home, then supporting them in how to make that home work for them is just as important as it was to make the “workplace” a productive environment in the past. This could mean providing stipends for office furniture and technology. It might mean new technology tools. It might mean providing support and resources for childcare.
  4. Recognize that WFH is only one version of remote working. To say, “work from home” is the new norm or that it’s here to stay is wrong. You can say this: the days of telling people they have to work from the office and that their job can’t be done remotely without providing a really clear business reason are gone. What many employees have long wanted from work is flexibility. And now they know it’s possible and they will demand it in the future. 

Focus on people, don’t jump to any conclusions, and learn as much as you can. The future is always uncertain and unpredictable. The best thing we can do is pay close attention to what’s happening and apply what we are learning as we go.  

If you like this content, then you might really like my new online Engagement Leader Community. The work of engaging employees is getting harder. If you are wrestling with how to keep your employees engaged, happy, and productive during these crazy times, you will find some answers and support here. Check it out.

embracethesuck
Embrace the Suck
Embrace the Suck 700 468 Jason Lauritsen

Embrace the suck.

This is a familiar phrase for those who have served in the military. It’s a way to remind yourself or others that what you are doing is hard but important and that you need to keep going.

The difficulty and discomfort of the experience are a necessary part of the mission or process, so there’s no point in wasting energy complaining.

My oldest son, Dylan, served as a United States Marine. If you know a Marine, then you may have heard that boot camp is one of the most challenging experiences anyone can endure. It’s thirteen weeks of being pushed to your physical, mental, and emotional limits.

Dylan knew going in that it would be hard. He’d been given a lot of advice and guidance for how to best navigate the experience. Chief among that advice were those three words:

Embrace the suck.

Dylan didn’t enjoy boot camp, but he recognizes that “the suck” was a critically important part of shaping him into the Marine and the man who emerged on the other side of it. The struggle and unpleasantness shaped him in ways that will remain with him throughout his life.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this lately.

In almost every conversation I have right now, at some point the topic turns to the uncertainty and challenges we are all facing as we try to make important decisions day to day in the face of tremendous uncertainty. There’s a lot of “suck” to go around.

We are being forced to give up, reconsider, and change so many things in our lives that it can feel pretty overwhelming. And it’s really unclear when it will end.

On my end, the middle of March represented a moment when much of the way I make my living was put on hold indefinitely. Conferences were cancelled or postponed. Corporate trainings were delayed. And given the economic turmoil since then, there was no easy way of replacing that work.

A whole lot of “suck” hit me overnight.

Out of necessity I started experimenting and doing things that I hadn’t done in the past. I’ve helped produce and host two online conferences since April. And I launched a new employee engagement online learning community.

These weren’t things that I’d intended to do this year. And all of this has been far more difficult than I expected. Like many of you, I’ve worked harder since March then I have in a long time, partly driven by anxiety about the future and partly due to the fact that so much of what I’m doing now is new to me and requires a lot of learning.

I share this because I suspect that it’s probably similar to your own story or experience. You’ve probably had to learn to work differently and support others who are doing the same. Maybe your organization’s business was disrupted like mine and you are trying to reinvent on the fly. Or maybe you work in healthcare where you face situations daily that were unthinkable only months ago.

So much “suck” is all around us. Discomfort and struggle have come to feel like the norm. This is where I keep coming back to those three words that helped Dylan get through boot camp.

Embrace the suck.

None of this is fun. I’ve not struggled and failed as much as I have recently in a long time. It doesn’t feel great. But that’s only part of the story. When I step back and try to see the bigger picture, there are a few things I keep reminding myself.

This won’t last forever.

Another piece of advice that my wife drilled into Dylan’s mind before he left for boot camp is also relevant right now. She told him that no matter how bad things got or how much he felt like he wanted to quit, to remember and repeat this phrase to yourself:

“This too shall pass.”

We are in the thick of it right now. These times are calling on everything we’ve got and everything we’ve learned along our journey to this point. We’re being pushed in ways that we’ve probably not been pushed in a long time. And while that doesn’t feel good in the moment, it is reshaping us.

It’s sort of like doing an intense full-body workout. It’s not very pleasant while it’s happening and it can be really tempting to just give up when it gets really hard. But then it’s finally over and you are relieved. And while you may be a little sore for a short time, the experience makes you better in ways you probably won’t recognize until later.

When we finally arrive at the other side of these current crazy times, we will emerge transformed. I’m betting that much of it will be for the better.

We are learning, growing, and getting stronger.

When we are faced with new challenges like those we are wrestling with today, we have no choice but to learn quickly. We ask new questions, we seek out new insights, we experiment to see what works. In other words, we develop our knowledge and skills at the pace of change because we have no other choice. I’ve had to do more focused learning in the past few months than in the past few years.

A lot of our learning is being forced upon us by external factors and changes. Some of it is also a response to our own failings. Regardless, when we learn, we grow. This push to learn and grow is like the resistance in our full-body workout. It doesn’t always feel good or comfortable, but it makes us stronger.

Progress is being made.

Just like with our workouts, it’s not always easy to see progress on a daily basis. The result of the “suck” of workouts only comes over time. I am confident that we are making some progress in ways we may not understand yet.

As I’ve talked with people over the past few months, I’ve been encouraged by the stories I’ve heard of leaders who have stepped up to communicate with their teams in ways they never have before. I’ve heard about innovative programs that have been rolled out to support employee’s well-being through the pandemic. And we’ve made a decade of progress on flexible work arrangements in just weeks.

There’s some evidence that engagement has actually improved during the pandemic. Josh Bersin highlighted this in a recent post you can read here. While this may seem strange given the historic levels of unemployment, I actually think it makes some sense. Many of the things I just mentioned align with what we know fuels engagement: communication, care about employee well-being, flexibility, etc. Plus, those who still have a job are likely to be a bit more grateful today given the current circumstances.

Despite all the discomfort, there is progress being made. And I am confident that much of this progress will be lasting–even once the virus has finally be defeated.

Embrace the suck. 

Things aren’t going to get comfortable or less uncertain in the foreseeable future. To get through it and emerge stronger, we need to lean into the discomfort and the stretch we are making to survive. Everything we experience and learn along this weird and unexpected journey will make us better and stronger in the long run.

Perhaps you and your teams can channel a bit of inspiration from those Marines who face down things far worse than this on a regular basis. Use their inspiration and strength to propel you to the other side.

I’ll meet you there. Stronger. And ready for a real vacation.

If you like this content, then you might really like my new online Engagement Leader Community. The work of engaging employees is getting harder. If you are wrestling with how to keep your employees engaged, happy, and productive during these crazy times, you will find some answers and support here. Check it out.

Keeping Employees Connected (Without the Terrible Virtual Happy Hours)
Keeping Employees Connected (Without the Terrible Virtual Happy Hours) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Whether it’s because your workforce is newly remote or because you can’t hold in-person meetings right now, you are probably worrying about how to keep your employees connected. This has been a common refrain in the conversations I’ve been having lately.

I’m excited that this is a top concern for organizations and leaders. It’s overdue. Even before the pandemic, it was debatable whether our employees were that connected. A move toward greater connection is a positive one that will yield benefits far into the future for both employees and employers.

Yours is probably like most organizations and has turned to technology to find solutions. Zoom meetings, virtual team huddles and happy hours, and video leadership briefings have all become routine. The good news from my seat is that it appears that employees, managers, and leaders are meeting more than ever.

But there’s some question about whether or not all of this meeting is translating into a true feeling of connection. In fact, the term “Zoom fatigue” has become pretty common. And it’s a real thing.

If you want to foster and accelerate a feeling of connection for employees, you can boil the secret down to this: meaningful activity.

When it comes to connection for employees, meaningful activity is crucial.

Let me back up for a minute to explain. In 2012, I published my first book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, which I co-wrote with my friend and collaborator, Joe Gerstandt. We wrote the book to equip people with the insights and tools they needed to build networks of authentic relationships as a pathway to achieving success.

Our journey to write the book began because people started asking us how we’d each cultivated such a big network of relationships. At first, we weren’t sure of the answer, but we were curious enough to try to find it. This led to years of work deconstructing our own experiences and comparing that against what research suggested about how relationships form.

In our research, one of the most powerful insights came from the book Achieving Success through Social Capital by Wayne Baker. Despite the sexy title, this is a powerful book. The big idea that stuck with us from this book involved meaningful activity.

First, I need to explain social capital in case you aren’t familiar with the term. Social capital is the value that we have access to through our relationships with others. This value can be both tangible and intangible. Being friends with the neighbor who owns every tool on the planet and will loan them to you because of your relationship is a tangible example. Another example right now might be knowing someone who has access to surplus hand sanitizer.

Intangible examples involve things like trust or support. Being able to reach out and ask someone for a favor or help, and knowing that they are likely to say yes, is a form of social capital. Having someone in your life who will always take your call and listen when you need a sympathetic ear is also an example.

Social capital only exists in relationships where people have created some real connection to one another. They have some level of familiarity, trust, and often shared experience. The more robust the connection, the richer the relationship likely is in social capital. But without that connection, social capital doesn’t exist.

For example, you might have a thousand friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram, but would any of them show up to help you through a crisis or to help you move? Maybe. But unless you’ve invested in building some real connection in that relationship, probably not. Social capital is what differentiates the kind of relationships that help you survive and thrive in times like these.

Here’s the catch that Wayne Baker highlights in his book: Social capital is an outcome. It’s not something you can grab or create directly. It’s like happiness in this way. Happiness is something we value and desire, but we can’t buy or create happiness directly. It’s a by-product of doing things that make us happy.

Social capital, according to Baker, is the by-product of participating in meaningful activity with others.

Social capital is the by-product of participating in meaningful activity with others.

This insight rang true for us at the time, and I’ve seen it work over and over for the past decade since. When we come together with others to do something we mutually care about, relationships naturally form.

If you’ve ever volunteered or served on a board or committee, you have experienced this. As you do the work, you come to know the other people through their work and commitment. You spend time with them and create a shared bond, often before you even know much else about one another. These shared experiences and mutual interests bond you together and create a strong connection.

The same thing can happen with a variety of types of meaningful activity from working together on a project at work to coaching your kids’ sports teams. Shared participation in meaningful activity is one of the most powerful ways we have to cultivate connection that will not only help get us through the pandemic but will last far into the future.

How Can We Use Meaningful Activity to Help in Keeping Employees Connected?

As we think about how to keep our employees connected in this more distributed working world, the magic ingredient is to add meaningful activity to social interactions whenever and wherever you can. Instead of just trying to create more opportunities for people to gather virtually, create ways for them to gather with purpose.

The more that purpose is connected to an outcome or to making meaningful progress toward a shared goal, the better.

To get your wheels turning, below are a few examples to consider.

Life-Hacking Groups

Many people are struggling with how to work most effectively from home. Some are wrestling with their health while others are struggling with focus. Some are having relationship challenges while others are trying to balance parenting with working. Each of these people is likely struggling to figure things out on their own, searching for helpful resources, and experimenting to see what works.

You could create some groups around these issues where employees could meet to discuss their common challenges and what they are finding most helpful. Perhaps you ask or challenge them to capture the best three to five ideas from each discussion to be written up and shared on the company intranet with all employees.

Creating groups around specific issues employees are experiencing can help them figure out what works.

Problem-Solving Teams

If yours is an organization where work has been disrupted in a way that leaves people with some slack time in their schedule, consider applying that time toward tackling organizational challenges. Look at the issues that are known problems but which never get addressed because of a lack of time and resources. If you aren’t sure what they are, send out a short survey to employees or just start asking questions. Soon you’ll have a bigger list than you can tackle.

Prioritize the problems and ask employees to volunteer to be part of a temporary team to discuss, research, and propose solutions to these problems. Employees of all levels can both find and add great value in a process like this. This approach likely requires some facilitation to ensure that the group is focused and that everyone has the chance to participate. You need to be committed to taking some action as a result of the recommendations. If there’s limited budget or resources, ensure they know that upfront so they can use that in their process.

Shark Tank-Style Innovation Challenges

Much like the previous suggestion, if there’s slack time to be used, put it to use finding and pitching new products or services. Employees closest to the customer often have a clearer sense of their needs than anyone and are passionate about solving for them. Give these employees the freedom to explore and propose solutions. By having them pitch the solutions at the end creates a competitive energy that will bond the teams together.

Peer Coaching/Mentoring

The idea of peer coaching and mentoring might be a new one to you; it’s an idea that is relatively new to me. But it seems like an idea that is ideal for this time where people crave both connection and support. In short, the idea is that two coworkers are paired together and asked to complete a series of conversations together. Each person asks the other a series of questions, documents what they hear, and feeds that back to them with some thoughts or suggestions. Then, they switch roles and do the same thing over again.

I came to learn about this approach through my colleague, Aaron Hurst, who’s company Imperative provides a platform to facilitate peer coaching. With or without his tool to help, the process is one that is rich in meaningful activity. The peer coaching process fuels the need for connection, learning, and problem-solving. You could use a simple version of this to facilitate weekly one on one chats for those on your team. All people need is the questions, some basic instructions, and the time to do it.

You can read more about peer coaching here.

Sharing Meaningful Activity Is the Key to Building Connection

My focus right now is to find and highlight the opportunities within the chaos that has been created over the past few months. One of those is that our collective desire for connection has never been more pressing or urgent. If we meet that need with the right kind of opportunities, those fueled by meaningful activity, the connection created in your team and organization will build a foundation that will impact your organization positively for years to come.

 

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How to Shape the Future of Work NOW
How to Shape the Future of Work NOW 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve been struggling the past couple of weeks to write.

Every time I sit down in front of my keyboard, I feel conflicted. The range of issues facing people leaders and organizations varies so widely.

On one end of the spectrum are those employers whose primary challenge is supporting the employees who moved from an office environment to working from home. Their biggest issues revolve around supporting work from home, engaging remote employees, and maintaining culture in a virtual working environment.

At the other end of the spectrum are those organizations that employ those deemed “essential workers” in today’s world. Things are very different for those in this group. Issues of safety and wellbeing are paramount. While they may have a few people working from home, they have far more who are putting their health and lives on the line each day to show up to work. The problems of the first group of employers I mentioned sound like luxuries to them.

The day-to-day realities of these two groups are very different. What’s helpful to one group, sounds almost trivial to another.

So, I’ve been a bit more stuck than usual.

Then I realized there was one conversation I’ve been having over and over with people who work at organizations that exist in all areas of the spectrum. It’s a conversation about our opportunity to change the very nature of work through this moment in time.

I’ve heard people say things like “the rules are out the window” and “everything is being hacked.” These same people talk about how things under discussion for years, which would have taken months, if not years, to get done in the BC (before COVID-19) world, are now getting done in days or weeks.

Things that executives had always resisted and thought not possible are currently happening.

The common thread in all of these conversations is that a window for innovation has opened wide. How we work, when we work, what we do to support and care for those who do the work, and many other issues related to work have been completely disrupted. Those who lead and manage people are being confronted with challenges they’ve never encountered before.

New problems demand new solutions.

And while the future remains volatile and uncertain, one thing is sure: Normal as we knew it for work is gone. We can never go back to the way things were before. And why would we want to? For decades, employees have suffered through a status quo experience of work that was most commonly disengaging and unsatisfying. Why would we want to go back to that?

What lies before us, regardless of the challenges currently at hand, is an opportunity to completely rethink and reshape work in a way that serves everyone better: employee, manager, customer…everyone.

Normal as we knew it for work is gone.

But we need to move swiftly and with clear focus on what matters the most. From my seat, that means breaking and replacing inhumane processes with those designed for humans. We must take advantage of the open minds and lowered guards from those in power to usher in a new era of work that truly works for humans.

Here are a few thoughts and recommendations for where we can make the biggest impact.

The Role of the Manager

From its inception over a century ago, the role of management has been oriented toward control. Employers tasked managers with ensuring that the company was getting its money’s worth out of the dollars they paid to employees. Unfortunately, even as the nature of work has shifted dramatically over decades, the role of manager hasn’t moved with it. Historically, this has been a sticky problem. But things are different right now.

Never before have managers been forced to think about and care for employee wellbeing more than they do right now. If you manage essential employees, you have to be dialed into how safe or scared they feel at work. You have to pay close attention to how the stress is affecting them because it obviously impacts their performance. 

If you manage a newly remote team, avoiding conversations with your employees about how they are balancing their family obligations and other distractions could have significant consequences to both their work performance and commitment.

In this moment, managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing our own human challenges. This is creating greater empathy. In addition, the consequences of not attending to these issues are highly visible. The role of the manager in today’s working world is to cultivate human performance. I write at length about this in my book, but the short version is that people have a natural inclination toward performance and growth. When we have what we need, and our paths are free of obstacles, we will find a way to succeed. 

Managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work.

A manager’s responsibility to her team is similar to the gardener’s responsibility to her garden: to ensure that those miraculous living things have what they need to thrive and promptly remove any obstacles that might get in their way.

The opportunity in this moment is to orient management practices around checking in with the human first. One powerful example is to redefine and structure manager checkins with employees. I wrote a post about how to do this a couple of weeks ago that you can reference for more detail. It’s also a great time to focus on the education of our managers and leaders about issues of wellbeing so that they can better provide support to employees as they need it.

Managing Performance

It’s no secret that performance management is broken. And it’s never been more clear that managing performance through a once per year appraisal is ridiculous at best. Given all the concern about maintaining performance while employees are either under duress, working remotely, or both, now is the time to introduce and bolster processes that are foundational to effectively managing performance. Start with the fundamentals.

Clearly Articulate and Regularly Calibrate Expectations 

Given how quickly things are evolving and changing right now, managers should be in an ongoing conversation with employees about expectations. Each employee needs to be crystal clear about not only where they should be focusing their effort right, but also what expectations exist about how they get their work done. The key to all of this is what I call the golden rule of performance planning: “If it matters, write it down.” These written expectations can then be validated and renewed on a weekly or monthly basis to ensure alignment and clarity.

Have Regular, Ongoing One-on-One Conversations

Managers holding one-on-one meetings with employees has always been important, but right now, it’s vital. When you don’t have the benefit of in-person drop-ins or hallway conversations, having a regularly scheduled forum to check in about performance is extremely important. Using a regular agenda of questions to guide the conversation is a powerful tool to ensure that this time is used in the most valuable way. Some examples:

  • What have you been most focused on since the last time we met?
  • What kinds of obstacles or challenges are you running into?
  • What can I do to best support you right now?
  • What are you planning to focus on over the next week/month?

Coach, Don’t Criticize

In every interaction with an employee, managers should be providing some appreciation. Everyone is adapting right now and doing their best. Finding ways to provide some acknowledgment of the effort into making this new reality work will go a long way. At the same time, be careful not to use feedback in a way that kills morale. Instead of criticizing an employee for something that may not have gone well or for a mistake that was made, try to think more like a coach. Talk with the employee to understand what happened and why they made the choices they did. Then, provide some recommendations and guidance on how to get a different outcome the next time they face that same situation. Orient coaching toward improving future performance rather than dissecting past mistakes.

If we can build these processes, approaches, and skills into how we manage performance through this moment in time, there’s a good chance these practices will become habit. They will inherently become part of how we manage going forward into whatever the “new normal” looks like in the future.

Unnecessary Policy and Practice

Given how suddenly the shift from in-person to a distributed, work-from-home work environment happened, many traditional rules and policies were relaxed or even overlooked to make it happen. The focus, by necessity, had to be on how to get the work done and how best to support employees through this transition. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some things that used to get more attention and energy are now missing.

For example, how has expectations of dress code or working hours changed? How has the view on managing work time changed in the past two months?

Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose.

There are probably a host of ways that work is happening differently now than it was before this pandemic. The critical question to ask is “why?” Many of the policies that have gotten bent or broken in this transition may not have been needed in the first place. Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose. They were probably written into existence as a response to one bad experience (i.e., one employee showed up to work dress inappropriately, so we wrote a policy instead of dealing with the one person).

Use this time to seek out and identify the wasteful and unnecessary practices and policies that have been revealed. Pay attention not just to policy but also busywork (i.e., weekly reports that no one was actually looking at) and unwritten rules (i.e., leave your personality at home when you come to work). Now is the time to actively identify and destroy these things so as we create the new normal, it is free of this unnecessary and harmful baggage from the past.

Seize this Moment to Shape the Future of Work

While I wish the price wasn’t so tragically high, a powerful opportunity to change work for the better is at hand. For those of us who believe that work can and should be a fulfilling and nourishing experience for everyone who does it, this is a moment where we must take action. If you are a leader of people, then use this time to show what is possible. If you support those leaders, equip them with new tools to help them develop new habits and mindsets during this time.

What we do at this moment will shape work for the next decade. Let’s make it count.

 

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How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever
How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

If you are like most people, you are concerned about how the current situation is going to affect those closest to you.

My two youngest are out of school and are trying to make sense of everything that’s happening. It must feel strange and out of balance to them. My priority is making sure they feel safe and loved.

My oldest son is experiencing disruptions with both his college schedule and his job. He’s stuck here in a house for long periods of time with his parents and younger siblings. Regardless of how cool his parents are, it’s not exactly how he imagined spending spring.

My grandparents are confined to an apartment in a small assisted-living facility without being able to have coffee with their friends who live in the neighboring apartment. I know they are struggling with the isolation.

Every single person we know right now is worried about something that’s happening. That includes every single one of your employees.

We need to stay connected to one another. We need to talk about things. We need to ask for help. We need to laugh together.

We need to check in on one another.

Talk to Your Employees

For anyone who supervises others at work, it’s important that you take the time to talk to your people about what really matters right now. Call it a check-in, a one-on-one, or a video chat, but just do it. Frequently.

With all of the chaos and uncertainty around us and the pervasive talk of economic challenges ahead, employees will be looking to you for reassurance and support as their manager. It’s in moments like these that it’s valuable to remind ourselves that work is a relationship for employees. And with all this uncertainty, it’s natural that they may be worried about the status of that relationship.

It’s on us as leaders to step up in this moment to create as much clarity and stability as we can.

Now is a good time to remember the relationship test. If you aren’t a regular reader of the blog or you want a refresher, here’s a longer post about the relationship test. In short, the relationship test is a reminder to treat the people we work with with the same care and intention as we would anyone in our life who is important to us.

For example, let’s say your employee is also your daughter. When you check in with her, you’d ask “How are you feeling?” or “Is everything going okay?” If she were struggling with something, you’d dedicate your time and attention to figuring out how to help her through it. Only once you’d gotten through that and felt confident that she’s okay would you even inquire about work.

If she’s feeling scared or facing a personal crisis, a question like “How are you coming on that deliverable?” or “How much time were you able to work today?” seems pretty shallow and insignificant.

The relationship test challenges you to mentally replace the person on the other end of any interaction you have with your team with someone you really love and care about. If you find that it makes you pause, then you probably need to reconsider your approach or intentions.

The bottom line is that we need to be checking in frequently with everyone right now. Your employees should be a priority.

What a Good Check-In Looks Like

When you are checking with people right now, focus on three simple things.

1. How is the human?

When you check in with your daughter or best friend, you start with something like, “How are you doing?” You want to know first that they are okay. And if not, that’s where you spend your time.

With employees, it might be helpful to use a bit more structure to the question than “How are you?” I’ve been experimenting with 3H check-in lately, and it has opened up some excellent conversations.

The 3H Check-in

  • How’s your head? How are you holding up mentally? What is most worrisome or distracting to you?
  • How’s your heart? How are feeling? What emotions are you experiencing? Where are you finding positive emotions right now?
  • How’s your health? Have you been taking care of yourself? Are you moving your body each day? Are you caring for your (and your families) wellness?

If you haven’t had conversations like this with your people in the past, have some patience as this might take some getting used to.

As you get better at it and it becomes more comfortable, you might want to consider using a 1-10 scale when you do a quick check-in. Saying your head is “4” is far more powerful than simply saying “I’m okay.”

Once you’ve talked about the human side of the experience right now, it’s appropriate to talk about work.

2. Is the work you are doing aligned with what’s needed most?

In most organizations, it feels like everything has gotten tossed upside down in the past two weeks. This has been confusing and disorienting for many employees and managers. What mattered most a few weeks ago, might not matter as much today. And something that didn’t matter much is now very important.

This means that as leaders, we need to help our employees recalibrate their work. Just this week, I’ve talked to a few people who have said that their biggest challenge right now is that they don’t know what to be working on.

Performance Check-In

  • What are the top three priorities/projects you are working on? In other words, what are you working on and how are you deciding what to work on? Find out if a person is clear on what to work on and what matters the most.
  • What are you most uncertain about right now? Where do you have the biggest questions related to what’s happening at work right now? It’s likely that some of their questions might be the same as yours, and you may not have answers. But it’s better to call those out and talk about them, admitting that you don’t know, than to leave those questions unaddressed.

Through this conversation, your goal is to help the employee find greater clarity about what he or she should be focused on in the day-to-day. It should also help the employee to understand how to make decisions about what to work on next if unsure.

In this conversation, it’s also important to acknowledge the challenges that newly remote workers are likely facing, particularly if they are tackling the schooling of their children at the same time. These employees might be struggling with the demands on their time and how to prioritize.

Keep in mind, particularly now, that the goal of performance management is the work output, not the number or quality of hours worked. By helping employees focus on what matters most in terms of work output, they can use the hours they have for greatest impact. If they can get 80 percent of their work done in half the time right now, that’s a win–particularly if they are working on what matters the most first.

3. Do you have the resources and support you need?

No employee check-in is complete without asking the employee what he or she needs to be successful. This is particularly important now.

In the past week, you have changed where people work, how they work, with whom they work, and maybe even when they work. That’s a lot for anyone to adjust to in such a short period of time. In my own experience, learning to work in a home office effectively took months, if not years, to figure out. That was in much less stressful times.

The process requires a lot of adjustment and adaptation. During that process, employees will need increased leadership and support from you. Below are a few questions to help you check in with the employees on what they need.

Resource and Support Check-In

  • What is your biggest work challenge right now? This single question should help you zero in on what issue needs the most attention. Pay close attention to the answer because it will tell you a lot about where the person needs the most support.
  • What tools or resources would make work easier right now? Depending on the situation, the answer to this question may range from protective gear to technology tools. You may not be able to fix or address their needs immediately, but by understanding the request, you can work on a solution.
  • How can I be most supportive to you? How often do they want to hear from you? What kind of information and feedback do they need? What kind of flexibility can you create for them?

The point here isn’t that you can magically fix everything. But you need to know where the issues and challenges are so that you can fix those you can and help them navigate around those you can’t.  Just having the conversation will create a sense of progress and control for both you and the employee.

Final Guidance

Stay close to your people. Use these questions to create meaningful conversations. When the chaos passes, you will emerge from this a stronger leader with a team that is loyal to and trusts you at an entirely new level.

A reminder: This is new terrain for all of us. It’s something none of us has seen or managed before.

I’m struggling to find the balance between working from home and managing my kids’ school day at the same time. I’m doing okay, but I’ve also worked from a home office for years, so I had that advantage going in. It’s still tough.

Every person you encounter is trying to figure out how to adapt in their own way. Some are struggling, some are managing it well, some are in denial that any of this is happening. As a leader, this is our moment to practice patience, grace, and forgiveness.

This is going to be messy as we find our way through it together. Be quick to forgive when others make mistakes or fall down; they are doing their best. Help them recover and then ask how you can help them going forward. This is not a time for judgment.

Your people need the best of you right now. Be there for them. Support them. Give them your time.

You can get your people through this.

 

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What Your Employees Need From You Right Now
What Your Employees Need From You Right Now 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

For the amount of talk and training and coaching we’ve deployed over the years about change, you’d think we would be better equipped when big changes show up.

Maybe nothing would have prepared us for the collective gut punch that we are all experiencing right now.

I know that I certainly got knocked off balance by this thing. It’s hard to find your balance when things are shifting so quickly and dramatically all around us.

As I’ve been talking with people this week, one of the common themes has been “how can I help people through this?” And this is a really important question—particularly for employers. Here’s why.

Unless you are completely isolating yourself from the news right now, it’s hard not to feel afraid of what’s coming—virus, economic downturn, etc., etc., etc. Good news is hard to come by.

There’s a lot of fear out there. I published a post earlier this week titled “I’m Scared Too” to share my own feelings about what was happening and to provide some guidance on how to step forward in spite of the fear. When I wrote that on Monday, I was pretty unsettled and my emotions were pretty raw.

I felt compelled to write about what I was feeling as a way to model what it looks like to put your emotions into words as a way to process and move through that emotion. My hope was that maybe it would nudge others to talk about their own feelings as well. Writing that post was healing for me and it helped me engage more fully with the new reality we are facing.

The reaction to my post was interesting and informative to me. There was one thing that really stood out in the reactions I received.

We have a complicated relationship with fear.

Some people I heard from were grateful that I had talked about my own fear as it helped validate how they were feeling.

Others, mainly my friends, reached out with a message: “Are you okay?” For those who are concerned, yes, I am very okay. I didn’t realize that admitting my fear would trigger this reaction. It feels good to know that people care. These messages also hinted at something else I noticed this week.

There are a lot of us, particularly the dreamers and entrepreneurs and “change the world” types, who have adopted a belief that fear is a bad or toxic emotion. I even have a plate displayed in my office (that I painted) that says “No Fear.”

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share that one friend, after reading my post, said to me these two things: “Fear is the worst response” and “fear keeps us from living.”

It came from a good place, but I think it’s dangerous to talk about fear like this—especially right now. The “no fear” culture isn’t about fear, it’s about courage. And we need to be very careful with our language right now.

According to a Smithsonian Magazine article about the brain’s reaction to fear, fear “is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence.”

It’s a natural human response that’s meant to help ensure our safety and survival. Fear isn’t good or bad. Telling someone not to feel fear isn’t helpful. What we need not isn’t an absence of fear, but rather an abundace of courage.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”—Nelson Mandela

Acknowledging our fear is okay. In some cases, you must acknowledge it as a way to move past it. To move past it, we need to feel a sense of control.

Back to the Smithsonian article: “That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial ‘fight or flight’ rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety, and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.”

Once I wrote and published my blog post on Monday, I went to work on planning for two things:

  1. The safety and health of my family.
  2. The sustainability of my business.

This has involved some reading and education; conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues; and writing down some plans. The future is uncertain and that feels scary, but through these steps, I’ve found my way to a greater sense of stability and wholeness in the past four days. The fear isn’t gone, but I’m managing my way through and past it by taking purposeful steps forward, controlling the things I can.

My Advice to Leaders Right Now

As leaders of people, managing through the fear is our most important task right now. People are uncertain and afraid. Start with acknowledging the fear and validating that it’s natural to feel that way. This starts with you.

If you feel stuck or paralyzed right now, uncertain what to do next, that’s likely the fear. Being afraid is okay, but we can’t stay here. People depend on us, so we have to find the right next step. And don’t worry; there is no perfect next step. This is new territory. Do the best can, erring on the side of caring for yourself and your people. If you make a mistake, just back up a step and try something else. That forward momentum will help alleviate the fear. I promise.

The main thing right now is to find ways to help create a sense of control for your people. Give them agency in this experience so that they too can feel that sense of forward momentum that moves us out of and past the fear.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Communicate and educate like it’s your job (it is actually). Don’t assume what people do or don’t know—whether that’s about the virus, prevention strategies, how to work remotely, how to maintain social distance, etiquette for video meetings… Things are moving and changing so fast that I’m sure you are overwhelmed. Imagine how your people feel as they are even further removed from the decision-makers. You literally cannot over-communicate in times like these. When city and state leaders are holding daily press conferences to keep the general public updated, your frequency of communication needs to be even higher than that. Consider daily team meetings, daily one-on-one check-ins, regular email updates/briefings on anything that’s new or changing, etc.
  2. Recalibrate performance expectations. As we shift to work from home or different operation schedules, it’s time to step back and focus on what matters the most right now. Things that may have seemed important two weeks ago may not matter as much today. Spend time with your people to talk through their performance objectives and projects. Identify what is critical now, what is less important, and what can be put on hold for the time being. Also discuss and clarify behavioral and communication expectations. For example, in a remote working environment, how are we going to communicate? What kind of response time expectation should have of one another? As an example, with my teams in the past, we’d agree that email is for things that need a response in one or two days, instant messaging (like Slack) is for a quick question, and text is for things that need urgent response. The more clear you are in expectations, the easier the transition will be.
  3. Allow maximum flexibility (and grace). In this unprecedented time, people are trying to juggle things they’ve never encountered before. Kids are out of school, and  for some, there is an expectation of parents to “homeschool.” People who never have before are working from home. Self-quarantine has us isolating from family and friends. Our routines and lives have been disrupted in more ways than we can count, and it happened overnight. As leaders, we need to help people find their footing and establish a new normal. This is going to require learning how to manage a work/life mashup that most never wanted and didn’t choose. Now is the time to both allow and encourage as much flexibility as possible in terms of both how and when work gets done. Provide tools, resources, and support to people as they navigate this. And, perhaps most important, extend grace to your people. Help them understand what the mission-critical work is that must get completed, and then allow them some wiggle room to sort out their life. Be generous and forgiving. Now is not the time to be worried about how many hours people are working. Just ensure that the critical work gets done over the next few weeks. Then, you can begin to craft the new normal.
  4. Make wellbeing a part of everyone’s job. In stressful times, it’s easy to stop doing the things that help us stay well and healthy. We eat and drink more, we sleep less, we stop exercising (no time!), etc. On top of that, social distancing means we are likely to start feeling more isolated and disconnected. In a health crisis, allowing your wellness to suffer is perhaps the worst thing you can do. We can make ourselves less vulnerable to illness by investing time in our wellbeing. But your people may not feel like they can allow themselves time for wellbeing activities unless you make it part of their job. Give them instruction to set aside at least 30 to 60 minutes a day for some kind of physical or mindfulness activity. Encourage them to schedule a 30-minute check-in with a colleague or friend at least a few times a week. (My wife and I have started scheduling virtual happy hours with friends.) Investing a couple of hours a week to support the wellbeing of people is an investment in the quality of all of the other hours of the week.

Use the fear as a wake-up call. To emerge from this crisis as whole as possible, we need to take action now to help our people through it. Fear isn’t the problem; it’s a signal that action is required.

When this is all over and the pandemic has passed, people will remember how their organizations and leaders showed up. Did you prioritize their safety and wellbeing, even when it wasn’t easy for you? Or did you wait, leaving them in their fear not sure what to do next?

Those companies and leaders who step up now will emerge from this crisis stronger and with more loyal, committed employees than ever before.

Go now. Your people need you.

 

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