The critical conversation: setting expectations with your workforce during a pandemic

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Although we may be weeks into our new way of living and working, there’s still great uncertainty that is contributing to mental health. Embracing what we can control, like having discussions about expectations, is a simple and free way to make a positive impact on the wellness of your teams.

It seems like there is a new update every time we turn on the TV or engage with social media. Information about the rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19, waiting to learn if the stay-at-home order is extended or if nonessential businesses may reopen, hearing about loved ones who’ve gotten sick or passed away — all while trying to stay productive and valuable — can be overwhelming. For those who are still working, the pressure to stay engaged, focused and deliver results their employer expects is a real part of the day-to-day experience.

But what are the expectations of your team while working away from the office?

Without clarity, employees are pressuring themselves to perform at the same level as they did when they had access to in-person meetings and conversations, administrative support and technology that an established office setting provides.

Some employees have been assigned new responsibilities while others have been laid off or deemed nonessential. Working staff members are trying to keep their heads above water with their own responsibilities and, now, the work of one or several other people. Distractions galore under the shared roof of spouses, children and pets, employees are fighting to perform while taking guesses if their work is good enough.

And without a policy or structure in place, managers are forced to “build the plane as it flies,” creating expectations and guidelines as we learn how to lead a remote workforce. All of this builds stress and none of it is familiar.

So, what can leaders do? Engage in the critical conversation of expectations

You likely have a team of dedicated staff who you feel “should know” what you’re asking of them. Perhaps you have established relationships that you think would encourage someone to reach out if they had a question about your expectations. Or maybe you haven’t thought about what you’re consistently looking for from your team in this time because you’re trying to find balance yourself.

Even if you believe you’ve been clear about deadlines, work-life balance, distractions during video conferencing, time off for those who are sick or caring for others, etc. — this is a conversation that needs to be had. And if you’ve sent out an email at the beginning of the transition to working from home, another reminder likely will be greatly appreciated.

Here’s where you can start:

  1. Use a relaxed, engaging tone: The purpose of your message is to share information but also to encourage team members to reach out if they need support. The tone of your email can influence the likelihood that your staff trusts you’re being sincere.
    • Key phrases:
      • “We recognize that this has been hard and many of us are trying to balance work and home life.”
      • “We know you may be feeling stressed. We want to offer some clarity on what we’re expecting from our teams during this time.”
  1. Assume that people are doing their best: Even if the performance of some team members appears that they’re not delivering results as they did previously, assume they’re trying. Support them in their efforts and encourage them to continue to invest time and resources in finding solutions that work for them. It costs you nothing to offer this type of kindness and grace, and you likely will have a loyal, connected workforce in response.
    • Key phrases:
      • “Thank you for all of the hard work you’ve put in to doing your best.”
      • “We value and appreciate all that you’ve done to keep us going.”
  1. Know that daily tasks may be taking the greatest toll: Large projects that have shifting deadlines, dispersed teams and not having access to a scanner or industrial printer may be inconveniences that require adjustments, but that’s not always what’s causing the greatest stress.

Checking and responding to emails, making and receiving phone calls, attending team meetings via video, these are the tasks that can lead to a slow but sure burnout. For example, maybe it was customary in your company for people to use an interoffice chat function like Skype.

Individuals were expected to respond within a few minutes since they were likely to be at their workstation. But in our current world, that same dedicated employee is also trying to quiet a barking dog, prepare a meal for their family, teach a homeschooling lesson, put in a load of laundry — all while under the same roof. While they’re able to plan for and accomplish larger projects, they don’t know what their leaders expect of them in the minute-to-minute tasks.

  • Key phrases:
    • “We want to outline our expectations for daily tasks, so you can find a balance between your work life and home life.”
    • “We know that things are different since working from home. Here are some guidelines on how often we expect you’re online/engaged:”
    • “Checking emails ___x/day and responding within ___hours.”
    • “Responding to voicemails within ___hours.”
    • “During this time, x-x is considered our normal workday. After x o’clock, please spend time with your family, take care of yourself and rest.”
  1. Offer flexibility where possible: Take time to reflect on what’s reasonable. If you have firm deadlines that cannot be shifted, know which teams and projects those relate to and acknowledge that these expectations haven’t changed. If there are areas that can be flexed, call those out and give examples. You should be able to allow flexibility in at least one area of business during this time of COVID-19. Think on what you’re able and willing to offer your staff.
    • Key phrases:
      • “Attending meetings via video whenever possible. We recognize that there may be times that it’s more productive for you to connect via phone. We request that you limit joining by phone to ___x/week.
      • “Since Team X is on the frontlines, we must continue to require a response time for all calls to be within ___/hours. But we’d like to show support to you by offering flexibility with _____.
      • “We know there can be noises in the background of your home, like dogs barking or children playing. We aren’t concerned with your house being perfectly quiet during our meetings — we just ask that you continue to do your best.”
  1. Reference where people can find more support: If you have an employee assistance plan, remind teams that this resource is available to them during the pandemic. Share contact information, login/username, etc. upfront so that people may begin seeking support immediately. Explain that these services are confidential and are being provided because your company values the well-being of your teams.

If you don’t have an employee assistance plan, consider investing in a mental health partner.

For more information, visit our website at fisk.solutions or connect on Facebook at @erinfisksolutions.

We’re all in this together. And we’re all doing the best that we can.

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