We’re a few weeks into the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK and as things begin to settle slightly, I’ve begun thinking about how I’ve handled managing a team during the crisis, what I’ve learned and what I’d do differently.
The world went crazy. Work turned upside down. People were stockpiling bog roll. A frenetic energy seemed to build within us. Where does it go? How do you channel it?
If you’re spending eight or so hours a day working, what do you do with that nervous energy? What if you’re not busy? Worse, what if you’re at home and not busy but in every meeting and message and email you constantly hear from people about how manically they are? How does that make you feel?
From my own personal experience, the first two weeks were absolutely manic. I mean long hours, short notice, fast turnaround busy. Then the pace slackened a little for about four days. Then it ramped up again. Quickly. The frenetic energy, however, never went away.
These peaks and troughs of workload, along with the restlessness can lead to emotionally challenging days. Big things are happening and you’re part of it and you feel like you’re contributing. Perfect. But when you’re not called upon, those big things continue and you’re not contributing and you can feel shut out. It’s difficult on a personal level, and it’s even harder in terms of people management.
Personally, I was slow to cotton on to the issue until a conversation with a friend really unlocked it for me. Without that conversation, I’m not confident that I’d have picked up on it even now.
From a management perspective, I’ve found framing the issue as one of importance versus urgency has helped. That everyone’s role is important, but the urgency with which that work needs to be delivered moves around as the crisis unfolds. Different people and different teams are in the thick of it at different times, but at all times the work is important and valued. I’ve kept reiterating this message.
One of the core skills of management is prioritisation. What’s urgent, what’s important, and what’s nice to have? These things should be pretty easy to identify. In a crisis situation, where things are changing quickly and there’s little reliable information, it can be harder. But I think the real issue is that urgent list can become long very quickly.
In recent weeks, I’ve discovered that real progress is only made if you’re able to clear the urgent list and knock some things off the important list. This is hard. It might mean long hours for a period. It also probably requires a lot of delegation. And, more productively, a hard look at what is genuinely urgent and genuinely important. This latter point will require a fair bit of upwards management.
There’s also an element of bravery involved. Many things will be urgent and, if you had the resource, you’d do them, but you don’t. So make the call that they’re not going to happen. This is important. It prevents burn out, both personal and team. It also protects quality of output; tired, stretched teams do not produce good work. Prioritising isn’t just about the order of things, it’s about saying, “No.”
It’s important to remember here that prioritising things isn’t productive or an outcome in itself. It’s a skill to aid productivity. So if you’re wondering whether or not you’re prioritising things well at the moment, ask yourself if you feel like you’re making progress.
Are you coping? And I don’t mean, “Is the work getting done?”
Too often resilience is synonymous with toughness or persistence, but this is unnecessarily macho. If you’re resilient, you can take the knocks because you and your set up are able to recognise and adjust to the setbacks and the pressure.
That means recognising the signs of fatigue and stopping. It means switching off and not thinking about work. Resilience is about keeping yourself productive over the long run. It means knowing there’s a limit to the late-nighters and the challenges you can set as ‘growth opportunities’. It doesn’t mean shielding your team from a heavy workload by doing it yourself, or delegating so much work that your team breaks.
Personally, after the first three weeks, I recognised that I was running on empty and took three days off. I’ve encouraged my team to take time off, even at short notice. These are challenging times. People come first. Work comes second.
Breaking through the screen
It’s hard to sense the tension in the Zoom. It’s even harder to sense the tension outside the Zoom. How do you manage people if you don’t know how they feel? Well, part of that is down whether you were managing people well before the crisis. Regardless, it’s important to watch out for how your team are doing by keeping in touch more often than usual.
I’ve also taken to giving advice when it’s not been sought. This might be frustrating at times, and I try to not go overboard, but I think the messages of ‘look after yourself’ and ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘make sure you’re switching off’ cannot be repeated too often at present.
I’d love to hear more views on this. How are you managing your team? What have you learned? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Equally, how have you been managed during the crisis? What’s grated? What’s helped. Give me a shout over on twitter @kchadda.