Be understanding and get all-staff emails right: how leaders can support their staff through COVID-19

By David Donaldson

Friday April 24, 2020

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Whether you’re a secretary or middle manager, taking the right approach to guiding staff through the COVID-19 crisis is vital for maintaining wellbeing.

We aren’t just living in strange times, but working through them too.

Jono Nicholas

While many of life’s basic activities are interrupted, with offices empty, schools closed, and even shopping a challenge, many of us are trying to maintain as much normality at work as possible.

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But high levels of change are stressful and can damage productivity, says workplace wellbeing expert Jono Nicholas.

“What we know about the brain is when there’s so much change it struggles to cope and we get very stressed,” explains Nicholas, who now heads up consultancy The Wellbeing Outfit after spending several years as CEO of mental health not-for-profit ReachOut Australia.

As people adjust to what may be a long haul in the COVID-19 response, they are likely to react in one of two ways. Some will adapt well to new circumstances and become optimistic again. But others might become resentful.

“They might get angry at their boss that they’re still working at home from their kitchen table. You might find losses in productivity, or outbursts, or poor interpersonal relationships develop.”

For people in the government sector, there are some specific added stresses too.

While job security won’t be as acute as for many private sector staff, the response to the virus is compounding the challenges of much government work, creating long hours and stressed stakeholders. Many public servants are working harder than ever, and on shorter deadlines than they’re used to.

This means it’s important departments and agencies are able to support their staff effectively — but the current situation is new for managers too. So how should they be handling this?

Supporting staff remotely

Organisational leaders should be receiving advice from health experts on how the outbreak is likely to  develop, says Nicholas, who is conducting two leadership and wellbeing seminars for IPAA Victoria this week and in May.

“We need to understand as leaders what is likely to be coming down the line, and what we therefore need to do to prepare our people ahead of time,” he explains.

“That allows us to make adjustments to how the organisation is run, and plan ahead.”

Secretaries and CEOs also need to ensure their leadership team, and middle managers, are equipped to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff.

“What is the extra support that your management team need to keep everything connected and everyone motivated, and what are the systems for doing that?” Nicholas asks.

“If you’ve got a distributed workforce, with some people working from home, then how managers interact and keep their teams supported is really critical.

“Each of those managers need to have a high degree of emotional intelligence to be able to support people under high degrees of stress, and do it remotely, over video. That takes a lot of skill. Some are very good at it, some will need extra support.”

Doing mass communications well

With many staff working from home, “there’s never been a time for leaders when their mass communication has been more important”, Nicholas notes.

Many leaders will be used to connecting with staff by walking around the office or going for coffee, but that’s all disappeared for now.

Instead employees will be relying on the all-staff email or video address to know what’s going on.

“All leaders, particularly of bigger organisations, should really focus on what the weekly message is that they’re putting out to their people, and how they’re using that message to provide assurances to people about what is likely to happen,” he argues.

The organisation need to have its strategy right, with a communications plan mapped out in advance.

There should be a single source of information — the CEO or secretary. Too many voices can increase confusion and anxiety.

Leaders should communicate weekly, but may need support to write drafts while they’re busy dealing with other challenges.

And there must be discipline. Don’t just put out communications for the sake of it — really think about what staff need to know.

“I’ve seen a lot of leadership messages go out that go on for five pages about how things align to the values of the business, blah blah blah,” Nicholas recalls.

The first thing is to explain something about the external environment, to help make things predictable. For example:

“Our COVID-19 cases have halved in the last week, but as I said in previous messages, this is a marathon not a sprint.”

Then explain what the organisation will do.

“I’m going to extend the work from home policy for another month, on the basis of centralised advice, and I will come back to you in two weeks time if that advice needs to be reviewed.”

The third part is to explain what you need staff to do.

“I’m asking you to contribute to this weekly Zoom call.”

If you broadly follow that structure, “then people feel as if the leader is mapping out a pathway for their organisation in a very confident way in a world that is otherwise chaotic”, he explains.

“It doesn’t need to be a long message, but it needs to be a very disciplined way of communicating that provides assurance to people.”

What can middle managers do?

With employees working from the kitchen table, “our work and personal life for most employees have completely bled into each other”, says Nicholas.

“Managers probably need to know a lot more about the personal circumstances of the people they’re leading — do they have primary school aged children, are they working from home in a sharehouse, do they have good internet, do they need new headphones?

“All those sorts of things become really important in terms of how people need to be supported and how to keep people productive.”

The interruption of daily habits means new ones will need to be created.

“Doing things differently, having calls at different times, understanding when people need to do deep work. We have strong rituals in face-to-face work — people go for a coffee at the same time, come to work or leave at a certain time.”

And remember who all this work is for — the community.

“That’s also a great way to motivate your staff — communicating the benefits of them doing their job really well.”

Check in with team members to make sure they’re on task.

“Managers may need to be a lot more explicit in the tasks because people’s ability to self-manage and self-organise may be more limited if they can’t just lean across the cubicle and ask their colleagues what’s going on.

“They can’t come out of a staff meeting and ask in the hall what something really meant. Most people will be in the dark and they’ll need their manager to really lay out for them what success looks like.”

All of this change means everyone is adapting, and different people are facing different problems. So be understanding.

If schools are closed, parents may be having a difficult time being productive — but when class resumes they should be able to get more done. Knowing about these sorts of changes and planning for them can help.

“People will hit the wall at different times, they’ll get really exhausted of the change, so you could find productivity going up and down a bit more as people get exhausted with the changes in their world.

“And worry exhausts us. It makes our bodies and brains tired. If people are worried all the time, managers might need to be really alert to when people need a break.”

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