How to build your staff’s resilience while working remotely

Multiple challenges posed by Covid-19 can undermine employee confidence

No reassuring personal interactions and the heavy reliance on often unsatisfactory video calls can undermine employee confidence. Photograph: iStock

No reassuring personal interactions and the heavy reliance on often unsatisfactory video calls can undermine employee confidence. Photograph: iStock

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Four months into the pandemic and the strain on people’s resilience is beginning to show. It is difficult to remain upbeat when each day brings depressing news about the virus, but one thing managers can do to bolster mood and resilience is to keep their teams focused on the fact that this too shall pass.

“People need to be reminded that things will stabilise and to envision who they will be after the adversity has passed,” write David Sluss and Edward Powley in Build Your Team’s Resilience – From Home, published in the Harvard Business Review.

Sluss is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, and Powley is an associate professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. Their research with US navy recruits shows that resilience can be built successfully even when teams are working remotely, provided their leaders focus on two things: people and perspective.

The key traits of resilient people include good self-discipline and confidence in their abilities. It also helps to have strong family or social support, and this is the element most likely to have been adversely affected by the current crisis, especially if employees are trying to combine work with caring for children or other family members.

To get a fix on how people are coping from this perspective, the authors recommend that managers check in with each member of their team individually and specifically ask them how they are doing in this regard. If needed, it may then be possible to juggle things to ease the strain.

One example cited is redistributing workloads and redeploying people to provide extra support where it’s needed.

The multiple challenges posed by Covid-19, including no reassuring personal interactions and the heavy reliance on often unsatisfactory video calls, can also undermine employee confidence. Leaders need to counteract this by constantly encouraging their teams to plough ahead while emphasising their faith in people’s ability to get the job done.

Maintaining focus

Loss of focus can also be a casualty when employees are working outside the normal office structure. This means they may need more check-ins from their managers to keep them on track. At first glance this might look unnecessarily intrusive but it can cut two ways: it can chivvy the disorganised and keep productivity flowing but it can also be a way of slowing down those who are trying to do too much and setting themselves up for burnout.

One of the most often mentioned downsides of working from home is that people put in excessively long hours because it’s much harder to draw the line between working and living. Time blocking is one technique that can help overcome this. It does exactly what it says on the tin by dividing the working day into blocks of specific activity. For example, maintaining focus on the immediate task by checking emails every few hours instead of stopping what you’re doing when there’s an incoming ping.

Time blocking requires a bit of organisation to set up the day’s priorities, but those who use it say they are far more productive because they are not trying to multitask or split their attention in competing directions.

The technique can be particularly useful for those who procrastinate or struggle to maintain focus. It can also be a good wake-up call for those who are unrealistic about how long it really takes to do something. Underestimating the time involved is a key contributor to reduced performance.

The coping class

Resilient people will do what they always do in a time of crisis, which is to cope. However, Sluss and Powley caution against automatically assuming they’re okay.

“You can’t assume they’re out of danger. Very resilient people are geared toward action and what they can control. As result, they may ‘panic-work’ and burn out during times of crisis. You will need to take measures to maintain their resilience, too,” they say.

Perspective is the other arm of the resilience axis, and part of the collateral damage caused by Covid-generated anxiety is a narrowing of focus and difficulty with seeing ahead. To counteract this the authors advocate facing down reality.

“Accepting things as they are is key to building resilience,” they say. “As Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held captive during the Vietnam war, famously noted, the optimists among his fellow prisoners (those who expected to be rescued quickly) didn’t survive: ‘I think they all died of broken hearts.’ ”

So, ask your direct reports what plans they have in place for working remotely longer than anticipated. While they might not feel comfortable thinking about such things, they will weather the crisis better if you help them plan constructively.”

Encouraging people to help each other out is another positive way of building resilience and reminding team members to talk to colleagues and to collaborate with them can also be useful in reducing the sense of isolation many people are feeling.

“Ask them, ‘Who on your team or within your organisation or within your network might be able to help you?’ There is power in reminding them they’re not alone, and in building a network of support during adversity … Another thing you can do is help your direct reports recognise special talents or skills that might be especially useful during the crisis … As each member sees how his or her special skills contribute to the good of the team, the group’s confidence and social support will grow.”

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