Canadian-born song writing royalty Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi lyrics contain the often-quoted line that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Touché.
The pandemic means a lot of things have “gone” out of people’s lives and turned how many of us work upside down. As of now, the upheaval is seen as temporary.
However, it seems increasingly likely that these changed working practices presage a fundamental shift in how work will be structured in the future.
Just over a week ago, Bill Michael, chairman of KPMG in the UK who is recovering from Covid-19, wrote to the firm's employees telling them they faced "a huge paradigm shift in the way we live and work".
In the absence of a vaccine Mitchell says, “there is no ‘exit’ or a return to normal”, and this “will necessarily be a time of trial and error on an unprecedented scale”.
Many managers are now experiencing the “trial and error” of trying to run dispersed teams without the normal structures that keep employees anchored, managers focused and workplaces running smoothly.
Also gone is the ease of face-to-face communication where questions are asked and answered and decisions made quickly. Without this, the actual doing process gets harder and slower.
Those already managing dispersed teams know it comes with its own challenges but over the last few weeks a whole new cohort of managers has been dumped in at the deep end with no water wings attached.
Cian Collins, co-founder of Sligo-based employee engagement platform, Frankli, says his company has seen "a massive jump" in the number of visitors to its website because its process can ease the burden for companies trying to deal with the problem of employee engagement in geographically dispersed teams.
“We are putting the recent increase down to the fact that there are now hundreds of companies and people managers grappling to manage remote and distributed teams, stay on top of their workload and adjust to this unprecedented – word of the month – situation,” he says.
“With Frankli, managers get a bird’s eye view of their team’s performance and how engaged they are, HR admins can see which managers are communicating with their teams and employees have a line of sight to what success looks like, when their next 1:1 is due, what their operational and personal development goals are and whether they are on track or way behind.”
Neil Massa, co-founder of UK-based time management consultancy Smarter Not Harder, has been managing a remote team for 15 years.
“There’s been a lot of talk about remote working but very few have actually done it until now. Coronavirus is changing how even dyed in the wool ‘it wouldn’t work for us’ companies are thinking about it,” he says.
“Right now, what matters is structure, consistency and the four As of leadership as in giving team members the right sort and quantity of attention, appreciation, acceptance and affection, which in a corporate context means showing people you care about them and their families at this time.
“In an office setting a lot of this happens automatically. When working remotely, it has to be more thoughtful and deliberate,” says Massa whose company is running regular open webinars on managing remotely.
Massa has a tried and tested process he uses to keep things running smoothly with his team and he’s now sharing it to help others cope with the current crisis.
He starts his week with a team video call to focus everyone’s minds. He then lets people get on before checking in with them again on a Thursday individually and by email.
The content of this interaction is based around what people tell him (in advance by email) about how their week has gone –the good, the bad, the frustrating.
“Doing this on a Thursday gives me time to respond before the weekend,” Massa says. “I don’t want anyone facing into their time off upset, stressed or worried.
“Many organisations have recently been ‘forced’ to introduce working from home, virtually and remotely. But isolation doesn’t necessarily mean lower levels of employee productivity and satisfaction. With the right approach, it is possible to minimise the downsides and to have happy, productive teams.”
While fears have been expressed that younger workers may struggle with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the loss of support and camaraderie while working remotely, Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking and an expert in young people in the workplace, says they are surprisingly resilient because they were not weaned during the boom times.
“Even for those in their late 20s and early 30s, expectations were not shaped by the go-go late 90s, but rather by the 2000s,” he says. “Anybody who is 18 today or even 28, will certainly remember 2008-09-10. That was a substantial downturn in the economy and there were serious worries about the great recession turning into a depression.
“Right now, everyone needs to have some kind of continuity,” he adds. “This means a grounding in purpose and mission, reminders of potential and connection to mission, daily communication about what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and what is the focus for now.
"To keep people focused and motivated, the single most important thing is regular structured communication," says Tulgan whose new book may well be hitting the shelves at an opportune time. It's about The Art of Being Indispensable at Work and will be published in July.