I own and operate a small marketing business north of New York City, right smack in the area that suffered one of the first full lockdowns in the United States. We transitioned to remote work fairly early on, but onboarding (especially without the resources of a large company) was both lengthy and painful, and clients started dropping like flies as the pace of work, along with the economy, slowed down.
It’s been incredibly difficult to communicate to my team just how badly I need them back at full capacity after the last eight months. Nothing I do works. I’ve tried using project management software to help everyone stay organized and on task, but it doesn’t help. Everyone is either frazzled or completely checked out.
I understand that we’re dealing with bad times, but isn’t it in everyone’s interest to keep the company afloat? I’ve already had to fire someone and let another go, and our staff only numbered eleven in normal times. I get how difficult it is, but not doing the work puts everyone’s jobs in jeopardy.
I understand that we’re dealing with bad times, but isn’t it in everyone’s interest to keep the company afloat?
I just do not see why they can’t get back to doing the same work they once did so capably before all of this happened. They have no commute now. They’re getting more sleep. They’ve eschewed business dress. We’ve all had to adapt to a less formal organization. But that was a concession I made to the times, not something I wanted to stick with.
I thought (maybe unwisely?) that even if the pandemic lasted longer than the few months I anticipated, we would at least be able to be back up to speed by now. But we aren’t. And I’m worried about losing more clients and having to let more people go. So what do I do? How do I motivate my team? How do I make them understand that we’re hanging on by a thread, and it’s all hands on deck?
First, I totally understand your frustration. An employer has every right to expect the best work from their team, and every right to be direct and firm with them when that’s not the case, all things being equal. But all things are not equal.
While you have to always do the best work for your clients, there is a degree to which we need to accept that productivity is going to remain lower than normal. The mental health stresses on your staff are unlike anything they have ever experienced. I’ve always depended on the hustle and bustle of the office to fuel my energy and excitement, on travel and lunches out to break up the tedium, and on the casual acquaintance of workplace friends. All of that has melted away. Even I struggle.
While you have to always do the best work for your clients, there is a degree to which we need to accept that productivity is going to remain lower than normal.
I really do understand your position. I ran a business for 26 years, and it is never just a job to you. So you look at the numbers every day and see lost revenue and missed opportunities. There is nothing harder as a boss than realizing you may not be able to protect all of your employees’ jobs. I hear that fear in what you’re saying and empathize. But in times like these, you have to learn to walk the tightrope of honesty and transparency, while still shielding your team from the turmoil and uncertainty that comes with shepherding a business through a crisis.
So it’s time to change up how you’re looking at this issue so you can address it head-on and be the leader you need to be. First and foremost, lead with compassion. Communicate regularly and proactively, really check in on your people. Show them you understand that they’re capable people struggling as much as anyone else. Celebrate their wins, make sure they know they are valued. It’s hard for employees to perform when they feel like their job is on the line; be mindful of how your anxieties are impacting them.
So what can you do, aside from being more circumspect in what you say to your team?
Start asking yourself how you can support them and set them up to do better work. Here are some ideas I know have worked in other businesses:
Designing new workflows, perhaps even creating a new position for an existing employee specifically to coordinate remote work more effectively, has to be a priority. This is uncharted territory for all of us. You’re all on the same team, and you need to work together to solve the real problem: how do we work effectively under these conditions?
I hear that fear in what you’re saying and empathize. But in times like these, you have to learn to walk the tightrope of honesty and transparency, while still shielding your team from the turmoil and uncertainty that comes with shepherding a business through a crisis.
For some of your team, the ability to work different hours may make all the difference. And some employees may require more check-ins, facetime, and a sense of structure, while others need fewer zoom meetings cluttering up their day and interrupting their process. It may be as concrete as making sure everyone has the technology they need at home. Or perhaps making mental healthcare, childcare, or even home cleaning more accessible. I know one business owner who had fitness equipment sent to an employee who was struggling to cope with stress without their normal gym routine.
The solutions will depend on each of your employees’ individual circumstances. So talk to your team. Get their situations. Identify the places where processes are breaking down. Ask what accommodations would better equip them to thrive. This isn’t going away anytime soon, and if we want to survive, we have to live in the present, rather than the past.