Sigalit Ronen is a professor of organizational behavior at the CSUN David Nazarian College of Business and Economics at California State University, Northridge. Her research expertise and consulting practice focus on leadership, motivation, performance appraisal systems, and corporate social responsibility.
This pandemic crisis has put both employees and managers under stress most of us never really prepared for. These are challenging times, but managers can unleash the best in their employees and mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic by adopting a leadership approach that promotes community and social connectivity, structure, consistency and flexibility.
Regardless of where the pandemic has caught each of us, there is an overarching sense of uncertainty that affects us all. The lack of preparedness for the pandemic, its enigmatic and overarching nature, and the abrupt transition to a remote work setting couldn’t possibly allow for readiness either professionally or mentally, causing people to feel disoriented, anxious, distressed and concerned about the future— reactions that can have far-reaching implications for employees’ well-being, work motivation and job performance.
Employees who now have to work remotely may feel increased strain due to isolation from peers, especially when collaboration and social support are essential for their job performance. Additionally, it is important to note that although telecommuting has been on the rise in certain occupations, not all jobs are well-suited to telecommuting. Transitioning to virtual work requires planning and coordination adjustments, and when these are not set in place ahead of time employees are likely to experience high pressure as they have unclear role expectations. Collectively, unless managed effectively by organizational leadership, this abundance of transitions and changes is expected to severely impair employees’ ability to work productively.
A key for motivating remote employees in this pandemic crisis is to embrace the following three approaches: Promoting social connectivity, establishing structure and allowing for more flexibility.
Promoting Social Connectivity
Managers should attempt to lessen virtual employees’ sense of isolation by supporting social connectivity and constructing a safe virtual working space where employees feel they are part of a community. This can include organizing virtual social events to strengthen employees’ sense of social bonding, and encouraging cooperation, coaching and mentoring engagements to help employees get up to speed with the use of tools and processes while collaborating with other members of the organization. Offering support to employees by making online resources available can also make employees feel less isolated and help them deal better with stress. This can include things such as tools to assist parents of school kids, self-help stress reduction programs and online exercise plans. The emphasis should be on delivering a clear message that “we are all in this together.”
The pandemic is introducing a lot of change in our lives. As a result of that our minds are overloaded with concerns and thoughts that detract from our ability to dedicate ourselves fully to work as we normally do. Managers can help employees work better by eliminating technological roadblocks and establishing clear and consistent polices for virtual work. That includes bringing more structure to employees’ daily schedules, presenting clear guidelines and expectations for coordination and participation, providing training opportunities to enhance familiarity with technological and communicational aspects of the job, and setting working goals that are as reasonable under the current circumstances and as specific, measurable, attainable and time-bound as can be.
Research shows that addressing these issues can increase employees’ trust in the organization, shorten project completion times, and make employees feel more connected to the organization and its goals.
Managers should balance results with concerns for employees, especially during this pandemic situation that is accompanied by high levels of uncertainty. Keep in mind that people are balancing new domestic responsibilities — such as home schooling — with very real concerns for the health and wellbeing of their loved ones. This unique situation calls for more understanding and flexibility on the part of managers.
I’ve been collecting data from students and employees to take the temperature of the situation. In the first couple of weeks of isolation, people felt like the transition really hurt their ability to perform well. It was difficult to establish a schedule when there was no barrier between work/school and home, and it was harder to figure out ways to achieve goals. At the end of the day, many people felt that they weren’t sure where the time went.
But as time has gone by and people are adjusting to their new routines, many are finding that they are able to be effective again. There is still much that is uncertain about the weeks and month ahead. Promoting a sense of community and providing structure — but being flexible to allow employees to deal with the turmoil in their personal lives — could be the key to fostering a successful work environment.
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