December 2020 looks and feels shockingly similar to March 2020. Covid-19 cases are yet again on the rise, most people are working from home, and social distancing is still mandated. Now there are fewer daylight hours and winter weather is limiting outdoor activities that were a joy and release for many this summer. Time with friends and family that usually happens this time of year is going to be very different, if it can happen at all. As we enter our 10th month of battling Covid-19, many people are beginning to experience Pandemic Fatigue: a shared exhaustion from dealing with the virus, and subsequent restrictions and stresses.
Many leaders rose to the leadership challenges of March and April. Communications were at an all-time high, and front-line employees had access to Senior leaders like never before. Now that we are entering the winter months again, it is valuable to reflect. How do we continue to lead as we, and our employees, begin to experience “Pandemic Fatigue”?
Start with Empathy
People are likely feeling that they are on a roller coaster. Our lives have been much the same since March with some sense of normalcy in the summer. Now it feels like we are moving backwards. Set the expectation for your team that life and work will continue to collide and give people permission to feel pandemic fatigue. A lot of things have changed since early 2020, especially with children going back to school in some form or another. Have you checked in with employees lately? Do they still have what they need to be successful in their roles? Work to create openings for people to be honest about how they are feeling and admit that you yourself are feeling the effects of pandemic fatigue. Try leading your meetings this week with a simple but direct check-in of how everyone is actually coping with the pandemic. You might even say:
“A lot of people have been sharing with me that their productivity might be a little sluggish right now. How are you feeling?”
Listen to your people’s response and help brainstorm options to alleviate some of the fatigue and stressors of this year. Employees who largely have independent work may be feeling the weight of 2020 more than others. Finding ways for folks like software engineers to collaborate with others, perhaps through processes like pair-coding, can be a great way to break up the day. Give permission for people to work irregular hours, or break their work day into a series of shorter intervals. Lead with empathy and trust your employees to do their work. Suspend judgment if an email comes at an odd hour and timing is not “normal”; what we are currently experiencing is far from “normal."
Set an Example
As a leader your words and actions are powerful signals to your team. Make your own coping techniques visible. If you are blocking time each day to take a walk, tell your people and empower them to do the same. If you are starting work at 7am with the goal of finishing by 3pm to enjoy some time outdoors, tell your people and empower them to do the same. If you are taking time off, tell your people and empower them to do the same.
As daylight time each day dwindles, being able to enjoy the sunshine is incredibly important, especially during a global event that has already taken a toll on many individuals’ mental health. The winter has the potential to be a dreary time for your employees. As we are approaching a year in this remote work situation, it may be time to consider some more flexible working hours. Some firms have tried “No Meeting Fridays” or timeboxing all meetings into a four-hour window to allow people to finish their daily work on their own schedule. Some companies have even been offering mental health days or hosting events where employees can share good news and things that have brought them joy during the pandemic. Set an example and encourage your people to focus on their mental health.
Highlight the Wins
Wins in 2020 might look very different than they have in previous years. Help people see what the company as a whole was able to accomplish this year and what they were able to individually achieve. It may feel like 2020 was a year of missed targets and failed expectations. Conduct a review with each individual or team to focus on the outcomes that were NOT on the plan in January. Every business and organization had to get creative this year. Define the year around the innovation and the creativity and the product success -NOT the revenue. Then consider getting people involved in applying for awards to get recognition in the industry. People get energy from wins. Finding ways to showcase the success of 2020 can help inspire your team and bring some energy into the coming year.
Invest in your People
A great way to break up the monotony of working from home and being isolated from other team members is to give your people a new experience they can share with others. Sometimes, a simple change of pace can be energizing. Learning a new skill and stretching yourself can be even more energizing. Now is a great time to invest in virtual leadership training to make sure your employees are equipped to communicate and make difficult choices. Your leaders will thank you for the opportunity to network with others across the firm and take a brief respite from day-to-day tasks, all while bettering themselves during a year of more limited opportunities.
For many folks, having interesting work to do this year has been both a challenge and a great relief. Work has been in some ways an outlet and a way to feel productive in a year when it can feel like time is standing still. Empowering employees to evaluate how work fits into life this year and reflecting upon the signals you are sending to your team can have a big impact on your people and their well-being.
Krista Campbell is an Associate Consultant and Karen Maxwell Powell (co-author) is the General Manager and at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.