Why Teams Are Not The Same Post COVID Lockdown?

Teams often struggle to come back togetherThe COVID-19 crisis that the world has and in many cases, still is facing has thrown up many challenges that families and businesses just did not see coming.  The crisis has been indiscriminate in choosing its victims both direct (catching the virus) and indirect (caught up in the repercussions of lock down), to the point that no planning could have prepared us for what came.   As businesses grapple with being completely shut down and then latterly being allowed to operate but only from home, the dynamics of every team would be impacted.  Suddenly leaders find themselves in a place where they had never been before, disconnected teams that were under varying degrees of stress some of which manifested behaviours that the leaders have not been equipped to deal with.

What should leaders be mindful of when leading teams remotely or when they eventually get to bring their teams back together?

State of Survival

When people were put into lock down, the uncertainty of their future became very real “will I keep getting my full wage?”, “Can I survive on 80% of my wage”, “how are we going to make ends meet?”, “will my organisation survive this and will I have a job at the end of this?”.  These questions and many others like it were flooding our brains, putting most of us into a primal survival mode.  We can’t help but go there because our brains only have one threat response.  It doesn’t matter whether a grizzly bear is attacking us, an earthquake is destroying our city, our conscious brain is playing out doomsday scenarios, they all instigate the same threat response.

We literally move into a flight or fight (there are actually 4 responses, the other two are freeze and forget) response to cope with the threat.   Most of us are a combination of some of those 4 responses which short term is not really a problem.   If the stressor does not go away, sitting in this threat state for a length of time is harmful to our health and mental wellbeing, its at this point our behaviours begin to change with an emphasis on “me” rather than “team”.

Where Should Leaders Focus?

Over the lock down period leaders have been experiencing more of this behaviour as they try and bring their teams back to their offices or factories and try and create a “business as usual” environment.  Most try starting where they left off not realising that some of their people have changed, feeling insecure they have moved into “look after me” mode.  It is this “me” mode that makes it challenging for teams to come back together.   People may be hyper-vigilant of others behaviour and are constantly re-assessing their colleagues to figure out whether they are a friend or foe.  Considering the following when bringing your team back together

  1. Re-establish the personal connection: When the team comes back into the work environment, bring them all together but not at an operational level, do this at a more personal level.  Find out what the team members did during lock down, what did they learn?  What did they do for entertainment?  If they have family, did the family do any activities together?  If they have school children ask about home schooling, did they find it a challenge, did they find it easy, did they even try to do home schooling?  Ask lots of questions, get the team talking about their personal experiences, it’s likely they will come to the conclusion that they all experienced similar things and they are not alone in their experiences.  Finding relatable common ground between the team members will bring them together on the personal level, re-establishing levels of trust that were (hopefully) there prior to lock down.
  2. Acknowledge the elephant in the room: Where is the company at right now, what are its plans going forward, how do the leaders in the organisation see the rest of the year playing out.  What are the current pressures and questions that its leaders are grappling with?  Be open, knowing bad news is better than not knowing any news, bad news can be processed, but no news will feed peoples fears for them to make up their own version of the future which may or may not help them in the short term.
  3. Set clear objectives:  It is important that leaders set a direction even if that direction is week to week or month to month, set one!  People will get in behind a leader if they know what the leader is trying to achieve.  Reach out to the people to get their ideas on what would be the best way to achieve the short term objectives, when the team feels included in the decision making process, they will have far great levels of engagement to make sure that objective is achieved.  With that engagement comes a greater level of purpose, ownership and sense of belonging, all of which will bring the team members together.
  4. Stay Curious: Keep an eye on the teams behaviour, look out for behaviour that suggests a team member has moved back into fight or flight mode.  Be curious, ask lots of questions to figure out what it is around that person that is triggering their threat response and keeping them in a stressed state.  Offer your help to help them alleviate that stressor(s), be there for them and support them, it is the biggest gift a leader can give their team members.
  5. Keep the fun flowing: When we are stressed we get serious, there is no fun in stress, there is no laughter in stress, that’s deliberate, the brain puts us into an aggressive state so we can deal with threats to our lives (we are not going to tell a grizzly bear a joke just before it tries to eat us).  Make fun things happen, keep the atmosphere happy, laughter actually negates the impact of stress, and as a result makes us more creative and productive and of course more pleasant to be around!!  So make sure there is plenty of fun in the work day.

We come out of COVID-19 lock down facing a new normal, embrace the new normal, don’t chase ‘how it used to be’, rather, create that new (fun) normal to go forward with.