I woke up on January 1 ready to start the new year. I felt energized, optimistic and engaged. I soon realized that many people did not share my enthusiasm for 2021. Nothing changed in our world from December 31 to January 1. We continue to confront the pandemic and its impact on the economy. Less than a week into the new year, many of us who, as lawyers, have devoted our lives to the rule of law and who fully support the right to gather to peacefully protest, were shocked and horrified by the events in the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
The adrenaline surge of early 2020 is long gone. For many, 2021 began as 2020 ended, working remotely with feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, anxious and isolated.
The question becomes, how do we overcome these feelings and engage our teams for 2021, especially when many remote workers already are burned out on virtual meetings? Here are some ideas for consideration:
1. Be engaged yourself.
You cannot hope to engage others if you are burned out or disengaged. Take a careful look at your own emotions. Remember that this is not a time to be critical – we are, after all, living through an unprecedented crisis. Give yourself credit for just surviving 2020. Then think about what you need to be more engaged and enthusiastic. It could be something as simple as getting outside and taking a walk once a day – it’s cold in many parts of the world, but once you are outside and moving it might recharge you. Take a look at your workspace. Is it comfortable and inviting? Do you enjoy being there? You do not need a fully loaded home office, but you do need a dedicated space where you feel comfortable, with good lighting and an appropriate chair. Also, make sure that you are setting some limits – there have to be times when you are ‘home,’ as contrasted to the times when you are ‘at work.’ Lastly, whether you are working in the office or at home, make sure that you are taking time to do things that give you joy. The things you do may be different from your routine before COVID, but everyone needs fun in their life.
2. Up your game.
Little things mean a lot, and they can send important signals to those with whom we interact. Try a collared shirt or a nice blouse instead of athletic wear (pajamas?) for your next video conference. Style your hair. Put on your watch. Wear jewelry or make-up if you normally would when going to work. I do not mean to suggest that we should return to the formality of the pre-pandemic days, and perhaps we never will. However, putting in the effort to project a more together image can have a positive impact on your attitude and outlook.
3. Conduct good meetings.
I never really knew what it meant to conduct a good meeting until I had the opportunity to observe someone do so for a not-for-profit board. There was a clear and set agenda, with goals/outcomes. The leader started meetings by stating the desired outcome of the meeting. He kept the meetings to the scheduled time and kept the agenda moving, without limiting meaningful discussion. He ensured that every participant, both those in person and those on the phone, had an opportunity to speak. As an attendee, because I knew that at some point I would be “called on,” I found myself far more engaged and alert during the meeting. In today’s virtual world, these leadership skills are even more important.
4. Build in human interaction.
Today’s meetings need to have elements of human interaction. My current company uses a tool called a segue, where meetings start with each participant stating one positive thing, personal or professional, that happened in their life since the last meeting. This is a great way to celebrate a job well done. It also allows us to acknowledge the graduations, weddings, births and other joyful events in people’s lives. Lastly, it ensures that everyone is mentally present for the meeting.
5. One on ones.
You probably started conducting one on ones when the world first went remote, but perhaps they have slipped as time went on. I firmly believe in the importance of one on one time to keep our interpersonal bonds strong (or develop them) and to make sure that team members can talk about their challenges and needs during this crazy time. Simple things, like whether a staff meeting is scheduled during an elementary school child’s remote schooling time, can cause undue frustration. The need to look out for the mental and emotional wellbeing of our coworkers has never been stronger. As leaders, we also need to share our own anxieties and frustrations, while directing the conversation toward the future and a return to stability.
6. Speak up and be direct.
I will admit to being a very direct person, and to expecting others to be direct with me. For many, especially women, persons of color or individuals who are new to the work force, this can be challenging. Only you know your work environment and know your supervisor’s style. You need to think carefully about how direct is too direct. It is important to remember, however, that your supervisor generally does not know all of the things that you know and cannot know many of these things unless you bring them to his or her attention. The easy example is the remote school situation referenced above. There are many, much more challenging situations, however. For example, if your personal circumstances are diminishing your ability to work it is important that you get help (remembering that in this remote world, many might find themselves in less than ideal home situations). Normal human misunderstandings also can be magnified when we are not spending time together. For example, I recently made a statement that I intended to be seen as an opportunity, but the employee thought I was criticizing her abilities. When working remote, it is even more critical that we can ask one another, “what did you mean by that?” No, not every manager can handle directness, and yes, it is a risk to raise some issues in the workplace. A failure to raise them, however, might mean that the issue never gets addressed for any number of reasons: because it is unknown to those who can make a difference, because it is perceived to be unimportant, or because it was the product of a simple interpersonal misunderstanding that never gets corrected.
7. Create a strategy.
One of the best ways that I have seen to increase engagement and bond a team together is to create their strategy together. Together is the key word here. The strategy cannot be mandated from on high, although obviously it must align with the larger corporate strategy. Coming together to build the future is one of the most optimistic things we can do right now. It allows us to focus on the world post-COVID and on how we can grow our businesses. It allows us to do something with long term benefits, rather than continue to react to one perceived urgency after another.
8. Celebrate victories.
Celebrate wins, both within your team and within the larger business. Don’t let ‘out of sight’ become ‘out of mind.’ If someone does something great, make sure that he or she gets the recognition deserved.
9. Enjoy time together in a fun way.
Many people are burned out on virtual conferences, and I have even heard people say that virtual cocktail parties with colleagues (as opposed to friends and family) are like going to the dentist. If you want to schedule a virtual event and have the funds, there are some really fun things that you can do – a book club, a virtual book signing where the author discusses his or her motivation for the book, a cooking class, a virtual wine or chocolate tasting (wine or chocolate delivered to the employee’s home) or a pizza party/picnic with food delivered to each employee’s home. Don’t push it, however. Many people seem to prefer to chat one on one rather than participate in group events which seem fabricated and awkward. It is also never too early to plan safe activities for the summer – virtual 5K’s, golf outings (with inclusive activities designed for non-golfers), a meeting or walk in a local park.
10. Keep communication flowing.
Everyone has a lot of questions. Is my job secure? Is the company financially stable? When will we be required to return to the office? When will a vaccine be available? Will the company mandate the vaccine? What if I do not want to get the vaccine, or cannot for medical or religious reasons? As a leader, you will not have all of the answers, but must try to communicate those which you can communicate. Right now, it is hard to plan next week, let alone the rest of 2021, so give people answers whenever you can. The biggest challenge to communication today is thinking about the questions before they are asked, since we can no longer keep our pulse on the flow of thoughts around the mythical water cooler.
Engagement is more than just presence, and it is more than just performance. In the purest form, it is about excitement and joy. It allows us to form closer personal bonds with our coworkers and our employer. It boosts us up, rather than wearing us down. COVID-19 will not last forever. Let’s help one another approach the future with optimism and enthusiasm – a new day is on the horizon.
Until next time…