Self Isolation and Manager Mindsets – A Worrying Trend

A few emails have been forwarded to me in the last few days.  The messages in those emails from managers to their team members, who are forced to work while practising self isolation at home, is very clear: ‘We are watching you.  We will be watching who works well and who does not.’  Chilling.  In this article, I’ll look at the implications for managers on what will change, what will stay the same, and how managers might view the world through a professional lens.

New pressures

With so many people around the world right now having to isolate themselves and work from home, the pressures on leaders and managers are different from anything we have experienced before.  Yes, people have worked from home for years now, aided by this remarkable age of communications in which we live.

However, what we are experiencing at the moment really is different.  It is self isolation enforced by law and social expectation; it is not a choice or a privilege.  I am told that the managers who are sending such emails are typically respected, highly regarded and liked by their teams.  They are normally personable and approachable, supportive and they get things done. Normally.  But, this message, oh dear.  What a way to undermine all the strong reputational capital they have carefully built up with their teams over the years.

The present unique circumstances mean that managers we to need to maintain business-as-usual-as-possible but in an entirely new context.

The scepticism is understandable but there is a new reality

It is common for managers to be sceptical of ‘working from home’; ‘if you are working from home you are not working’.  Yes, it’s too easy to start working a little later, do a little online shopping or quit for the day a little earlier.  While we can understand that scepticism, right now we simply must think differently.

 What will be different?  The challenges:

It’s important to remember that self isolation is physical; it is not organisational nor commercial:

1. Visibility of people at work to you, their manager

With co-location there is visibility; and with visibility comes a level of comfort that people are doing their jobs because they are there!  That may well be a false comfort anyway; people who look busy are not necessarily people who are being purposeful and adding value!

2. More formality

Online communication including emails and teleconferences tend to be relatively formal and more structured (a set time, formal agenda) than in-person meetings.

3. Switching on and off

It can be difficult for people in self isolation working in a place that is normally not a workplace.  Dressing for work and travelling to the workplace is a form of emotional preparation for the day ahead.  The opposite ‘wind-down’ occurs at the end of the day.  The psychological switch between work and home will be less obvious.

4. A new personal/professional blur

Personal pressures at home can impact upon role performance.  Children demand attention; couriers require signatures for deliveries; next door’s television blares.  All of these can break the psychological illusion of being virtually in the office.

5. A new reliance on digital communications

Email, IM and teleconferencing are not new, but the complete reliance on them is.  Daily interactions will be limited to digital media meaning new nuances and etiquette.  Whether harder or easier, it will still be different.

What should remain the same?

1. Trusted professional colleagues

The default position of managers should be to treat people as being trusted to perform their work-roles while being accountable for their work.  The default should not be subjective feelings and frustration of not seeing people in the office!

2. Performance

There is no reason for a person’s job performance to fall away where location is relatively unimportant.  What people had to do or deliver last month will probably still be the same this month – just in different circumstances

3. Ethical and principled practice

Is there ever a reason for ethical and principles practice not to be observed?  No.  That’s a definitive ‘no’.  One can understand performance falling temporarily but never, ever should ethics fail to be observed.

4. Management goes on

The fact that you need to monitor and measure the performance of your team need not change, nor does how it is measured.  If you measure performance via one method now, it’s likely that the same methods will remain unchanged.

Applying a professional lens to the situation

A ‘professional lens’ is a way of seeing the world when we are performing our work-role.  It means seeing our role, our tasks, the value we provide and the problems we solve from the perspective of our work-role in order to help us to fulfil our purpose.

1. Role Purpose

Focus on that fact that your people are in their roles to fulfil a purpose, not to do ‘busy work’ activity or merely be present.  For a manager who wants to promote or maintain professionalism, this means:

    • Being extremely clear about the specific purpose of the work-role of each member of the team, including the value and contribution; understand what ‘fulfilment of purpose’ now looks like
    • Ensuring that the tools people need are available and that they are suitably trained
    • Establishing standards – applying quality standards that are usually expected but in the new circumstances. As a leader, your most important contributions will be to set and maintain standards by communication, being available and approachable (albeit by different means) and by exhibiting trusting behaviours

2. Focus on ‘what’, not ‘how’

People might not be able to work the way they normally do in order to fulfil the purpose of their work-roles.  New surroundings, a new emphasis on old tools; it will take time to find a new ‘how’.

The important thing is that each person will need to figure this out for him- or her-self, drawing upon their own unique skills, insights, intellect and energy.  The complexities and nuances of new ways of working suggest that it will be difficult to dictate a new ‘how’.

The manager’s task is to support and trust each person to find and own the new way while reinforcing that work still needs to be delivered while meeting professional standards and usual expectations.

3. Meta-work

It will be important to acknowledge the challenges but also to make time to let the teams share their experiences and insights on good work practice with each other.  Build time into your team meetings for your team to share this new knowledge; encourage them to do so and, where possible and appropriate, incentivise the team for continual improvement

4. Personally patient, professionally expectant

With new circumstances, managers will have to be patient while people find a way to perform to fulfil the purpose of their work role.  However – and this goes to the very heart of the issue – being personally patient does not mean that you have to compromise your expectations that people will fulfil the purpose of their work role.  The patience you will need to exercise is related to people finding their own individual way of performing their role in the face of personal distractions, not in the fulfilment of purpose.

In the end, you never know, we might just find whole new ways of working!

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