Across the UK, and the world, millions of employees will have packed up their desks this past week and retreated to the sanctuary of their own homes.
For those who already work flexibly, the dynamics of homeworking will be familiar. For others, it represents a leap into the unknown with no opportunity to prepare either practically or emotionally at a time when everything we understood to be normal about our daily lives and routines has been turned upside down.
People have an amazing ability to adapt, but to do so effectively they will need the support of those within their organisations in positions of authority.
The UK’s effective lockdown puts business leaders – and retail leaders especially – in a challenging position. High street brands deemed non-essential who have little or no presence online are effectively in a position of dormancy until restrictions on social distancing are lifted.
Leaders of these businesses not only have difficult choices to make around staff retention, but they must also ensure that employees who are kept on throughout this period remain engaged with the company’s agenda and sufficiently motivated to ensure that, when their doors do reopen, the business can hit the ground running.
Other retailers, such as grocers, whose essential services are being stretched to breaking point, need to coordinate a military-style operation involving thousands of people, many of whom they won’t see in the flesh for the foreseeable future.
Current circumstances make this challenging, to put it mildly. Whilst the technology is available to connect disparate individuals and teams, it doesn’t always work as seamlessly as one would like. Zoom or Skype calls that are ideal for one-to-one chats can become unwieldy and disjointed when entire teams take part.
On top of this is the domestic situation to consider. Many people, including senior managers and executives, will have school-age children to look after. Some will be attempting to home-educate their kids in-between attending or chairing meetings and completing vital tasks, often dovetailing with a partner that also works full time.
Leaders, more than anything at the moment, need to show they understand the difficulties everybody in their organisation is facing.
Now is the not the time for micro-managing and setting unreasonable expectations around rapid responses and rigid working hours; what’s needed is assured, calm and emotionally intelligent leadership that puts faith in people to do the job to the best of their ability.
In times of crisis, it pays to focus on the things you can control. That means setting clear and reasonable goals, maintaining cohesion within teams, checking in and giving people time to express their emotions and anxieties, and keeping people motivated to fulfil their roles and responsibilities.
At the same time, it’s vital that leaders themselves take time out to look after their own wellbeing and that of their families. By doing so they will connect with other individuals in a more empathetic way.
These are exceptional times for all of us. Leaders that show they are humans, not machines, will emerge from these difficult times with their reputations enhanced and with a new set of skills that will stand them in good stead for the future challenges we all will face.