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Five ways to protect your team’s emotional health

June 29, 2020 — Written by Jake Goldwasser

The past few months have been an emotional whirlwind. Given the personal and public turmoil that virtually everyone is grappling with, members of your team are at risk of burnout—even if they’re not showing it. As a leader, a big part of your role is to put supportive practices in place. But what exactly should you be keeping top-of-mind as the crisis drags on?

The rules of organizing a high-performing team have fundamentally changed, and it can be dizzying to pick and prioritize your new list of to-dos.

Here are five key areas to focus on, and specific, science-backed tips for how to take action on each today.

1)  Make an affinity plan

Chances are your people are more dispersed than ever. Many teams are reeling from a double whammy of physical distance (working from home) and an increase in operational distance (irregular schedules, new communication tools, unpredictable commitments from life outside of work, etc).

Effective leaders will see this as an opportunity to focus on reducing affinity distance, the social and emotional cohesion of a team. Low-affinity-distance teams trust each other, see their fates as shared, and connect as human beings. They also perform better—affinity distance has a bigger impact on innovation and learning than physical distance does.

So how do you act on that? Give your people tools to connect. That might mean scheduling a 10 minute GIF competition to get everyone laughing, or anticipating the shortcomings of virtual relationships. Without face-to-face contact, teammates are more likely to misread the tone of an email or make assumptions about colleagues’ thought processes. Let your team know about the cognitive distortions that arise more easily among distributed colleagues, and create virtual platforms for human connection to combat them.

2) Stay ahead of loneliness

COVID-19 isn’t the only widespread health risk in the developed world. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness an epidemic—and the problem is made even more dangerous by social distance.

Loneliness affects not only health, but also performance—according to Murthy, loneliness is associated with decreased task performance, limited creativity, and impairment of executive functions like decision-making.

He recommends a sharing practice during team meetings. Every week, give someone the floor to tell their story for five minutes. (Some simple prompts to get them started: an obstacle they are facing, a small success they’ve achieved, or something they are looking forward to outside of work.)

Freeform time for team members to talk about what matters to them is a great chance to boost authenticity and belonging—the same simple tools that stave off loneliness can help your team feel more in sync in the long term. 

3) Plant the seeds for good habits

A culture is an ecosystem, and that ecosystem has changed over the past months. Rather than trying to recreate what once was, allow for new, healthy work habits to form and adapt.

If your people are working remotely, set up an optional schedule-structuring exercise to give team members dedicated time to plan their calendars. Chunking your workday the night before to set an intentional schedule makes remote workers more effective. It also helps me with work-life balance.

Or let your people define their own positive habits. There’s a lot that’s beyond our control right now, but we are in charge of some elements of how we work. Focusing on what we can change might give us ideas to make the workday more delightful and productive—but more importantly, it prevents us from ruminating about the negative aspects of the situation. 

A #positive-habits channel on Slack is an easy way to let your people share what’s working for them. For a more tailored approach, take ten minutes in your next 1:1s to identify what your direct reports are struggling with (productivity, time-management, stress, etc.), and help them identify a positive habit to address it.

4) Ditch the one-size-fits-all mindset

If your team has ten people, your team has ten ways of coping with stress, ten ways of processing change, and ten ways of communicating (or ignoring) their feelings.

To build a resilient culture, you’ll need to give your employees space to create their own work narratives in a changed environment.

Set aside time for people to reflect on why their work matters, and then ask for volunteers to share how they connect to the mission. Motivation takes many forms—for some, it might be improving the lives of customers, while for others it might be helping out their coworkers, or perfecting their craft. Your team members are best suited to figure out what motivates them individually.

5) Don’t hit pause on development

At many organizations, development happens in person. If your team relied on group events or trainings for growth, you’ll need to leverage your people’s expertise to substitute for those channels.

While our inclination in times of crisis is often to stick to what we know, now is a great time to encourage cross-functional projects. Giving employees the opportunity to work beyond their immediate teams allows them to learn new skills and absorb expertise. It also gives them the satisfaction of contributing their own skills, solidifying their sense of belonging at a time when many people are struggling with purpose.

Is your yearly training seminar cancelled? Replace it with a virtual shadowing program, matching employees who are interested in learning new skills with the people who already have them.

For a low-touch development boost, try a simple reframing exercise. Ask your team to remember a recent failure, write down what they would do differently in the future, and share it with their managers. Small acts of reflection can change career trajectories.

 

Your workplace might not go back to normal, but large-scale shifts can be an opportunity to reset the culture of your organization. This is the time to ask yourself: What changes can I make to set my people up for success?

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