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Melbourne Business School News How to manage your team through stop-start COVID-19 restrictions

How to manage your team through stop-start COVID-19 restrictions

Managing staff can be challenging at the best of times, but especially when the rules around COVID-19 keep changing, writes Professor of Organisational Behaviour Isabel Metz.

Stop-start COVID-19 restrictions make leading a team even more challenging than usual

The role of almost every workplace manager is to achieve organisational goals through other people. Therefore, they need to balance their organisation's interests with those of their team.

In the current environment of rapidly-changing work conditions due to COVID-19, that's not always easy. The unpredictable and often deadly nature of a global pandemic only allows for very short-term managerial planning of work and staff scheduling.

In addition, these managerial responsibilities are partly dependent on individual employees' understanding and attitudes to personal risk, health and safety, and work preferences.

There are, however, a number of things that managers can do to steer their team through the stopping and starting of COVID-19 restrictions as smoothly as possible.

You should be repeating yourself – a lot

It takes more repetition than many people expect for a message to sink in, and even more so in an environment where people are likely to be suffering from information overload.

Managers should communicate multiple times the fact that work plans and priorities are liable to change at short notice. How many times, exactly? The rule of thumb is seven for getting an important message across.

If you make an effort to do this, you can also cover off on two of the basic tenets of good people management that apply in all circumstances – keep in touch with your team regularly and communicate often.

Negotiate a psychological contract

It isn't always possible to predict the situations you will need to navigate in the future, but you can come to an understanding about how you will navigate them.

Try to strike a "deal", or psychological contract – a set of expectations you have of each other – with your team, based on the principles of social exchange or reciprocity.

For example, it may be that you agree to try to accommodate as many of your team's return to work preferences as is possible and reasonable, and in return, you expect some flexibility and accommodation to rapidly-changing work conditions.

Specific issues that you might want flexibility on are how, where, what and when work is done, and a willingness for team members to work together and support each other, by doing things like covering for a colleague or temporarily taking on a different role if needed.

Take a consultative approach to decisions

When people feel like they are part of a solution, they will be more committed to making it work. This means you should include staff as much as possible in the decision-making process.

Start by gathering information on work preferences. For example, even though an individual might not have a chronic health condition that puts them at greater risk of infection, they may still be cautious by nature and prefer to avoid working in the office or crowded spaces when possible.

You also need to communicate your own preferences and priorities as a manager, as well as any boundaries that exist on the decision to be made. It may be the case that some details can be worked out as a group, but certain others aren't up for negotiation.

By tackling decisions collaboratively, you are also more likely to leverage the talent in the team to find novel and creative solutions you might not have thought of yourself.

Be transparent if there are exceptions

It's always best to avoid special deals, but in circumstances like COVID-19 it is more likely that some individuals will require different treatment than others.

If a deal or exception does exist, be transparent about it – communicate what it is and why it's in place to the rest of the team, so they don't find out secondhand from somebody else. This is important in order to preserve your integrity and the trust that your staff have in you.

Come up with Plans A, B and C

An effective manager will vigilantly scan the environment for threats and opportunities as much as possible and plan ahead accordingly. In rapidly-changing environments, this skill becomes of paramount importance to preserving organisational performance and employee wellbeing.

When it isn't clear what's going to happen next, an effective option is to plan for several different possibilities. In the current environment, that might look like devising a Plan A for one possible COVID-19 scenario and a couple more plans to cover other possible scenarios.

For each plan, it is your responsibility to determine who are the "essential" workers and who are the "supporting" team to carry it out. Consult with your team on their availability to carry out their duties under each plan. If there are individuals who won't be able to meet their duties due to special circumstances, try to negotiate for another team member to fill their role temporarily in the event that the plan goes into action.

Sudden changes can be disruptive and stressful for managers and teams alike. Having plans in place for different scenarios offers a modicum of certainty and, thus, reduces change-induced stress for everyone.

Be generous in celebrating good work

If you've taken the steps above, your team will hopefully also make an extra effort to help solve problems as they arise. Make sure to celebrate that by publicly recognising examples of good teamwork, staff willingness to go the extra mile under difficult circumstances, and innovative and creative ideas to achieve work goals.

Be generous and sincere in your praise, and show sympathy and compassion to those facing difficulties. It's also important to remember that some examples of good work are less visible than others, but no less worthy of recognition and praise.

Look after yourself

Above all, as a manager you need to look after yourself during these very trying times. It's like being in an airplane with dependents – in the case of unexpected adverse conditions, put your mask on first before attending to others.

Keeping yourself as healthy and grounded as possible will help give your team the leadership it needs to navigate the uncertain terrain we find ourselves on.

Professor Metz teaches Managing People and Managing a Diverse Workforce on our MBA Programs. Before academia, she spent more than a decade in Australian banking in a range of IT, marketing, change management and operations management positions. Visit her faculty profile for more information.

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