Q & A with Kilberry: What is on our Client’s Minds?
Since early March, Kilberry’s organizational psychologists have been working closely (and remotely) with senior executives on managing through COVID-19. We have also led virtual “fireside chats” with large groups of leaders. Through this, we have received many questions about working, leading, and self-managing through this pandemic. We have aggregated these questions here, in verbatim. We thought these questions, and our answers, would be worth sharing with you.
Please click on a question below to see our answer.
- There is so much uncertainty in the world right now. I often find myself cycling through different feelings and perspectives with a wide range in emotion. While some of the initial shock has subsided, I am not sure of how to make sense of all this, and how to support my team.
- I am on phone calls all day with team members who are sharing their distressing personal situations and challenges. While I am trying to be empathetic to their concerns and issues, I find it very draining and it has started to personally affect me. What can I do?
- While my team and I experienced the initial shock and displacement of the pandemic in much the same way as others, we have somewhat adjusted to the new reality. Should I expect that we are out of the worst part of the crisis psychologically?
- I am used to working with a strong intensity and am highly achievement oriented. While the initial WFH changeover was intense for me and my team, I’m finding that many of the priorities for my role have been downgraded. I am struggling to find the place where I can provide value and feel a sense of accomplishment, in the manner I’m used to providing.
- I sincerely miss the rhythm of work and having some boundaries between work and home. I am finding it difficult to separate hours of the day spent working and being available for my family. I spend long hours in my WFH space, but am feeling restless, unproductive and not myself.
- I recently started in a new role, before the pandemic hit. I was only just in the beginning stages of introducing myself, sharing my capabilities and generally ramping up with my teams. The pandemic has thrown my plans out the window and I am worried that I am not showing my long term value.
- As this crisis wears on, I am finding that while I have adjusted to the new reality, monotony is setting in. Days bleed into one another, without much distinction. My team and I could be in this same WFH mode for at least another 4-6 months. How do I deal with the monotony of this situation?
- My team keeps asking me about what the return to work is going to look like, and I don’t know at this time. What should I tell them?
- My general strategy as a leader was to bring issues to my team informally, by having conversations and speaking to people face to face. This pandemic has taken that capability away from me and I’m struggling to find the right strategy to connect with my team.
- What is the impact on accumulated social distancing (and isolation) for leaders and organizations over time?
- What are the warning signs that can be picked up in a virtual interaction that tells you a colleague is struggling?
- Team sentiment has changed over the 6+ weeks, from shock, to acceptance and now possibly new reality. What strategies would you suggest for planning for a return to the office when that happens?
Balancing Work and Home
- I am investing a lot of time in my team and I’m worried that I am over-indexing on their needs at the expense of my family. I feel tired and unbalanced. What can I do to bring some balance?
- The expectations (pull) on senior leaders are extreme, as we want to be accessible to our colleagues, team and family. How do you set boundaries without coming across like you’re not there for others?
Q: There is so much uncertainty in the world right now. I often find myself cycling through different feelings and perspectives with a wide range in emotion. While some of the initial shock has subsided, I am not sure of how to make sense of all this, and how to support my team.
A: There are well documented psychological stages in a crisis. Initially, there is considerable upheaval, turbulence and widespread uncertainty in the changes to our daily lives. A loss of control, and worries about the unknown, are quite destabilizing. Once we manage to reach a new equilibrium (e.g., set up our team to work from home), we start to settle into the Maintenance Phase. This cycle of emotion is quite common. The shared sense of community and positivity about being in this together can fade, and frustration, anger and disappointment can proliferate if people feel they cannot return to normal.
In this stage, it is important to acknowledge the cycle of emotions and perspectives that people continue to experience. As a leader, share your own challenges (albeit be mindful of the amount of detail), to create some sense that we are all going through something difficult together, even if the specific challenges are different. It is also quite common for people to feel guilty that they are experiencing these big emotions and frustrations, despite having some privileged circumstances (e.g., some form of childcare). No one person’s situation is going to be the same, and it is important for everyone to feel they have a safe place to acknowledge the disruptions to their lives and how that is impacting them. Finally, think about ways to express your desires for the future, and perhaps what’s going well right now that we want to retain (e.g., more regular team meetings).
Q: I am on phone calls all day with team members who are sharing their distressing personal situations and challenges. While I am trying to be empathetic to their concerns and issues, I find it very draining and it has started to personally affect me. What can I do?
A: As a leader, it is important that you are accessible and available to your team. Each and every person is experiencing this situation in a different and unique way, and often people look to their leader to provide guidance, advice and support. At the same time, you are likely also experiencing your own challenges related to the current situation. It is critical that you have your own personal support system in place to take care of your psychological health and physical well-being. Make sure you are exercising, getting enough sleep and eating healthy. Ensure you have a support system of caring individual(s) around you who can help you process your own mental stress.
In this situation of drain, you must remember that your role as a leader is not to act as a therapist. At the same time, depending on where we are at in the crisis (stage), people may need more time to talk and digest. At the outset of a crisis it is important to spend more time on this. Connecting to simply talk through issues or challenges people are facing, how you can best support them and what steps you or the business is taking to do so, is effective and supportive. Through Maintenance Phase, (i.e., our current state), it’s best to spend a shorter, specific amount of time on personal situations, and then move on to talk about business issues. For example, on 1:1 calls, leave 5-10 minutes at start of call for discussing your team member’s situation and how they are managing, and then move on. Some people just don’t know how to move on, and might welcome the redirection. Your role can be to redirect the conversation and focus on your team’s goals, tasks, strategy, issues to solve, etc. That will allow people to feel their challenges have been heard, while focusing on the concrete business tasks to move forward. Certain people may require more time, and the cycle for how you connect on the personal side will be shorter the if you connect with more frequency.
Q: While my team and I experienced the initial shock and displacement of the pandemic in much the same way as others, we have somewhat adjusted to the new reality. Should I expect that we are out of the worst part of the crisis psychologically?
A: Not necessarily. As we have seen, people have a huge variety of circumstances that can impact them in very different ways. Additionally, it is quite possible for people to cycle through periods of intense emotion, balanced with calm and openness to our new circumstances.
We should be mindful that there is a potential for a compounding effect to occur. As time wears on, without immediate understanding of “what’s next”, or as physical distancing becomes a part of how we work for the foreseeable future, there is the potential that the drain, exhaustion, and emotional toll we had experienced initially may persist and/or change forms. Instead of worrying about what physical distancing means, and the acute worry about getting the virus, the concern morphs into “how can I keep doing this [work from home, not see my parents, etc.] for months on end.” We need to be attuned this, and as leaders, regularly reach out to our colleagues and teams, to see how they are doing. Continue to provide support, guidance, lend an ear and stay attuned to the potential for these challenges to compound even more. Should you see a deterioration in a team member’s mental state, it is important to help direct that person to resources available (EAP, mental health professional) that can offer professional support.
Q: I am used to working with a strong intensity and am highly achievement oriented. While the initial WFH changeover was intense for me and my team, I’m finding that many of the priorities for my role have been downgraded. I am struggling to find the place where I can provide value and feel a sense of accomplishment, in the manner I’m used to providing.
A: High achievers are used to getting things done and ticking items off their to do list; they often thrive on that intensity. Many people tie their own sense of self-worth to the set of accomplishments they have achieved. The pandemic initially created a sense of that need and worth, as we worked to get our teams the resources they needed to be operational. However, that intensity has likely subsided.
Firstly, it is important to give yourself a break. Recognize that things that you personally find motivating and exciting have been diminished or removed completely. Focus on what you can do and what you can control.
Secondly, it is ok not to be as busy. Some businesses (or certain business units) are working at breakneck speed, and managing with incredible intensity, while others are relatively quiet. In this downtime, are there other aspects to your personal life that you can maintain some intensity and derive some greater satisfaction from (e.g., board work, volunteerism, teaching your child about fractions, etc.).
Finally, review priorities with your boss, take time to connect with others and figure out what your pivot might look like as we start to get back to a new normal. Some businesses will come out of the crisis stronger because they were able to pivot to the new or next big thing. They are able to use the lessons from today and apply that thinking to move forward. Is there something you can throw some energy into that applies?
Q: I sincerely miss the rhythm of work and having some boundaries between work and home. I am finding it difficult to separate hours of the day spent working and being available for my family. I spend long hours in my WFH space, but am feeling restless, unproductive and not myself.
A: Right now it can feel even more intense because the boundaries we once had may not be there. For many of us, we used to travel to work and “turn on” work mode. We’d get home and have a family dinner and spend time with our loved ones. But now, these barriers are no longer in place. Kids need help with focusing their day, elderly parents need support because they can no longer get out, the dog walker isn’t available, but the dog needs to get exercise. This is one of those rare times where a person cannot compartmentalize their lives like they are used to. There are a number of things to consider in order to create some normalcy and rhythm to our new work situations.
Firstly, set up your physical (home) space where you will have minimal interruptions. Ideally, that includes a door that can be closed. Consider things like natural lighting, speed of traffic through the area, and physical comfort (are you sitting at a desk or forced to work at a coffee table or on the floor). Follow specific routines or rituals that provide certainty and enhance your mental state. For example, get up at the same time every morning, work out, take a break for lunch when your isolation mates (spouse, kids, etc.) are breaking, take a walk every day at a certain time. Finally, end your workday at the same time every day. Show your team that you are prioritizing other things (e.g., making the family dinner) at the end of the day and are not endlessly accessible. That allows your team members to do the same, in support of creating some compartmentalization of our days.
Q: I recently started in a new role, before the pandemic hit. I was only just in the beginning stages of introducing myself, sharing my capabilities and generally ramping up with my teams. The pandemic has thrown my plans out the window and I am worried that I am not showing my long term value.
A: We all had plans and goals for our work this year, and a lot of that has had to be curbed. Plans to reach out and network, build relationships and connect with others in different parts of the business have had to take a backseat to immediate needs. Now that the initial challenge of set-up and WFH has started to subside, there may be some pieces that we can continue to do, albeit through a different modality or tempered in some way.
For example, touching base with various leaders you were hoping to network with, while initially may have been focused on getting to know them, could now take the form of “what’s happening in their business now and what lessons learned do they have from this time”? Capitalize on the sense of being in this together, to help others reflect and perhaps provide insight from an outsider’s perspective. Another option is to re-evaluate where your current business is at, and generate some insight into how the business will need to adapt going forward. Share those plans with your boss. Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself about not being able to provide the immediate value you had hoped to. We will get back to a “new reality” and there is a reason you were hired/promoted into a role. Soon enough, you will be able to shine again.
Q: As this crisis wears on, I am finding that while I have adjusted to the new reality, monotony is setting in. Days bleed into one another, without much distinction. My team and I could be in this same WFH mode for at least another 4-6 months. How do I deal with the monotony of this situation?
A: There is not a good, clear answer to this challenge. Certainly finding some opportunities to include exercise and outdoor time as part of the regular routine is helpful. As we get into warmer weather, this will easier to do, and a greater draw. Even a 15-20 minute walk in the middle of the day can clear up some of the frustration at being inside, in one spot, working all day. This is not dissimilar to how we used to operate – going out for lunches, walking to meetings in other locations, etc.
As this time gets extended, it is also important to consider external sources of “excitement” to break up the daily work routine. For example, is there a hobby that you let go some time ago because you just didn’t have enough time? Are there new things you want to learn (e.g., baking, gardening, etc.)? Find some thing(s) that create a new challenge or simply bring you joy, and add those to your regular routine. It may be minimal at first, but as you increasingly see the progress, it might become a part of your regular set up.
Finally, while we are encouraged to maintain physical distance, and likely will continue to have some form of this in our “new normal”, it is important to stay connected socially with friends and family. Experiment with new technology and apps that allow you to connect with others individually or in groups. If you feel you’ve exhausted the conversations or simply don’t want to keep talking about the current situation, there are some great apps out there that allow you to play games with others (e.g., trivia, Pictionary, etc.), despite being at a distance and still do something social together.
Q: My team keeps asking me about what the return to work is going to look like, and I don’t know at this time. What should I tell them?
A: With so much uncertainty to date and a lack of clarity on what the future holds, people are craving something specific that they can grasp onto. As a leader, you may be privy to the changes the business is looking to put in place as you move forward. You should consider sharing some of the options you are taking into consideration, the principles you are using, and the strategies you will be putting into place (if able to be shared). You don’t have to share all details (and likely shouldn’t), but some transparency and openness about the considerations and strategy is warranted. This gives people a sense of understanding of the complexity of issues at hand, and that as a business, you are thinking about a future and what’s next. Of course, guidance from public health will continue to be a necessary and important piece in any return to work scheme, recognize that people are simply looking for some hope in what the future holds. Be thoughtful about how you can provide that insight without necessarily having all the specific details.
Q: My general strategy as a leader was to bring issues to my team informally, by having conversations and speaking to people face to face. This pandemic has taken that capability away from me and I’m struggling to find the right strategy to connect with my team.
A: Yes, social distancing has taken away our ability to connect in ways that were meaningful and helpful to our business model, and our personal styles. We have had to adjust to how we make those connections, share ideas, get feedback and learn from each other. While we cannot rely on shared office space to “bump” into our teammates, there are ways to continue to connect. As a leader, continue to find opportunities to speak with your team members both one on one and in groups. Create a schedule for yourself and team members so that you have the time set aside. It does not have to be long and drawn out, but knowing that you have the time set aside, allows you to find ways and subjects to connect on. Set some ground rules for how to use those conversations (e.g., share agenda items the day before, or perhaps it’s an informal check-in). Use instant messaging tools, and calendar invites to stay in touch and touch base just in time. Sometimes having the short time set up on the calendar, on a regular basis, can yield meaningful discussion that wouldn’t otherwise have happened in these physically isolated circumstances.
Q: What is the impact on accumulated social distancing (and isolation) for leaders and the organization over time?
A: Physical distancing measures have been in place for over a month now. While initially people may have felt a sense of “we’re in this together, and we can do this” even though we are physically apart, it can take a toll on many of us to be without the social fabric and make-up of our professional and personal lives. The need to connect and engage with people is often basic to our business models, client care and the general fabric of our businesses. While we can connect via tools such as videoconferencing, it is still not the same as in-person contact. For example, where once you were able to “bump into” people in the halls, or pass an idea by a colleague by knocking on his door, those opportunities are not there at the moment. How do we bring this back and what, as leaders, should we be thinking about?
The culture that you define for your organization is critical now more than ever. We rely on our perceptions, on how our work makes us feel, what values are defined and we are expected to perpetuate…all that matters. It gives employees a sense of how it feels to be a part of this place, and how they want to contribute to that. As the time for physical distancing increases and remote set-ups abound, there is the potential for good leadership skills to atrophy. Regular coaching and feedback, collaboration on business plans (aside from the big issues of the moment) might be significantly stunted. If we are only flexing certain muscles at the moment (e.g., crisis management, independent work), our ability to get back into the other pieces will lag. It is important that even in this crisis, the core of what we do as leaders continues to thrive in whatever iteration it can.
For example, if team collaboration is critical, making sure to have venues to exercise this style (even if through videoconference) is key. Getting the team together, encouraging conversations, etc. will be helpful to continue to do once we are back up and running in the “new reality”. Some of these things will be easier to do than others but making an effort and adapting is important. If you can’t coach your employees right now, are there other means to keep up these skills (feedback and coaching your teen?). Think about what you need to be doing when we return to a more “normal” state and try to not to let those skills slide.
Q: What are the warning signs that can be picked up in a virtual interaction that tells you a colleague is struggling?
A: Firstly, it is incredibly important that you really know your people. This is true of any leader, but perhaps now even more so. Knowing your colleagues’ “normal” will allow you to be attuned to when things seem off. Watch for the cues that they give off, such as being extra quiet, or having more negative reactions (i.e., if they otherwise more often have a positive outlook). Changes in speech patterns, appearance, etc. may also be clues.
There are differences in clinical vs. subclinical issues. For example, if someone is worried about the current pandemic and impact now, that’s quite normal. But, feeling as though this crisis will never end, that the issue is more global and catastrophic, and is severely impacting their daily functioning, this can be a sign of a more clinical issue. Monitoring speech patterns (e.g., speed of speech, going off on tangents, rolling thoughts that blend into another, losing their train of thought), limited self-care and gross changes in appearance, difficulty concentrating, irrational fears, restlessness, irritability, etc., may all be signs. It is a pattern you are looking for, not a single instance.
Of primary importance is that you show empathy and that you care. If you are worried that a colleague is struggling, share your concern. Suggest they check out some additional resources to support them. Check with your company’s own resources that you might be able to direct them to. If you do this with empathy and honesty, it will feel genuine and supportive, and show you really care.
Q: Team sentiment has changed over the 6+ weeks, from shock, to acceptance and now possibly new reality. What strategies would you suggest for planning for a return to the office when that happens?
A: There is a great resource publicly available that discusses these stages of crisis. Check out the CDC document:
Right now we are in the Maintenance phase. In returning to the office, we would look to the Resolution phase. Think of this as you would when guiding someone through a return to work after an extended leave or sabbatical. The role of a leader is as a guide to the collective – as a team, you should discuss what communication protocols and ways of interacting you want to maintain, provide guidance on what to focus on first (if needing to re-prioritize), and what rules of engagement you want to keep, as well as what you learned. Discuss as a team if priorities have shifted, and how you might focus as you move forward.
Use this as an opportunity to unite the team. There may be 1-2 behaviours that you want to ground your team on, highlight and replicate, as the team moves forward (e.g., “I really liked how we came together on this engagement, and I want to continue that moving forward”; “I really liked how we looked out for each other”). This is really a great opportunity to solidify and/or reset norms for the group.
Additional strategies can be found here
Q: I am investing a lot of time in my team and I’m worried that I am over-indexing on their needs at the expense of my family. I feel tired and unbalanced. What can I do to bring some balance?
A: This is a really psychologically taxing time. Even if we do not have the physical strain of running from meeting to meeting, going to work out of the house every day, etc., the intensity of the situation and the cognitive drain is real. Tiredness is a natural response. The stress and anxiety and “heaviness” of the issues our society is facing are very real and have not been experienced before. As a leader, you might feel responsible for the welfare of the community. This is a common experience.
To ensure adequate attention is paid to all important constituents (your team, your family, etc.), it is very important to set boundaries. We are used to compartmentalization and routine and now these are jumbled together. Now more than ever, it is important to be as intentional about how you are supporting your family as you are your work team. Think about how you are using your family time. When you take breaks, make sure they count – for example, instead of a quick 5 min check in, block off 30 mins to do an activity, go for a walk, share a meal with family members. You may consider blocking the time in your calendar, to show others the importance of showing up and being there for other aspects of your life. That normalizes the behaviour for your team too. Studies have shown that if you recognize all aspects of people’s lives and needs that you will create more dedicated and engaged workers (not the opposite).
If you are finding your team is coming to you for greater emotional needs than you feel equipped to deal with, it is important to direct them to organizational resources available to support them. Focus on qualified credentialed resources (e.g., EAP, clinical psychologist, etc.).
Q: The expectations (pull) on senior leaders is extreme, as we want to be accessible to our colleagues, team and family. How do you set boundaries without coming across like you’re not there for others?
A: Setting clear expectations of when you are available and when you are not is critical. You will need to create the balance in your day/week. You should also be encouraging others to do so as well. Communicate these boundaries and do so regularly. Set the boundaries earlier on (i.e., before you are ready to snap). Know your personal limits and be proactive.
It is also important that you keep your own expectations in check. People will recognize you are working extremely hard and are there for them. You need to be realistic with yourself and others about what you can and cannot do. Some of the poor perceptions may be self-imposed.
Remember to get outside. Sleep, exercise and eating well are as important as always. Good self-care strategies are critical at a time like this. It is not sustainable otherwise and you need to take care of yourself. The example of the plane with the oxygen masks is relevant: put it on yourself before on your children. You will be that much more effective as a leader if you take care of yourself. Think about what rituals can you incorporate into your daily routine (e.g., have a regular family meal time).