Opinion: How leaders can manage team anxiety virtually
Everyone has experienced varying levels of anxiety over the past year with an intense mix of personal and professional challenges. With the easing of lockdown on the horizon and many businesses planning what their future workplaces are going to look like, some of the uncertainty and pressure felt from the past year seems to be easing.
However, some of these anxieties are going to remain as we transition out of lockdown. Everyone is going to be feeling differently about the prospect of returning to ‘normal’ life. Some people will have been more productive working from home or found it aligned better with their life rhythm, so they might be worried about how this will change if a return to the office is imposed. Others may be concerned about their safety if they are told to work from the office again or may still be worried about job security.
Whether you opt for office working, remote working or a hybrid set-up, it is likely you’re going to be delivering these messages virtually whilst trying to manage your team’s anxieties about the coming months. Here I am going to offer some tips to help you support your team and manage team anxiety while continuing to work remotely.
Absence breeds insecurity
If you understand how anxiety spreads within a team and the signs to watch out for you are better equipped to stop the spread before it impacts the wellbeing and productivity of others. Uncertainty is one of the biggest contributors to team anxiety - it only takes one ambiguous message or missed announcement to cause rumours to take hold as people speculate.
This can then escalate quickly and cause problems amongst the whole team. It can be further intensified when working from home when you are unable to read the body language of others as emails can sometimes come across as harsher than intended, or people cannot ask the quick questions they normally would so might sit on it until it becomes more of an issue. Even if you do not know all the answers right now, a reassuring announcement to your team that you are working on it at the time you promised to deliver an update can go a long way to mitigating any wellbeing issues or rumours.
Communication is one of the most important tools to managing team anxiety. This has been proven over the past year of remote working where we have relied on technology to keep workplaces connected and functioning. Whilst communication needs to be clear and through a variety of channels, it is important to keep in mind that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is becoming a real issue felt by many. Continued video conferencing can be draining and cause anxiety, so switch it up to phone conversations or shorter bursts where possible. At the end of a call-heavy day you could have a more relaxed team catch up to encourage laughter and smiling that gives people the chance to decompress.
Ensure communication is reliable, delivered at expected times and everyone is given the opportunity to ask questions. Also ask questions of your team too and keep them open-ended, such as “How are you doing today?” to give them room to talk about how they are coping. Leaders should be taking the lead on this by joining virtual calls and asking people how they are. The more you can normalise these conversations, the more you can support anxious team members.
Safety is going to be a big concern for many as we transition out of lockdown and the lack of can be a big trigger for team anxiety, particularly after the past year. Leaders should be actively signposting how they are protecting both the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff not just through the recovery phrase, but long term. This could include flexible or remote working, but also continued social distancing, glass screens, sanitizing stations and increased mental wellbeing monitoring.
Concerns could also be over job safety, causing people to fall into unhealthy working patterns to ‘prove’ their productivity and value. Reassure staff as much as you can over their job security and if you do notice people neglecting to take their holiday allowance or working outside of ‘normal’ hours, raise this with their line manager or encourage them that taking a break is beneficial to their productivity.
Working patterns have continued to change over the past year in the face of changing restrictions and as organisations look to plan for the future, they are likely to change again. The thought of another change could instantly cause anxiety, so it is important leaders manage the emotional response that accompanies this change. This anxiety can be heighted if leaders approach it solely with excitement and neglect the practicalities.
To reassure people also remind them of things that will not be changing and the support available to them throughout. Regardless of whether you have home working, office working or a mixture of both, consider having a consultation phase during your decision-making. If people are involved in the decision from the offset, they are much more likely to buy into it. Similarly, inbuild a feedback stage with the flexibility for change if people find they are more productive or happier in a different working environment. Flexibility can help to lessen anxiety.
Team anxiety can cause long-term wellbeing, productivity and morale issues when left unaccounted for. You can help to manage this by being aware that absence breeds insecurity, maintaining clear and reliable communication and varying communication methods as Zoom fatigue is a real issue. Similarly make sure to signpost safety measures and be aware of the emotional responses when managing change as this will help you to protect the wellbeing and productivity of your team.
About the author Becky Westwood is a qualified Coach Practitioner and Director of Programmes and Coaching at award-winning Monkey Puzzle Training and Consulting. Monkey Puzzle delivers coaching, training, tailored consultancy and personal development for both leaders and their teams. Becky has extensive experience as a trainer and coach having worked in the retail, aerospace and space sectors, to name but a few. Having worked with organisations in the UK and across Europe, Becky is well versed in working across cultures, language barriers and expectations. She is an INLPTA accredited NLP Trainer, qualified Coach Practitioner and specialises in working with people with anxiety and Imposter Syndrome.