Updated: May 1, 2020
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
The transition to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been, for many, abrupt and rushed. Teams who normally work together have become virtual teams overnight, suddenly having to coordinate in new ways. At the same time, work demands often don’t stop.
If you’re a manager and you’ve suddenly found yourself managing people from home, what is important right now? Here are the three key things to start with:
1. Check in and provide support
Many workers will be feeling confused and stressed right now. Support your workers emotionally - let them know you are sensitive to the broader challenges they might be facing in their lives. For example, at the start of a virtual meeting, do a short ‘check in’ on how people are doing.
Show you care, and be prepared to communicate more than you might usually do.
You will need to offer practical support such as helping staff to set up technology or by having creative discussions about how to manage work-family issues. Ensure people have what they need to work.
In our SMART model of work design, providing support is part of the Relational aspects of work. Our research, as well as that of others, shows that one of the most important ways that managers can protect employees mental health and also foster productivity.
2. Clarify how you will work individually and together
Discuss your preferences as to what hours people should work, what response times are reasonable, and how you will handle family obligations. Normally, one might expect people to be mostly available during work hours, but with day care and schools closing, this might not be feasible, so embrace fluidity as much as you can. Ensure team members know each others’ schedules so the team can communicate and back each other up.
You will also need to establish norms about, such as meetings, communication preferences, roles and responsibilities, and more (see the blog for more details). As one simple example, I found we were spending too much time trying to reconnect when zoom meetings broke down due to lost internet connection. We’ve now shared each others’ mobile phone numbers and agreed we will switch after a minute of trying to reconnect – we go straight to the phones.
3. Don’t forget the big picture
In the scrabble to deal with day to day logistics, its easy to forget to talk to your team members about the big picture of the work. What’s happening with customers, suppliers, regulators, other stakeholders? What’s happening in the wider organisation? Discuss how these wider changes might affect individual and team goals. Help the team stay “in sync” by building a shared perspective on what is happening more broadly. There might be a need to change goals and priorities, in light of what is happening, so clarify what is staying the same and what is changing.
In our SMART model of work design, one of the key elements of well-designed work is that it should support Mastery - people need to be clear about what they are doing so they can do well. When the world is spinning out of control, people crave the opportunity to be able to be successful at their work tasks. So help the team focus on what they can do.
Today's tip is to ensure people have the support they need, and to clarify the details as well as the big picture, so everyone can work.
References and resources
More about the SMART model of work design:
Conduct an assessment of staff needs (Link to open source survey):