Several months into the pandemic, Peter Newell's Palo Alto, California-based innovation consulting firm BMNT hadn't skipped a beat. Business was up as more clients sought its advice on how to adapt to a world grappling with Covid-19 and his already distributed team made the remote work transition seamlessly. Still, Newell faced the same challenge all leaders faced, that of supporting a team that's juggling work, child care, and countless other challenges.
Now six months into the pandemic--with no discernible end in sight--that task is all the more urgent.
"Hope has pretty much worn off ... that an immediate solution to [Covid-19] is coming," Newell says of his team. "There has been a mixture of responses, everything from people exhibiting super human behavior to make everything work for everyone around them, to 'I'm burning out,' and everything in between."
As Newell, a former Army colonel who spent many years on the frontlines leading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, prepares for the next six months, his top priority is to both keep things running smoothly and ensure employees find a way to recharge. "You have to be very careful how much gas is left in the tank when the veil of Covid finally lifts," he says.
Below, he offers tips on how to support employees' well-being as you lead them through whatever the next six months might bring.
Find out what your people really need.
Newell says the past six months have forced his employees to make very difficult decisions. One high-performing worker suddenly found herself homeschooling three young kids. At the same time, the pandemic shifted her husband's work into overdrive. Rather than juggle schooling plus work, she decided to take a leave of absence. "It got to the point where they realized they couldn't serve two masters," Newell says. "It was the right choice, given the circumstances."
What's a sustainable groove for one staffer is not the same for another. Finding out where each of your employees is on that spectrum, he says, is crucial to addressing burnout before it's too late.
Reinforce the value of taking time away.
Since the pandemic began, Newell has stressed to his staff the importance of not just taking some days off but taking a substantial break at some point. "A couple weeks--and I mean, shut off your phone and go read something different," he says, even if a destination vacation is impossible. If you don't disconnect from work to get a change in perspective, "it makes you dull," he says. "You won't be as focused or efficient in your thinking."
The reality, however, is that his employees are reluctant to take the time. To reinforce how important he thinks this is, Newell is hoping if he leads the way, more will follow. Soon, he and his wife plan to hop into their camper and go off the grid for two weeks.
Acknowledge the people who are picking up the slack.
Newell admits that BMNT--a two-time honoree on Inc.'s list of the fastest-growing companies, with $12 million in revenue in 2019--has been in a more fortunate position than many other businesses. He's added 10 people since the pandemic began. Encouraging two-week vacations may be unrealistic if your team is already struggling with so many employees dividing their time between family and work during the day. "There is always somebody who has to pick up the slack," he says. And rewarding those people with promotions or bonuses may be impossible right now.
"I don't know if there's a good answer for it, other than taking the time to call attention to the impact this has on everyone," Newell says. "Acknowledge those employees who are stepping up to the plate, and especially when they're dealing with things outside of the normal working window."
Listen to and validate their struggles.
"Overcommunicating still applies right now," Newell advises. He meets every other week with his directors and the rest of the staff and requires everyone to turn their computer cameras on so he can see their faces and how they're doing. Even this is inadequate, he says. So he also has one-on-ones as often as possible. The goal is to invite them to honestly tell you what they're feeling--without fear of being perceived like they're whining or dumping on you.
"The ones who concern me are the ones who are burying" the stress they're experiencing, Newell says.
How do you get employees to really be honest? Newell says he's learned a lot about this from being married for 30 plus years.
"I had to learn from my wife to listen and validate problems, rather than try to solve them," he notes. It's the same with his workforce. "I can make decisions that will keep us in business and reduce the impact on them as much as possible. But that doesn't mean it's not OK to vent difficulties. I need to provide that opportunity without malice or judgment."