March 6, 2020 by Jason Contant
With the number of coronavirus cases increasing in Canada and “coronavirus anxiety” now a reality, there are some strategies insurance professionals can take to ensure their teams continue to collaborate effectively and maintain momentum in the business.
Among those strategies is to spell out goals and roles, emphasize personal interactions and to normalize new work environments, two authors wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Coronavirus Could Force Teams to Work Remotely.
The article was published Mar. 5 and written for general business audiences, but provided three strategies industry leaders could take to adjust to remote working. It was written by Heidi K. Gardner, a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the accelerated leadership program at Harvard Law School, and Ivan Matviak, an executive in residence at technology-focused investment firm Battery Ventures.
One of the strategies was to clarify and re-clarify goals and roles. Clarifying roles among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck (and helps peripheral members stay engaged).
“A disruptive event like coronavirus will generate new and competing tasks across the business,” the authors wrote. “As a result, leaders need to continually clarify goals at the team and individual level to stay focused on key priorities. Watch out for an ever-expanding list of tasks. And when you do re-prioritize goals, think carefully about who gets the assignment and make sure the changing goals are communicated to the entire team.”
Mapping skills and capacity is also important. “Because of the number of new tasks that arise during a crisis, many of your team members are likely to be pulled in multiple directions,” the blog said. “Don’t add even more stress to your workers by expecting them to handle these tensions on their own. Make it clear that they can count on you to help manage the claims for their time.”
Changing priorities may also require you to bring new resources onto your team, such as an operations expert to assess how the epidemic might disrupt your supply chain or a marketing expert to figure out how to launch a new product if a trade show gets cancelled. Unfortunately, onboarding a new team member while everyone is working from home can make it difficult to build team cohesion and trust. Invest the time to formally introduce new team members, Gardner and Matviak recommended.
The second strategy involves emphasizing personal interactions. People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers productivity and engagement. Leaders, especially those who are not used to managing virtual teams, may feel stressed about keeping the team on track.
The authors suggested scheduling regular meetings for the team to come together virtually. “It is easier to cancel if the meeting isn’t needed than it is to pull together last-minute conversations without creating additional disruption.”
Creating a “virtual water cooler” is another consideration. Set aside time on the agenda for personal updates, which preserves the sense of camaraderie. In addition, set norms that people should regularly call one another as needed rather than wait for scheduled meetings.
Finally, instead of relying exclusively on email, switch to richer, real-time media such as FaceTime, video conferences, web chats or even phone calls. “These forms of communication are more personal, allow team members to read one another’s emotions, and help to boost morale. They also improve decision making by more fruitfully bringing alternative voices into the conversation and allowing people to debate ideas more effectively and completely.”
The last strategy is to normalize new work environments, as working from home creates new distractions and the potential for misunderstandings.
The authors recommend encouraging each employee to take a few minutes to show the team his or her home workspace and share some personal context. What are the possible distractions? Barking dogs, noisy passing trucks, kids coming home from school? The aim is to help colleagues develop an understanding of each person’s work context so they can be more sensitive to each other’s constraints.
“Threats like the coronavirus will create disruption,” Gardner and Matviak wrote. “But you can use strategies to respond effectively and continue to deliver against your business goals. Disruption also creates opportunity. Use this time to explore new ways of working and revisit old assumptions that will likely benefit you in the long run.”