How do I keep my team engaged when the world is on fire?

This might not get the job done at your company.
This might not get the job done at your company.
Image: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters
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This year was supposed to be better than 2020, and yet, not a week into 2021, the other shoe—the one we all knew was coming, the one we all had been warily waiting for—finally dropped. Amid a pandemic that continues to burn through the United States and, by degrees, the rest of the world, a violent insurrection shook the nation’s capital city, the first breaching of the halls of Congress since 1814. Since then, the US president was impeached a second time, and the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden threatened to become another flash point, prompting the closure of the National Mall.

The inauguration, thankfully, drew no violence. But the first three weeks of January for the public at large created a distraction on a scale the US hadn’t seen since Sept. 11, 2001. And yet, even with that experience, this felt new and uniquely terrifying. The threat in 2001 wasn’t coming from our fellow countrymen, and we weren’t a year into a pandemic that has obliterated all sense of normalcy. This—this is different.

The rapid drumbeat of epochal news is overwhelming; we’ve spent almost a year now masking up and working from home—if we’re lucky enough not to work as grocery clerks (who put themselves at risk every single day) or wait staff (who are lucky if they have jobs right now)—as we’ve watched neighbors and colleagues and family members fall ill, or lose jobs, or get radicalized. How on Earth is anyone supposed to stay motivated and productive when every day seems to bring some new nightmare?

Simple: they aren’t.

I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, if you’re reading this. But I’ve been saying it since March of last year, when New York City went into lockdown and the large-scale work-from-home economy lurched into existence. Think, for just a moment, about what it means to go from working in an environment designed to facilitate work and focus to one that’s designed for comfort and rest; or from silence to screaming, crying children; or from a sense of security and well-being to the constant, complicated trauma and profound loss of the last year. You can bang the drum about needing to pull together all you want; the fact is, we’re going through something out of dystopian fiction in a way we have never experienced in our lifetimes.

What is a manager to do?

So what we need to be talking about isn’t productivity, but mental health. Obviously, the world is still turning and we still, somehow, need to get work done. But if you’re going to ask your people to push themselves in the middle of this buffeting hail, you have to make sure they have the tools to do so, which means knowing how to manage fear, stress, and anxiety to the degree that they’re capable of doing the work.

Some of your team members may seem to be doing fine, but I can almost guarantee that the psychic stress is taking its toll, perhaps in ways that may not yet be manifest. Now isn’t the time to be a taskmaster, but a cheerleader and support. And, critically, that may mean investing in the support your team needs to do their jobs—including covering the cost for mental healthcare, making available wellness resources, and making accommodations.

Not every insurance plan covers mental healthcare, although an increasing number do, and with therapy still stigmatized to some degree, even those who have access to it may not be seeking it out. It may be time for hard conversations with your people about how they’re doing, rather than how the company fares financially.

“Company,” the very word itself, means a group of people; they are the company, and if they’re not doing okay, neither will your organization. You need to be able to count on them, but they need to be able to count on you in return to have their back and make sure they are able to access the support they need. Even though you can’t force anyone to avail themselves of it, you have a responsibility. We all are, we must be, in this together.

The options available to you are going to be different based on the size of your company, team, and budget. But the bottom line is, from the largest corporations to the tiniest startups, and from virtual offices to mom-and-pop retail shops, you have to find ways to look out for and take care of your people. For some, making accommodations—like flexible work hours—might make all the difference. Some may need more check-ins, face time, and a sense of structure, while others may actually require more space and fewer Zoom meetings interrupting their workflow.

A new understanding of productivity

When it comes to mental health and wellness, don’t be afraid to get creative. I know one business owner who had fitness equipment sent to an employee who was struggling with stress without their normal gym routine. The solutions will depend on each of your employees’ individual circumstances. So talk to your team.

Since March, I’ve sounded an unpopular trumpet: that we need to reconcile ourselves to a new understanding of productivity. Even the idea of getting simple errands done brings with it the fear of sickness or maybe death. These are exceptional circumstances, and there’s nowhere to hide from them. It’s frightening. That makes the responsibility of care so critical. How can we ask anyone to push themselves when they’re already on the brink, if we can’t or won’t provide the means to put them back on solid footing?

Take my advice, and check in with them—not their work, not their productivity, and not their hours, but their condition and experience and fears. Stand behind them. Hold them up. They’ll do the rest.