How Leaders Can Help Their Staff During Uncertain Times

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020, we have learned to live with varying levels of restrictions and the ongoing arrival of new threats and disruptions. Now, with the end of the pandemic feeling so close yet so far, many feel trapped by uncertainty. We want to make plans, and we want to move on. Yet, unknowns can be psychologically disturbing, and frustration is a sure-fire way to kill creativity. Research shows that happier teams are more productive. So, what can you do to support your team through this time of continued disruption?

September 16, 2021 3 mins read

The beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 was genuinely scary. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), nearly half of UK adults experienced high levels of anxiety — more than double the normal rate. But, as lockdowns progressed, we adapted to ‘the new normal’ and our collective behaviour changed.

We have since learned to live with restrictions, and we are learning to live with the continued arrival of new threats and disruptions. But, for as much as we’ve learned, all our questions and doubts still abound. What risks am I taking when I go out? Will I catch COVID even though I’m fully vaccinated? Or, more annoyingly, will I get a ‘ping’ from the NHS app? 

We want to make plans. We want to move on. Yet, uncertainty makes this hard. And, unknowns are psychologically disturbing. They disrupt our inner calm and equilibrium, and they make us feel threatened. When this happens, our fight and flight mechanisms kick in. 

Over the summer, tens of thousands of people across the UK were “pinged” by the NHS and notified of their need to self-isolate. This created a knock-on effect for many businesses already struggling with a sluggish economy, are losing life-sustaining revenue as people isolate. Serious staff shortages are impacting supply chains with shops and restaurants. And, while there is a small element of fear, there’s also an intense feeling of exasperation and annoyance. 

We’ve known for a long time that frustration is an easy way to kill creativity, and with the end of the pandemic feeling so close yet so far, many feel trapped by uncertainty.

So, what can you do to help your team through this time of continued disruption? 


Give clear advice which is transparent and fair

As in all times of uncertainty, communicate clearly. Rather than demonstrate false confidence, be honest and open. Honesty from leadership is calming, and calmer employees are not only happier but also more productive. It’s as close to a win-win you’ll get during these uncertain times. 


Fall back on friendships

The quality of workplace relationships not only affects our experience of work – work is indisputably better when we get along with people – it’s also business critical. This is especially true during difficult times. All of us appreciate having good friends in our lives and when we fall back on friendships, we share the emotional burden and mental load. People help friends in a way they don’t help acquaintances. The connections we have with our friends, helps us move on from frustrating situations.


Ensure people take their holidays

It’s been a long 18 months. Many of your team will have taken a break over the summer, but if they haven’t, make sure they take their full holiday allowance. Even before Covid only 43% of people took 90% or more of their entitled allowance. Make sure you and your team take yours as it will boost your productivity, creativity and collaboration. 

Research shows that happier teams are more productive – outperforming by over 20% by most estimates. The fact that happiness is a hidden driver of productivity is especially important to keep in mind when you are thinking about annual leave and holidays. It becomes pretty obvious, that people taking time off that allows them to come back refreshed and happier is a net positive.

There are three things that is easy for every team leader to do:

  • Keep track of how much holiday everyone has had and ensure your whole team take at least 90% of their days (100% can be hard to precisely hit)
  • Take your own holidays – leading by example is always important
  • Don’t contact colleagues when they are away. Make sure they put their OOO on and don’t idlily copy them into emails – otherwise their inbox will be too full when they get back.

Listen and be flexible in your approach

It’s incredibly important to listen to your people and adopt a flexible approach to work. In the current circumstances, many might still feel nervous about coming into the office. If you’re trying to determine the best approach for your team, consider first gauging their comfort level. Asking people if they want to return to a physical workplace before they’ve actually tried returning is an inherently flawed approach. So, after they’ve had the experience, poll them on how they feel. This approach will ensure you get an accurate insight to how your team are faring and where, collectively, their comfort level is. 


Opportunity for a fresh start

The future is always uncertain. But, it’s good to remember that we’ve been through worse and we have learnt a lot during the pandemic. As things do settle down is a great opportunity for a fresh start and create new ways of working that are both happier and more productive.