Whether it’s living through a global pandemic, a reorganization at your company, or political turmoil, no one likes to live through uncertainty. When people are concerned about their financial safety, their futures, and their wellbeing, it can lead to unproductivity. While project managers are only human and feel uncertainty just like everyone else, it is part of a PM’s job to help keep team members focused and productive, while also helping them cope with the feelings that come up during periods of uncertainty. Here are some tips to help keep your team productive — and your project going — in uncertain times.
Lead with Emotional Intelligence
Your team members are likely struggling to balance a range of responsibilities and emotions during times of uncertainty. Although typical life responsibilities (i.e., financial, family, etc) may not typically impact their work output, they are now coping with new questions—from wondering how to manage a house full of people while working virtually to questioning if their job is secure and how long it’ll last. They may be concerned about their own health or the health of a loved one, and these things are bound to seep into their psyches during the workday. Part of your job is to extend empathy for what your team members are experiencing. You won’t have the answers to all of their problems, but engaging in active listening, and addressing needs you can will help them cope and feel motivated to continue doing their best work. Take the lead by sharing some of your own experiences and feelings. You can do this 1:1 or during team meetings. Encourage an environment where everyone can share honestly how they’re doing. Sometimes the expression of emotions or fears is enough to help people recharge and refocus on work.
Ask People What They Need
In addition to leading with emotional intelligence, asking people what they need is equally important in uncertain times. Talk with your team members individually and let them share with you what’s on their minds and how it may be affecting their work and productivity levels. Empathy forms the basis of trust, so try to put yourself in their shoes as they share their experiences. Saying, “I know this is a tough time. I’d like to know what would be most helpful for you in this moment,” is a good conversation starter. Once they share their experiences, you can problem-solve together. Maybe your team member needs a more flexible schedule because they have kids at home engaged in virtual learning, or some guidance on how to reduce distractions and prioritize their work. Being a good listener, extending empathy, and establishing yourself as a partner of sorts—rather than ‘just’ a boss—can help you and your team members find solutions. When they feel cared for and heard, you can implement strategies and solutions together that benefit them as individuals, their productivity, and the project as a whole.
Continue to Set Expectations
No matter how challenging the situation is, or how uncertain the times are, your team members need to know what is expected of them when it comes to their work process and deliverables. While remaining flexible and understanding can be helpful, it is important that your team members stay focused on their work, and feel connected to a larger purpose (in this case, the project goals). In order to encourage a sense of accountability, your team needs to feel connected to one another. Holding regular check-ins and team meetings can help build a sense of camaraderie and reminds everyone of why they are doing the work they’re doing: why it’s important, and what the collective end goals are. Try to become a guide for your team, and let them know you’re walking beside them every step of the way. Encourage creative thinking, collaboration, and make time for people to share new ideas in these team meetings.
Setting expectations means that each team member is accountable for their own performance, as well as for the team’s total output. No matter the situation, everyone on the team needs to know what is expected of them.
As a project manager, you may need to shift your expectations a little in times of uncertainty. You just may not get the same output as under normal circumstances; however, creating shorter-term expectations to help team members feel like goals are more attainable may work well. A mutual understanding of what is expected of each team member keeps the entire team on track, focused on moving forward, and working together towards project goals. Be realistic about goals in regard to the situation you and your team members are in, and allow yourselves some grace and flexibility whenever possible.
Focus on What you Can Control
Research shows that small rituals and daily habits can reduce stress and improve work performance. That’s because incremental progress can lead to meeting clearly defined goals. Offering someone flexibility in team members’ workdays and giving them the power to dictate their own schedule can help in times of uncertainty, too. As long as you encourage planning in advance, it should be fairly easy to maintain performance expectations. During uncertain times, it can feel like our power and choices have been taken from us, but we can still lean on our values and choose how we want to act and be every single day. Remind your team members to clarify what is important to them. Ask “How do we want to act during these difficult times? How do we want to work with one another?” Team members may share different answers, but will all likely agree they want to continue working and meeting goals while being respectful and kind to one another. Affirming and asserting a shared sense of purpose and values can help a team stay focused and grounded, ensuring the success of your project.
Model and Encourage Self-Care
Encourage your team members to take care of themselves. Exercise, good nutrition, and proper amounts of sleep are proven to enhance productivity and reduce stress. Lead by example and take good care of yourself, too. While it’s not your place to dictate anyone’s behaviors and choices, it’s okay to encourage self-care and give advice based on what has worked for you. Although it may seem awkward to encourage your team members to get up and take a break/walk/stretch, you can share the benefits of your own experiences to encourage the same in others. Take your vacation days/mental health days, and lunch breaks. Model to your team members that self-care is not only okay, but it is also encouraged. When people’s needs are met, it boosts productivity and enhances focus, which will benefit your project in the long-run.
While there are no easy answers to managing team members during uncertain times, project managers should not retreat in the hopes their employees will eventually work everything out on their own. Uncertainty means now is the time to be a true leader, helping motivate your team to make it through the challenging times. One of the most important things to remember is to empower your team by making them feel heard and offering them some grace and flexibility. If you are able to do this, your project will be effective and successful in the long run. Do you have any tips for helping keep your team productive in uncertain times? Share them with us in the comments.