Why Leading a WFH Team is Hard, Part One: Some People Are Struggling!

There are many advantages to a non-office workplace, and there’s already a lot of evidence that some people who have been forced to work from home enjoy it. But that’s not true for everybody. And if you’re a leading a team that’s doing “WFH” (working from home) for the first time, it’s not easy because some of your team members are struggling – especially now.

Some people don’t like change at the best of times, and even actively resist it. You know the kind: They’re always the first to find a reason change won’t work, seek reasons not to change, “white ant” a change process, and always highlight the smallest mistakes with a “I told you so!” attitude.

All that is true when facing as big a change as WFH, but it’s true for even more people in a crisis. Even people who otherwise would have accepted the WFH shift might find it more difficult now.

You often hear people say now, “We’re all in the same boat”, but that’s not true. We’re all in the same storm, but we’re each in our own boat, navigating our way through the storm.

You can’t judge them from the outside, either.

Even people who look similar on the surface might have very different workplaces at home.

One might have a large house, with fast Internet access, aren’t supervising kids during the day, can work from their back garden on sunny days, love cooking at home, and have a nearby park to exercise.

Another – around the same age, seniority, and role at work – might have a more crowded home, unreliable Internet access, supervising home schooling for their children, don’t have any outdoors area, feel stuck at home, miss their colleagues at work, and yearn for lunch breaks in the CBD.

People also face different circumstances outside work.

It’s difficult to concentrate on work if you’re worried about elderly parents, a partner who lost their job, a mortgage, school fees, family you can’t visit overseas, or an escalating domestic violence situation.

Add to that the stress and anxiety the pandemic itself causes: risk of infection, physical distancing, social isolation, new COVID-19 cases, border closures, an increasing death toll, travel bans, unemployment figures, a recession, and the constant media reports.

Another issue with a major crisis is the compounding effect of multiple stresses. It’s one thing to face one or two challenges, when you might have time to step back and refill your emotional fuel tank. It’s another thing altogether when you’re bombarded with many challenges from many directions, and you’re constantly running on empty.

Mental health problems are increasing.

Stress in the workplace – whether caused by the work itself or external circumstances – is soaring, and more employees are at risk of mental health issues.

In the USA, MetLife found many employees – as a result of this pandemic – are feeling more tired, stressed, burnt out, discouraged, distracted, and even depressed.

Katy Riddick, from One Mind at Work, one of the groups reporting on this research, put it this way:

“The second wave of COVID is really a mental health wave. It’s forcing employers to respond in a different way.”

Tellingly, a WFH culture makes it worse, with a TELUS International survey reporting about half of American workers feel less connected to their company culture while working from home.

Closer to home, modelling by the Mitchell Institute, a policy think tank at Victoria University, found employment stress levels among Australian families have more than doubled amid the global coronavirus outbreak. Now that we’re officially in a recession (even though we knew it was coming for months), many people will feel even more stress and anxiety about their future.

That might change YOUR role as well.

You might be employed as a project manager, director, financial controller, General Manager, or whatever – but suddenly find yourself thrust into the role of a counsellor.

Of course, you’re not a trained counsellor, and I hope you have HR and EAP resources to provide that kind of support. But that takes time, and you’re still responsible for building a functional – let alone engaged and empowered – WFH culture.

If you know some of your team members are in this situation, there are three things you can do right now:

  1. Accept it! We’re still in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, so don’t expect everybody to function at their “normal” levels.
  2. Get them the support they need from the qualified professionals in the organisation.
  3. Look after your own energy, so you can stay strong and continue to play your role in leading your team and organisation.

Above all, remember the words of Ian MacLaren:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.


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