Leading a team isn’t easy. But it’s never harder than in times of stress, chaos and massive change. How can you keep people happy, engaged, and productive when you don’t know what to expect next week, next year, or even tomorrow? 

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the world we’re living in right now. Think of the workforce as a forest, made up of ancient trees, saplings, and adorable wildlife (bear with us here). Right now, that ecosystem is being whipped around by high winds, lots of rain, and maybe even an earthquake. That means instability, and maybe even aspects of an unpredictable workplace. 

Some of these changes were pretty cool (hello, working in pajamas) while others have felt more challenging. Willingly or not, companies everywhere were forced into greater flexibility. But wise  leaders and companies learned to embrace it, rather than trying to regain control as soon as they could. 

Flexibility is the new standard in today’s constantly changing workplace landscape. One study found that 74% of workers want flexibility, and 54% would switch jobs to get it. 

When things are chaotic, offering more leeway—not less—is the best way to weather the storms teams face together.

Here’s 6 ways to deliver that flexibility in a leadership role.

Ask People What They Need During Times Of Change

True flexibility is all about helping your team navigate the ups and downs of life. Don’t just assume you know what will make your team’s lives easier. You need to actually ask them! 

While this might sound obvious, it’s really not. According to research from Gartner, while executives tend to think they have flexible work cultures, that often doesn’t line up with employees’ actual experience. Just like any relationship, a healthy leadership dynamic starts by listening to, and doing your best to accommodate, your peoples’ needs. 

For example, don’t just offer everyone the option to work two days a week from home and expect to have solved the problem. That might not be the kind of flexibility that will actually help.

Ways To Empower Your Team

  • Ask if a reduction in workload would make your teams’ life easier, or if flexibility on their hours would be a better fit
  • Not mandating which, or how many, days your hybrid team should spend in-office
  • Allowing people to work outside of regular office hours, but not expecting them to always be responsive during that time

Think Outside The Box

As you probably know, it’s mostly knowledge workers who’ve benefited from the remote work revolution. But there are many different kinds of flexibility, even when it comes to seemingly rigid jobs like customer service or fieldwork. 

If you’re willing to think critically and listen to your team, you can likely find ways to support them and make them more comfortable.

Explore New Options Like: 

  • Exploring if certain parts of jobs, like admin work, could be done from home 
  • Offering job-sharing to employees who are struggling to keep up with caregiving responsibilities 
  • Offering someone fewer hours (for the same pay) if you can’t increase their salary

Focus On Outcomes, Not Inputs

Work is all about getting things done. In times of stress, focus on where your team needs to go, not micromanaging how people get there. 

Make sure everyone is aware of the most important tasks and goals you need to accomplish, then step back and let them decide how it works best to get it done.

That being said, challenging times are definitely the moment to prioritize which outcomes truly matter. It’s not  reasonable or flexible to expect people’s output to remain exactly the same when things get tough.

Take The Pressure Off: 

  • Starting the week with status update meetings in a shared Trello board, and then allowing people time to have deep-focus sessions, only checking in if they need support
  • Intentionally moving lower-priority items off over-allocated team members’ plates 
  • Not asking people to report on how many hours they worked or whether they were remote on on-premise

Lead By Example

If you want your people to trust you, your words and actions need to align.

Leading by example means working in a flexible, healthy way yourself. That’s how you move beyond just talking about work-life balance, and actually making it part of your company culture. 

It’s been demonstrated that employees are much more likely to embrace healthy behaviors if they see their manager doing so. Another study found that the power of a positive, transformational leadership style is heightened when workers see that leader modeling a healthy lifestyle that centers wellness and self-care. 

Intuitively, that makes sense. Put yourself in your peoples’ shoes—if they’re seeing you actually stepping away from the laptop to take a quick walk, or proactively scheduling self-care time away from the screen, you’re giving them physical proof that they’re also safe to do so. You’re providing evidence that taking time for wellness won’t be counted against them, or perceived as a lack of dedication to their job.

This Could Look Like: 

  • Never sending or replying to work communications after hours 
  • Setting realistic expectations or extending deadlines if you aren’t feeling well 
  • Taking the day off or working from home, if your child or parent is ill

Support Wellness Inside And Outside Of Work

Healthy, happy people do better work—mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

What kind of programs and resources can you offer to support employee wellness? Fair compensation, paid sick days, and full benefits are a starting point, but there’s so many more ways you can actively work to create a culture of wellness.

Encourage Healthy Habits By: 

  • Asking employees when they plan on using their time off and encourage them to if they haven’t been taking advantage of it
  • Emphasizing that sick days include mental health days
  • Expanding employee benefits to cover wellness areas like gym memberships, massages, and nutrition programs
  • Making team-building wellness-focused rather than centered around alcohol and nights out 
  • Encourage workers to take exercise or meditation breaks in addition to lunch hour

Be Proactive

If flexibility isn’t approached in the right way, it can put an additional burden onto employees, contributing to instead of alleviating stress. 

According to Harvard Business Review, flexibility is too often implemented in an ad hoc, reactionary way, by making allowances for people only once they’ve asked for it. In other scenarios, where and when work happens is flexible, but leadership still expects people to be available all the time (sometimes even outside of work hours—eek!). 

Avoid this kind of toxic flexibility. It won’t make things any easier for people who are having a hard time. Instead, proactively offer flexibility, and accommodate people before they’ve reached the point of burnout and come to you for help.

Make Flexibility The Norm: 

  • Keeping an eye out for team members who seem on edge, distracted, or irritable, and ask how you can support them 
  • Getting your whole team together and asking what areas of their job could be made more flexible 
  • Updating your company’s official policies to encourage flexibility and letting your entire workforce know
  • Make the concept of flexibility ingrained in your company culture. Incorporate aspects of it whenever possible—during meetings, projects, and even growth opportunities.

Flexibility Is Resilience

You’ve heard the inspirational quotes—even the tallest, strongest tree needs to be able to bend and sway to make it through a big storm. That principle applies to your leadership style, too. 

If you can lead people in a flexible, trusting way, you’ll find your team much better equipped to handle whatever comes your way with grace, agility, and ease. 

6 ways leaders can remain flexible during chaotic times