Like most people, I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 — in school. Same thing for the 2008 global recession, when I was working on my degree. So even though I’ve lived through some major crises with huge economic impacts, I’ve mostly watched them unfold from the sidelines.
Not this time.
As a millennial CEO of an ecommerce agency, not only am I figuring out how to lead a company through a downturn; I’m also leading a team of mostly 20-somethings through their first crisis in the workforce. Let me tell you, the stress is real on both sides. They’re looking to me for guidance in adjusting to this “new normal” of working from home (which is anything but normal for us), disrupted routines and major uncertainty about the future.
It’s hard to strike a balance between keeping up morale and helping my team deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way, and the reality that we need to keep the lights on for our company and our clients. Like everyone else right now I definitely don’t have it all figured out, but so far, we’re finding some successful ways to stick together and stay healthy and motivated.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, here are a few things I’ve learned about leading a young workforce through these unprecedented times.
1. Focus first and foremost on basic well-being
I recently did an “ask me anything” session for our currently remote team and someone asked how they’d survive without the bagel and croissant days at work. Yes, it was a joke, but it had a ring of truth to it.
For a lot of our younger millennial or Gen-Z employees, this is their first “real” job out of school, and they rely on it for more than just a paycheck. Our company gives structure, a social network and, yeah, even provides “perks” like fitness classes, lunchtime wellness workshops, and snacks. These might seem like “extras,” but we’ve found they actually result in a far more productive and healthier work environment.
During video calls, I’ve noticed signs that some younger team members are having a hard time adjusting to a new routine, keeping productive, and filling in some of these gaps for themselves. So we’ve pulled together resources to help them establish a healthy structure at home. We’ve started sharing easy recipes, hosting virtual happy hours, and we’re in the process of putting our company yoga classes online.
This might seem over and above what you’d typically offer, especially during a downturn, but it’s core to our values to take care of one another. We all need support to stay healthy and productive right now — some members of your team might need a little extra help in this area.
2. Model a healthy relationship with technology
I’m no stranger to the perils of technology addiction — and screen-time is understandably going way up right now. As hard as it is not to hang on every news alert, I’m asking myself, “is this giving me new information or just anxiety?” And I’m encouraging my team to do the same.
My wife and I have resolved to check the news daily — not hourly, despite the overwhelming temptation, and some of the lessons I’ve learned in self-monitoring have never been more important. Removing apps and browsers from my smartphone — and switching off notifications — have been gamechangers for me.
Likewise, I’m urging my employees to think about the ways they can limit their tech-time for their own mental health. Obviously our company can’t control what the team is doing when working from home, but we make sure not to dwell on the news during our meetings. Instead, we’re asking about each other’s families, talking about what we’re doing to keep busy, and focusing on the ways our amazing team and clients are supporting their communities during this time.
3. Don’t sugarcoat the situation
Many leaders make the mistake of underestimating the intelligence of their teams — particularly younger members. While some Gen-Zers have gotten a bad rap for not taking the pandemic seriously (I’m looking at you, spring breakers), I think they’re the anomaly.
Our team, regardless of age, is deeply intelligent and conscientious. They’re smart enough to know there may be rough times ahead, and they’re understandably worried about what this means for them. As a leader, there’s no point in dancing around that.
I’ve been proactively acknowledging the challenges we face as a company and we’ve been clear about our plans to address them. I recommend other leaders do the same. So far, our company is doing OK — we’ve even welcomed a new wave of hires this month — but we also know we’re headed into a global recession that will impact every aspect of the economy, especially consumer spending, upon which our industry is dependent.
I’ve been honest with my team about the knowns and unknowns to ensure everyone is aware of where we stand as a company. Being transparent is particularly important in the event of bad news — if things take a turn for the worse, nobody will be blindsided.
4. Highlight the higher purpose of their work
We’re in ecommerce, and this crisis has given new meaning to our work. Our sector is proving essential to so many people and businesses right now, and the work we do helps get critical goods to consumers and gives a lifeline to retailers who have been forced to shut their physical stores. Keeping the focus on that mission helps keep us grounded and engaged.
Probably the hardest thing about this situation is the uncertainty. I know some companies are, or will be, in the difficult position of having to let go of employees. But we don’t know what’s on the other side of this. You might be in the position to hire them back in six months, so how you treat people right now matters.
Taking care to be a little bit more human and more compassionate can pay off in the future, for your young employees and for everyone involved.
If you have any questions for me, or tips or resources for supporting your team during a crisis, please send me an email.
More from Diff Agency’s CEO, Ben:
This article originally appeared in the Diff Agency blog and has been published here with permission.