Adapting to Abnormal: How sales leaders must adjust in the face of COVID-19 and the post pandemic recovery
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, and while we all have high hopes that the virus will recede and recovery can begin sooner rather than later, the reality is that things are going to be rocky for a while to come, and will probably never go back to the way they were in December of 2019 at all.
While many businesses across the globe have unfortunately been forced to close altogether, one major change that companies who have managed to stay open are currently struggling with is how to manage a workforce working entirely from home. Work-from-home (WFH) opportunities have been on the rise for quite some time, especially at tech companies, which have traditionally been the most forward-thinking in realizing the value of giving staff freedom to determine their own work routines. And make no mistake, that value is significant. Gallup has found that workers who spend 60% to 80% of their time working remotely are by far the most engaged. That high engagement leads to everything from 40% less absenteeism, to 21% higher profitability, and beyond.
But the option to work from home a few days a week is not the same as being forced to work from home five days a week, week-in and week-out. The WFH situation we’re in right now is very different from the one that produces maximum engagement, and there are some unique challenges that come along with it. That’s especially true for those of us in the sales world – a sector driven by interpersonal contacts and relationships, in which something as simple as not being able to shake hands can feel like being told not to breathe.
As a result, it’s exceptionally important that leaders in the sales industry, and across business as a whole, identify those challenges as quickly as possible, and begin developing ways to work around them as best we can.
The Challenges We Face During the Pandemic and in a Post-COVID-19 World
Motivation from Afar:
The importance of motivation and inspiration in a sales environment can’t be overstated. The reality is, salespeople live in a world where rejection is a big part of daily life. For sales pros, it’s just part of the game – something they learn to deal with very early on in their careers. But salespeople are still people (despite what the techies will tell you!) and keeping a team inspired, positive, and upbeat is a big part of a leader’s job. Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s a lot harder to do with remote teams than it is in-office, and adapting our motivational techniques to the small screen is a major challenge facing sales managers and executives.
Everyone thinks working from home is awesome – until they’re forced to do it. It takes a very specific type of person to thrive in a WFH environment, and, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do as well as they’d hope. That presents itself in a variety of ways, but one of the most potentially severe is accelerated burnout. Personally, I’ve learned to wrangle remote work over the years, but it still feels to me like one week of WFH is the equivalent of about four weeks working in the office. I think a big contributor is that in WFH scenarios, it can be hard to separate…well, work from home! Those blurred lines can really amp up fatigue, and as a result, keeping a close eye on the wellbeing of our sales teams is absolutely crucial.
The Sales Environment
In many ways, the sales environment itself is topsy turvy right now. B2B sales are in a constant state of flux, and while overall spending isn’t necessarily going down significantly, it is changing. That means that the value propositions your sales team once relied upon might not speak to your clients in the same way they once did. Even more so, the widescale move to a digitally-delivered sales process throws a major wrench into things. One McKinsey study found that over 90% of B2Bs are now using a digital sales model, and that 46% of all respondents believe that it’s less effective at reaching and serving customers. That rapid, forced change in your team’s processes is likely a major source of stress for them, so it’s important to take that into consideration when setting goals and evaluating performance.
How Business Leaders and Sales Managers Must Respond to Keep the Ship on Course
Look for New Ways to Facilitate Digital “Open Door” Policies
As leaders, it’s extremely important that we find ways to maintain accessibility. Any degradation in our ability to connect with our teams will necessarily hamper our ability to motivate and lead them, and to keep a close eye on their health and wellbeing at a time when it’s more important than ever. But how do you recreate the kind of ad-hoc conversation opportunities that exist in an office environment in a WFH scenario? In my case, I’ve opted to open up a weekly Zoom session every Friday that my entire team has access to. Every member of our EMEA team is encouraged to drop in and chat about anything they’d like, work-related or otherwise. That’s worked well for me, but regardless of what route leaders choose to embrace, being creative with connection is absolute key while we’re all separated.
Strongly Encourage Vacation Time
As previously mentioned, working from home fulltime can really blur lines, and it’s easy for people to burn out when they don’t have clearly delineated time and space to not work. That makes it extremely important for managers to impress upon their teams the importance of taking time off to recharge. That can be a challenge at a time when there really isn’t anything to do on vacation, but limited travel and recreation options don’t change the fact people need time away from work. It’s our job as leaders to make sure our people are getting the rest they need, and in some cases that means strongly suggesting time off.
Accept Reality and Adjust Goals and Strategy Accordingly
Things are bad right now. Things have changed. Even after this pandemic passes, the world is never going to be exactly the same as it was. The faster business leaders can accept that and adjust, the better. Part of that adjustment means being realistic about the pain businesses are going to feel throughout the pandemic and the eventual recovery. One of the absolute worst things we, as leaders, can do, is to inflate our teams’ goals during challenging times in an attempt to make up those losses. Harvard Business Review rightfully points out that attempting to increase sales activities during crises might increase raw customer volume, but it doesn’t necessarily increase revenues, and the human and financial costs can be significant. That strategy of just pushing harder is almost like trying to “get back to even” at the craps table – it just makes a bad situation worse. It’s crucial to the health of our organizations and staff that leadership refocuses activities on high-yield areas rather than sheer volume, and sales goals should absolutely be adjusted to reflect the realities of a world thrown into chaos.
It can be difficult to stomach the idea that the changes and stresses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic are going to be here for some time to come, and, in some cases, probably permanently. But facing that reality is the first step to ensuring that business leaders around the globe are ready for this kind of disruption the next time it happens – and make no mistake, it’s a matter of when, not if.
The emergence of widespread work-from-home programs is one of those changes that’s likely here to stay. In fact, some major tech companies, like Shopify, are already moving to embrace it permanently. When viewed in the context of our current situation, that might seem unpalatable, but the reality is that WFH programs can actually boost productivity significantly when properly managed. That means the companies that use the lessons being learned right now to build and refine better WFH programs are likely to be the ones who come out of this pandemic the strongest and enjoy the healthiest growth once all this craziness has passed.
But in the meantime, leaders everywhere must realize that the WFH we’re dealing with today is not normal, and presents some very real threats to the performance, health, and wellbeing of our teams. That’s true across all fields, but it’s especially important for those of us in sales. Recognizing and understanding those challenges enables leaders to make the adjustments necessary to minimize financial and human damage during a time when it’s unfortunately unavoidable, and more importantly, to ensure that once things return to “normal,” our salespeople will be in the best position possible to hit the ground running.