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Will “management” mean something different after the pandemic?
It’s already different.
According to numerous reports, managerial practices have already evolved throughout this pandemic. Managers have adapted their behaviour in ways that have increased trust in their teams. Employees are reporting managers demonstrating more empathy than before. Managers are engaged in more regular communication with their teams, with an increased focus on the personal challenges employees are facing. Managers have shifted in many cases from micromanaging their employees’ time to managing outcomes instead. There’s almost no part of the manager’s responsibilities that has escaped the need to adapt.
Crisis fuels change
Previously when a crisis happened the timeframe was usually short. Managers needed to react, to rally their team, to weigh the options and take decisive action. This usually ended in the manager issuing directive instructions to get the team through the crisis so they could get back to normal. This crisis is so much longer and can’t be addressed in the usual way. Instead, Managers have had to become far more inclusive, drawing ideas and energy from their teams and preparing for a long period of upheaval. This has produced a more lasting change and has involved teams in ways that many have never experienced. We’re not likely to return to how things were before so the involvement and engagement of the team are crucially important. This also means the changes that have been adopted and implemented have a better chance of being sustained in the future.
Managers have had to reset goals for their employees to suit the short-term and unknowable time horizon for performance during the Pandemic, the setting of more short-term, more fluid goals is something they can expect to continue doing from here.
Clarifying expectations has proved to be critically important during this crisis, even though we have already known for some time that employees are generally not clear what’s expected of them. In conversations with employees, usually over video calls, managers have explored not just if their employees are clear about the work to be done, but also whether their working at home environment will allow them to do the work. Reviewing performance has also improved and managers are now engaging in regular formal and informal discussions about performance.
Managers have improved their supporting behaviours too with many employees noticing improved listening on calls, with many managers making good use of their coaching skills. Recognising the effort of employees is much more difficult in these conditions so managers have had to work extra hard to understand who’s doing what and who’s going above and beyond what’s expected. The manager can’t do this alone and this has helped managers to develop a more complete picture of performance by involving the team in talking about each other's work and outputs.
Switching to team meetings via video chat is not as simple as it sounds, and many managers found that keeping the team together and engaged took a lot of work. Some employees are inclined to become detached and distant when working remotely, so managers have had to become adept at noticing which employees are showing signs of disengagement or reduced motivation.
It has not been possible for many teams to conjure extra resources at a time like this, so managers and teams have worked to uncover previously hidden talent and capability in the team. Discovering someone in the team knows how to get the best out of Zoom, or someone knows how to create an automated process using Microsoft Office 365 – the discovery of hidden expertise has proved to be very valuable indeed during the constraints of a pandemic.
Finally, managers have realised the dramatic and vital importance of communication between them and their team members. Previously a manager could assume that silence means no problems. Now silence may mean something entirely different, so managers have been working hard to stay alert to potential problems and issues. The team wants to know how things are going and what’s coming next, so the manager’s ability to communicate effectively and empathically has grown in importance and impact.
Is this the future?
In the first few weeks of March as the impact of COVID-19 was becoming evident, many managers wisely resisted the temptation to speculate about the future, what would happen, or even how long this upheaval would last. As we contemplate when we might progress to the next stage of this experience, nobody can be sure what will happen or when things will change again, so all we can do is step into the future, one week at a time. In the meantime, try to remain agile in your ways of working. Regularly assess with your team what’s working well and what’s not working. Be open to changing things quickly to lock in learning and improvements. Recognise that the changes you have already adapted to as a team have taught you important lessons you should lean on when the next change arrives.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest change my organisation has ever faced. Our focus was initially on the safety of employees and the shift to remote working. Are there other things we should be focusing on now to help the organisation get through this huge challenge?
The early view – a challenge of connectivity
You’re right that initially, the focus of most businesses was to follow the Government guidance and instruct employees to work from home where possible. Many companies were not ready for this sudden shift to remote working, and many were faced with an initial connectivity challenge. I heard examples of companies placing orders for laptops, desks and all sorts of materials to help staff to switch to remote working. Likewise, people in parts of the country without high-speed internet suddenly rushed to get connected. This was only the first of a series of challenges.
The second wave – the HR challenge
While most managers would never admit it, a great many managers still like to keep their employees close so they can closely monitor what’s being done and how it’s being done. The micromanager is very much still with us. The micromanager is not given to easily trusting staff so to suddenly find your team are gone, dispersed around the country to work remotely, and you have no choice but to trust – well this is a seismic personal challenge to managers not inclined to trust easily.
The challenge of the sudden change to remote working also puts pressure on managers to establish and sustain connections with all team members. These connections need to take into account that the individual living circumstances of team members may be quite different. Some team members may be available all the time, while others are sharing a single computer with several family members with some perhaps attending virtual classes as part of their school work during the normal working day.
Managers are called to individualise their remote relationships and to find out what each person’s best new working routine looks like and agree norms for communicating, meeting, interrupting, response times and so forth. This takes a lot of time and will put pressure on managers of large teams.
Then there’s the question of productivity. Naturally, managers will need to redefine priorities and objectives for their teams, reset expectations about working hours, how decisions should be made and who needs to be informed or consulted with, and so on. Many employees working remotely tend to feel they should be more productive and can fall into the trap of spending much longer in front of the computer than they would if they were in the office. The manager has an important job here too, managing expectations about the working day and switching their managerial focus to managing outcomes rather than monitoring hours spent by remote employees in front of their computers.
The third wave – the cultural challenge
Assuming managers reach out early to their team members to establish regular connections, communications between the employee and their manager, and between employees should work well. It’s not the same as being in the room together, of course, but it’s a good alternative at these times. We don’t want to create a situation where everything needs to flow through the manager like a hub. We want to create collaboration, sharing, and working together as best we can engender.
Each organisation has its own culture, and the question at this stage is how do we make that culture start to re-emerge. What would we do when we’re at our best in the face to face setting? How can we start to make that happen now in small ways between some or all of us, or in the interactions between us and our customers or other outside parties? Jump-starting your culture has a profound effect on engagement in the team and the wider business. It also builds trust, and this is crucial to the long term culture, since trust built in times like these endures. People remember what it was like in a crisis, who stepped up for who, who went the extra mile and so on. How well the manager, and by extension, the business cared for the team will be crucial. Did the team feel safe, valued, appreciated? Was there a genuine focus on the human in all of this change and did the organisation connect with the team on a human level?
The answers to these questions will resonate for a long time when this crisis has passed. Finally, when we think about how the leadership communicated with the employees, we’ll ask was it honest, was it consistent, did we get information at regular enough intervals, and did it make us feel safe and hopeful? As managers we can shape the answers to these questions through our actions today and in the coming weeks, and our actions will have a profound effect on the culture we need and want when this pandemic is finally over.
The fourth wave – the inevitable return
That brings us to the fourth wave, the challenge of the inevitable return. What we’ll return to at this stage nobody can be sure. It seems like we won’t simply pick up where we left off before COVID-19. It seems certain we’ll be forced to look at many things with new eyes as a result of our experiences of working remotely and being constrained at home.
There is significant new learning here and the most critical thing is surely not to squander it or race past it in a desire to ‘get back to normal’. Time devoted to capturing the main insights will be time well spent. It’s also a simplification to assume that everyone now wants to work remotely, or that everyone wants to get back to the office. How we handle this rebalancing will be important. In their 2019 Digital worker survey, Analysts Gartner found only 10% of respondents said they liked to work exclusively from home, with the vast majority preferring a mix of home and office-based work. We need to carefully bring people back to the office and assess what mix works best from a productivity and engagement point of view.
This sudden change of circumstances has upended the routines of workers all over the planet and been replaced with new routines. How will we manage the fact that some people have created routines that work well or better than what they had before? We need to think about how we have this conversation and steer well clear of mandating change when we might be able to get a better overall result with some dialogue.
Many of us have quickly learned new ways of working together, using tools like video chat, and collaborative workspaces. In many cases, our IT colleagues have been trying to tell us about these tools for some time but we did not listen. We now see the value of these tools and we should find a way to keep using whatever works.
Finally, it will be easy and understandable to move on from COVID-19 as soon as possible but we should recognise one sobering truth about our readiness. While many organisations had well-honed disaster recovery plans, knew what they would do if a fire broke out, or how they would cope with a heavy fall of snow or winter storm, most had no plans made for this kind of scenario. We can and must do better. We must capture the learning from this pandemic because it could happen again and we should have a comprehensive plan in place for that scenario.
Developing Your Organisation Archive