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Leadership and managing people during COVID-19

by Jackson B

By Ben Chatfield | CEO and Founder of Tempo,

For the first time ever, we’re working in a world where we’ve never met many of our colleagues and video calls have become the go-to onboarding tool. This way of operating brings with it a whole host of challenges – from how to effectively onboard someone from home to how to keep your team energised and even keep your company culture alive. More now than ever before, the importance of the art of managing people is amplified, and without adequate support, we are all at risk of failing.

The effect remote working has on leadership

Let’s start with a simple question: is there anyone you know – no matter which job or sector – who hasn’t had their work impacted in one way or another, as a direct result of the pandemic? My guess is no.

Business operations have been turned on their head and a large percentage of UK businesses are now operating entirely from home, some even concluding their former office space is redundant. Thanks to technology, this change was a feasible adjustment. At the beginning of lockdown 1.0, remote working was actually welcomed – I can certainly remember thinking it would be easy working from home; no more commuting and maybe even a lie-in.

However, after a couple of months, the sentiment of working remotely quickly shifted. The somewhat hidden benefits of physically going into an office became apparent. Work culture took a massive hit with workforces missing in-person collaboration and interaction. Zoom fatigue became a thing, with video conferencing unable to replicate a sense of camaraderie within teams. Make-shift setups, without a proper desk and chair or in a quiet space away from flatmates, grew to be uncomfortable. People began to feel lonely and in some cases impacted the level of work output as it became much harder for managers to keep track of teams remotely.

A recent study by Bloomberg has revealed that a huge 89% of young workers struggle with remote working and they look for face-to-face interaction to feel included. As a leader, managers need to allocate time each week – potentially each day – to have check-ins with their junior staff, whether this be over messaging channels or virtual meetings, and make sure they know you’re available.

These meetings shouldn’t touch on their progression or how well they are doing professionally, but just focus on their wellbeing. The questions I find most helpful with deciphering this are: “Have you been able to see friends and family lately?”, “Are you able to speak with them on a regular basis?”, “How are you finding working from home?” and “Is there anything I can do to help you?”.

How to keep company culture alive

Great company culture is linked to higher rates of employee engagement and has been shown to improve productivity and lead to high performance.

The watering hole social interactions are being hit the hardest when it comes to company culture and we need to find ways to replicate these effectively from home. It’s the spontaneous catch-ups in the kitchen or grabbing a quick bite for lunch with work mates that helps keep team morale up and enables managers/leaders to spot the early signs of any work grumbles.

In Swedish culture, they have what they call ‘fika’. The word itself means ‘making time for friends and colleagues’ and it’s an important part of their day-to-day life – they get together in small groups, share a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy a little something to eat. By getting your entire team, from interns through to MDs, to all come together in one place (virtually), will help to achieve a sense of togetherness and gives leaders the chance to catch-up with those that may be a little quieter.

If you think about Christmas parties, this is usually the time where you get to engage with the Senior Leadership Team, especially if you’re new to the company or a junior member of staff. Managers need to ensure they are providing the opportunity to mingle amongst wider team members which can be done via breakout rooms on video conferencing platforms during monthly team socials.

What the pandemic has taught us is the importance of employee wellness and ways we can support this remotely. A recent study by leading fitness membership, ClassPass, revealed that 70% of workers value fitness benefits as the most valuable company benefit (outside of healthcare) and that it helped team members to feel more connected, more productive and enabled them to find a healthy work-life routine. Managers should look into digital fitness platforms that offer Corporate Wellness Programmes that will allow employees to join on-demand fitness classes individually, or as a group, and encourage a good work-life balance.

The very real risk of burnout and how to tackle it

Without having to factor in commute time or making it back in time for dinner, working from home can make it difficult to switch off. Teams are squeezing in up to six to eight Zoom meetings in a single day (something which would never happen if we were in the office) which is leaving little time for them to do their work within the usual working hours.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone – burnout has actually tripled since March. In fact, according to the Deloitte Burnout Survey, 77% of workers have experienced burnout in their current job, finding it difficult to find a work life balance. A further 69% also believe that their employers are not doing enough to help prevent or rectify burnout.

My advice to leaders and managers is to ensure you are putting processes in place that help employees block out time to focus on tasks. For example, setting Slack up to say ‘working on a project’ and ensuring notifications are turned off, using Out of Office replies for internal emails that let team members know they’re head-down on a task, or setting aside one day that is ‘meeting free’ for the whole business. These small steps can make a big difference in keeping overworking to a minimum.

Another pandemic problem managers are facing is with annual leave. With holidays cancelled and travel restrictions largely in place, a lot of people aren’t taking days off work, meaning team members are facing extended periods of work with little to no break. Days off are crucial for resetting and unwinding from work and I know of several businesses that have since introduced a company-wide health objective to ensure all staff take 100% of their holiday allowance, resulting in a monetary reward if they’re successful. Another tip is to map out a set number of days that must be taken each quarter by all employees to ensure regular time off work. This will help your team stay motivated and engaged while at work, but also keep teams working at an optimal level without limited resources.

Goal setting is crucial, especially as a lot of people are driven by results and need to be making meaningful progress towards these targets in order to be satisfied in their job. While working from home, it can be easy for progression to fall off the list. Managers should arrange monthly progression meetings with their junior members to update them on their improvement, the areas to focus on and give insightful feedback from team members and senior leaders.

Why the failures are important to acknowledge

Especially at this time, communication is key. Opening up about vulnerabilities, especially when in a managerial role, opens up the conversation about time pressure and shortcomings across the entire team. This is a two-sided conversation where co-workers can gain insight into what’s challenging for their managers while also sharing what they are finding difficult. It has to be peer-to-peer with everyone acknowledging the highs and the lows. Without this open communication, neither side can support the other.

When was the last time you spoke to your team about what you weren’t able to do today or how you could have done something better?

How to onboard new starters effectively

Since we have been thrown into an almost entirely virtual world, virtual recruiting and onboarding is set to become the new standard. New starters may not have the chance to meet their new colleagues in person for weeks, or even months, after starting so a welcoming experience is needed from the get-go.

If a new hire has been brought on but had a negative experience at some of the touchpoints, they are likely to be actively disengaged from your company and its culture. In fact, a survey highlighted that 94% of candidates consider a positive candidate experience a priority in the hiring process.

Here’s how you can achieve it:

  • Engage before day one. Once the contract is signed, it’s important to remain in contact and keep new talent excited about joining your company.
  • Buddy up. Help new employees settle in by partnering them with a current employee to show them the ropes.
  • Commit to the first year. Don’t just focus your energy on them in the first orientation week. Keep up the engagement, training, and integration well beyond that.
  • Give them structure. New candidates will be nervous, so have a plan in place to make them feel welcome. Be sure to cover everything from the offer letter to their first Friday, even including a fun welcome kit.

Empowering all levels

You can support managers by empowering those beneath them to have an active role in team progression and company improvements. For example, enabling line managers to act as a liaison between upper management and junior members of staff will alleviate some of the time pressures but on senior leaders so that they can work on client servicing and ensuring targets are met.

Encourage employees to manage upwards by asking them what they would like to improve in areas that can promote greater efficiency and productivity. Not only will this help managers, but it will also make employees of all levels feel as though they have a voice within the company which is a great driver of success. These conversations and suggestions must be followed by set actions from leadership to show the intent to improve.

If you have team members expressing interest in what their managers do or how they approach certain tasks, why not try ‘screen shadowing’. Set up a video conferencing link that will allow a team member to watch what you are doing on your screen – emulating the usual shadowing process that may happen in the office. It’s a great way to maintain knowledge sharing processes and can be recorded for future use.

What will happen next?

Our work routines are forever changing and what works this week may become obsolete the next. Whether you’re a manager, an employee, a new starter or looking for work, it’s important to focus on support – whether that’s supporting others at work, supporting family members at home or asking for support yourself

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