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Professional people management during the pandemic

By Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and Director of 10Eighty.

Managing in lockdown has added a whole new layer of challenge for team leaders, managers, senior executives and board members. The pandemic has been a trigger which has accelerated, and in some cases forced leaders to put their people first and centre in their response to what is happening in wider society.

Keeping in touch with team members working from home is not always easy. The CIPD point out that we need to ensure every team member is clear about how to work together remotely, how to keep each other updated, and how frequently. During times of disruption, communication is really important and an important lesson from lockdown has been how important it is to make sure the messaging meets the needs of the audience. A move to remote working has made leaders really think about the need to communicate and how they do this, to ensure every employee feels included and nobody is disadvantaged.

10Eighty research shows that those CEOs who engage in regular communication with employees, who communicate in an open, transparent, honest manner with warmth, whilst providing as much information as possible, see positive results in employee engagement in each case.

We think it’s important to remember that everyone is different and we like to be managed in different ways. Some team members need frequent check-ins, feedback and reassurance; others are happier to work alone so long as they are confident they will have support when they need, they may resent too many check-ins and regard them as micro-management. Nobody wants to feel they have to account for every moment of the day, trust good people to get the job done.

Communication and control

Communicate well with each team member and establish how they prefer to communicate and keep your calendar visible so that you maintain a virtual open door. Some may be more feeling isolated or anxious, so take this into account when talking or writing. Maintain open lines of communication not just when things go wrong, and don’t just impart information; remember praise, recognition and make time for social chit chat.

Bear in mind that you may not be au fait with the circumstances of all team members, be sure they have the support and equipment they need, including any coaching that may be needed to use online systems or platforms that facilitate remote working. Be alive to what people are going through and the challenges they are encountering. Encourage a focus on what each can control; remote working requires a level of initiative and autonomy.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore
Liz Sebag-Montefiore

Meeting challenges

Distractions abound when we work at home, but the flexibility it affords tends to counterbalance the disadvantages but be careful to acknowledge any anxiety or distress that employees express; the fact that someone is working at home does not negate your responsibility for safeguarding health, safety and proper working conditions. Employees used to a busy, sociable office may find they feel isolated when they lose that environment and this needs to be managed sensitively.

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Zoom meetings are great and work for a lot of people, but it’s obvious that you miss something in terms of body language and picking up on non-verbal clues which may result in clashes of communication style, and managing conflict when online can be a challenge. The CIPD are clear that we should home in on what’s not being said and ask questions to clarify understanding. Be clear about mutual expectations and focus on results rather than activity.

New ways of working

Many workers will thrive in a less structured environment and relish the chance to use their initiative and work at their own pace. Most will not miss commuting and will appreciate the ability to choose and flex their working hours. Many workers will not want to return to working full-time in an office and that’s something we will have to deal with when lockdown ends.

The prevalence of home working and the move to a virtual workplace means that the importance of distributed leadership has increased significantly. This is characterised by a move away from a command and control management style that relies on a centralised infrastructure, to a leadership style where decisions are taken on the ground and work is led by the person best placed to undertake a project rather than the most senior person on the team.

Traditionally, leaders were at the organisation’s centre, driving strategic objectives, but an employee-centric operation using a distributed leadership model will reverse this approach by requiring leaders to align organisational objectives with employee needs.

Seize opportunities

Distributed leadership empowers team members to take decisions as best suits a given situation and is predicated on the organisation delegating and trusting employees. It’s illustrated by the Sandhurst model whereby it is the operative in the field making decisions not the colonel back at base, who outline the mission and sent them out.

Finally it’s important to realise that leaders need to look after their own growth and wellbeing in order to support the team. Prioritize what is needed to maintain energy levels while dealing with the many challenges linked to this new way of working with the minimum anxiety and loss of focus.

There’s a huge opportunity presented by the pandemic and it would be a shame if we fail to take advantage of the disruption afforded by lockdown to design lasting change into the workplace and organisational engagement. That way we can look forward to the new normal, whatever that may be, as being more fulfilling than the old normal.

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