Battling Pandemic Blues: How Managers Can Rally the Troops


Your team is deflated.

It could be a project gone wrong, a key colleague’s departure, or just life these days. How are you supposed to rally the troops when you haven’t seen them in person since spring?

Good bosses had a playbook that worked just fine back in the office. They often managed by walking around, dropping casual praise to workers after a win and silently keeping tabs on who needed bolstering. Those in a slump were swiftly taken out for lunch with the boss or, if things were really dire, a drink.

Now, with many teams still operating remotely, it’s hard for managers to catch signs of morale issues and fix them. How can you read body language and catch fleeting facial expressions when colleagues are distilled down to Brady Bunch squares on a Zoom call? Instead, problems seem to fester in our disconnected network of kitchen table offices and Slack chats.

Plus, we’re not contending with the typical setbacks and disappointments that come with having a job. These are strange times, replete with burnout, distraction and personal hardships, especially with the adrenaline that marked the early part of the pandemic long gone.

“We’ve moved through fear to this period of endless uncertainty,” says Suzanne Bates, the CEO of Bates Communications, a Wellesley, Mass.-based management-consulting firm.

Human-resources professionals ranked maintaining employee morale as their most difficult Covid-19 issue in a recent survey by XpertHR, an online provider of compliance guidance. More than three-quarters of the 835 people surveyed described the task as somewhat or very challenging.

Ms. Bates says the first step in combating employee malaise is simply listening. One of her clients began conducting virtual skip-level meetings, in which a leader connects with her direct report’s direct report. On one call, a young professional confided that working from her bed was hurting her back, prompting the executive to help her find a small desk for her studio apartment.

“That’s half the battle, just to give people the opportunity to be heard,” Ms. Bates says.

She also recommends acknowledging that times are tough and being open with employees about the realities of this year: Bonuses might be scarce, promotions paused. Remind your team this is just a moment in time, even if it’s a difficult one, she says.

When leaders at O’Reilly Media decided to shut down the online-learning company’s in-person events division in March and lay off 75 of its 475 employees, some colleagues were shaken. They worried about their own job security and wanted to know how the decisions had been made.

Laura Baldwin, president of the Sebastopol, Calif.-based company, says transparency helped ease worries and maintain connections between the scattered workforce. She sent several notes to the whole staff, laying out what was happening and why, and invited employees to submit questions about the layoffs and the business anonymously. For two hours, she tackled the queries during an all-company online meeting in April.

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What steps do you think would improve morale at your workplace? Join the conversation below.

She also redirected employees, charging them with transforming a major in-person event planned for the spring into a digital affair. They got the job done in just 10 days and were invigorated after seeing 4,000 customers sign up, Ms. Baldwin says.

“In a way that was like, ‘Wow, look at this, now we gotta move on,’ ” she says.

Unleashing employees on new, challenging and creative projects can help them feel engaged and productive, experts say. Analyzing and reviewing good and bad happenings at work, like Ms. Baldwin did after the layoffs, can help build confidence too.

“You’re not left to kind of sit home and weave these stories in your mind that have little to do with what actually happened,” says Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. “It’s a focused opportunity to digest and learn.”

PD Singh started to find that some of his go-to management techniques just weren’t translating while working from home in Bellevue, Wash., during the pandemic. A vice president at New York-based UiPath, an automation software company, Mr. Singh was used to scanning his employees for signs—say, slouching at their desks—that a check-in was in order. He’d always tried lighthearted comments to motivate staff. But his humor didn’t land the same over the phone.

PD Singh, a vice president at UiPath, found that some of his go-to management techniques—like using humor or reading body language—weren’t translating to remote work.



Photo:

UiPath

“It’s like watching a stand-up comedian in person rather than listening to their podcast,” he says.

Video calls were doing their own damage. He could feel himself losing his team during their weekly meeting. Frustrated employees were snapping at each other, exhausted by up to 18 hours on Zoom a day.

Mr. Singh scrapped the agenda for the meeting, opening it up to more general discussion of topics like hot IPOs in the tech industry. Instead of reading body language, he started paying attention to the natural tone and cadence of his employees’ voices, alert to changes that might signal they were having a tough time. And he pushed people to take vacation—and leave their laptops behind.

Tony Tzeng, one of Mr. Singh’s direct reports, says the new format for the meeting energized him and took the pressure off preparing weekly status updates. He appreciated that his boss wasn’t checking in constantly but always had time if Mr. Tzeng had questions or needed to vent—like one Friday session that went on for two hours.

“You need a sounding board,” Mr. Tzeng says.

Tony Tzeng, Mr. Singh’s direct report, appreciates that his boss doesn’t check in constantly but always has time if he has questions or needs to vent.



Photo:

UiPath

It can be hard for bosses to keep tabs on remote employees without devolving into micromanaging. Kara McKeage, the CEO of Pepper’s Personal Assistants in Seattle, started using project-management tool Trello to track which of her 15 employees needed more frequent attention as the pandemic set in.

“It was so overwhelming. There was so much happening. I wanted to make sure we knew where people were, their mind-set and life,” she says.

Workers struggling with issues like a sick parent or maintaining focus while working remotely receive a red label on the software program. Those who are doing fine get a green label, while those at risk of deteriorating get a yellow. Ms. McKeage makes sure to check in on the struggling employees as frequently as twice a week, and switches the colors as employees’ personal and work circumstances change. Only the three-person management team sees the color coding. Employees don’t know their label.

Introducing virtual training sessions and activities like an online cooking class have also helped maintain camaraderie between colleagues, Ms. McKeage says. But it’s still not the same as the frequent social events and staff meetings that used to bond and buoy them.

“It just seems so much easier in person,” she says.

Ways to Recharge Your Team

Rethink meetings: Make sure every Zoom call has a purpose. If a meeting isn’t working, adjust the content, cut the time in half or scrap it altogether.

Analyze what happened: Conduct after-event reviews of your team’s successes and failures, Prof. Hinds says, so no one’s in the dark about what happened and employees can apply lessons learned to the next project.

Give people a challenge: Form a special team to examine new opportunities, or give workers time to tackle a tough problem. Learning helps people grow, feel engaged and be productive, Ms. Bates says.

Keep tabs on your employees: Set reminders on your calendar to check in with folks. Standing meetings can further clutter your team’s calendar, so adjust your outreach as you go based on who needs what. And really listen to what they share.

Offer perspective: Remind your team that this is just a moment in time. Things might be hard, but this stretch won’t last forever.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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