The days of managing people over their shoulders are gone forever. But have we formulated an alternative yet?
As the second or third wave of the pandemic sweeps across several countries including India, remote work is going to continue till the end of this year, and for some organization well beyond it. In a recent Gartner poll, 90% of HR leaders said employees would be allowed to work remotely even once COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. Most organizations have had months to work on remote-work experience to keep employees productive and engaged, but many still viewed remote set-ups as temporary.
Expectations from managers have been changing over the last one year; from maintaining productivity in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, to becoming more outcome-focused, and today, managers are required to provide psychological safety to employees. The context is changing constantly as the pandemic peaks, ebbs and resurges putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Individual stress levels are at their highest now. It calls for exemplary leadership skills to maintain calm and reassure others in these challenging times.
Managers are also concerned about their own relevance in a remote work environment. They are worried about their personal health and the well-being of their families. On the work front they are frustrated to lose the constant visibility they once had into their employees, which is a major shift from the kind of work that they have been doing all these years. Some are responding with micromanaging, which certainly is not the answer as that will only disengage and fatigue already stressed employees.
A remote manager today must be more empathetic, emotional and behave like the leader, than a boss. They must be aware of the emotional roller-coaster that employees are going through and factor it in when communicating with clarity, assigning work, or supervising outcomes. To be successful in this new environment, managers must lead with empathy. In a 2021 Gartner survey of 4,787 global employees assessing the evolving role of management, only 47% of managers are prepared for this future role. The most effective managers of the future will be those who build fundamentally different relationships with their employees.
Today’s manager does not have day-to-day visibility of the work of his/her team, therefore, instead of micromanaging things, the role has shifted to being a facilitator, an enabler to equip the team member with necessary tools and guidance to achieve a certain objective. In the last one year, organizations have implemented a slew of technologies to enable remote work and automate certain process flows. When managerial tasks are replaced by technology, managers aren’t needed to manage workflows. When interactions become primarily virtual, managers can no longer rely on what they see to manage performance, and when relationships become more emotional, they can no longer limit the relationship to the sphere of work.
In the past, we’ve approached “work” and “non-work” discussions as separable, allowing managers to keep the latter off the table. Today we can no longer do so. It is important for each of us to find out about our health and safety and let each other know that we are there for them. It is not just about our employees, but it also about their families, near and dear ones.
The most important change in the manager’s role is to engage the team member for both work and non-work-related issues. It could range from understand the connectivity challenges from home to a team-member having to share baby-sitting duties when the spouse is occupied in his or her work. This calls for a high degree of empathy from managers, as every employee is seeking psychological safety.
Employees want to be reassured that the organization and the manager is there to support when the need is critical; this is what psychological safety is all about. Employees are looking to their managers for guidance, and it’s important for employees to know their managers are there to support them in the work environment as well as provide for personal matters as well. The best thing a manager can do right now is to put utmost trust and confidence in team members that they will do the right thing — which they will if employers provide a supportive structure.
This will whittle down to being an empathetic manager, which is easier said than done. It means developing the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It begins with being a better listener. It cannot happen unless a personal bond is established between the manager and the team member. Once again this is a tricky business to understand where to draw the line as otherwise one might be too intrusive. This is where communication plays a very important role.
Having regular communication not only to assign tasks and responsibilities, but casually enquiring about the wellbeing of the team members and their families are critical today. A team member can be extremely worried about the health of a family member; managers are required to understand that and respond with reassurances. The challenges before remote managers have changed dramatically over the last one year and there is no existing playbook to refer to, as the situation is everchanging. The training manuals of the past are of little use, it is time to get back to the age-old human values of trust, empathy, and genuine concern for each other that will help us to survive and thrive these unprecedented times.