In moments of crisis, being a good manager means recognizing that some things are bigger than work.
The coronavirus pandemic is clearly such a crisis. It’s bigger than work, but it has also swallowed work up, along with so many of the touchstones of our everyday lives (for instance, I have been inside exactly two buildings in the last three weeks).
At Uptick, we have been fortunate enough to transition to remote work and keep doing our jobs. Even so, work feels much different when team members are struggling with fear, uncertainty, and all the other stressors associated with social distancing.
For managers who are used to charging at every problem, guns blazing, supporting our teams in this moment will require different skills: patience, forbearance, and grace. And our first priority must be to ensure the safety and sanity of our teams. Here’s what that means to me.
Extend Grace to Your Team (and Yourself)
In my first one-on-ones with my team after the stay-at-home order, everyone expressed the same anxiety. It wasn’t worry for their safety or their job security, it was that they weren’t productive enough.
It was heart-wrenching to hear people worrying about deadlines while also coping with elderly parents and full-time childcare responsibilities and trying to buy basic necessities. Yet I understood how they felt, because I’ve felt the same way since this pandemic started: frustrated and even embarrassed to see my focus and productivity suffer. I had to reassure my team that productivity isn’t our most important goal right now, and when I was done reassuring them, I reassured myself.
The truth is, the most important thing managers owe to our teams right now is grace. I define grace as unmerited favor; you might also call it a hall pass. In moments like this, you have to anticipate and have patience with mistakes, missed deadlines, and short tempers. If someone on your team is stressed out and acting like their evil twin, there’s probably a reason for it. So look for the reason instead of judging the thing that you’re seeing.
That’s not merely a nice gesture, it’s good management, because it’s designed to keep my staff emotionally and physically healthy in the long term. If I push them past their limits in the name of short-term productivity, I’ll wind up creating even greater instability.
Just as importantly, remember to extend some patience and grace to yourself. That’s especially true for managers whose superiors are not as understanding as you. If you’re caught between your team’s needs and your boss’ demands, don’t let the strain exhaust you. After all, you can’t control the behavior of the people you work with or for, any more than you can control the coronavirus. So focus on the things you can control, starting with the cadence of communication with your team.
Humanize Through Communication
One of the most jarring aspects of life under the pandemic has been the loss of human connection, so one of my biggest priorities has been to restore that connection with my team through rich, meaningful communication, especially through phone calls and Zoom meetings.
Even though email and Slack are great tools, written communication sucks at replacing face-to-face interactions. It’s easy to misconstrue someone’s words or tone when you can’t see their facial expression and the hundreds of nonverbal cues that make up the meat of conversations. When managing remote teams, there’s a danger that you’ll start to see people as two-dimensional rather than as complex human beings. And now more than ever, we all have to fight for ways to keep people human.
That’s why, the second I detect even a hint of misunderstanding between myself and a team member, I hop on a Zoom call to work it out. The five minutes we spend touching base is a far better use of my team member’s time and energy than the twenty minutes they might otherwise waste worrying that I’m mad at them.
That being said, I’m also careful not to overcommunicate and wind up adding to my team’s anxiety. People are coping with their families, roommates, and a host of internal and external distractions, so I don’t expect them to constantly be available to talk. If a team member disappears from Slack for a little while, I trust that it’s for a good reason. Finding the right balance of communication and flexibility is crucial, too, but it takes some practice.
Bruce Daisley, author of Eat Sleep Work Repeat, says, “When bosses are confronted with uncertainty and anxiety and problems, they quite often reach for control.” He recommends having people commit to specific windows of time when they’ll be available for rapid response.
It’s also important to encourage your team to have the same kind of rich communications with one another, not just with you. Since the coronavirus, my team has made a lot more time for casual Slack conversations to reduce the feeling of isolation. We have coffee breaks over Zoom, share Spotify playlists, and talk almost as much as we did when we shared an office. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my team calling each other throughout the day, but I don’t want to take credit for initiating these casual communications.
One of the great joys of this crisis (and really, any crisis) is watching people step up and lead from the middle.
So while you may want to encourage your team, just provide them with the right tools and lead by example; don’t issue a top-down Directive for Enforced Pleasantries.
Offer Personalized Support
As I’ve said, my goal as a manager during the pandemic is to take care of my team as human beings, first and foremost. And that means offering them individualized support rather than blanket policies.
For instance, people with young children are dealing with specific challenges right now. Even those who are lucky enough to have a home office still risk getting waylaid by impromptu tea parties every time they get up for a glass of water. To help ease the situation, my current rule is that if a team member with kids asks to purchase something for their home office, I say yes immediately. I can’t make anyone’s home less noisy, but I can provide noise-canceling headphones. Gestures like that help people work better, but, more importantly, they remind them that I’m in their corner.
Likewise, in my one-on-one meetings with team members, I tailor my approach to each individual, whether they’re an optimist, a pessimist, or a stoic.
By nature, I’m a super positive person, but I can’t force that worldview on anyone else. So when a team member says, “Chris, I’m really struggling with this,” I have to resist the urge to try and fix the problem by reading out encouraging statistics. That’s not meeting an anxious person where they are. So instead of knee-jerk solutions, I offer empathy and curiosity about what specifically is worrying someone. And to the team members who aren’t as eager to share their inner thoughts, I’ve still emphasized that my (figurative) door is always open, and they are welcome to discuss any issue with me.
Be the Calm in the Storm
Managers are problem-solvers by nature. So one of the most challenging aspects of the coronavirus may be accepting that it’s not a problem we can strategize or organize our way out of. But we can practice empathy and emotional intelligence to ensure that our teams and our companies can weather this crisis with our sanity intact.
When the tide of coronavirus finally recedes, we’ll emerge from our homes with our hair a bit longer, with our belts a bit tighter, and with a newfound appreciation for our shared humanity. Until then, we can help shepherd that humanity to the other side.