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COVID-19: Mid-level managers need to nail their soft-skills in this crisis
We are all experiencing unprecedented events during the COVID-19 outbreak. Social distancing, prolonged lockdowns, and unexpected working from home have inflicted immense emotional distress among employees globally. In this rising tide of emotional well-being concerns, companies are rolling out employee assistance programs and looking for tools and technology to educate and support their employees. So far, organizations have placed their utmost focus on the physical effects of COVID-19, but a more significant challenge is emerging—employees’ mental well-being. Mid-level managers—like many of us—are not equipped to tackle the challenges of remotely managing their team members’ welfare. Now that businesses have overcome their immediate technology concerns, they must look at the brewing challenge of employee well-being in a new business environment.
Employees are feeling the pain—COVID-19-related stress has impacted over a third of the workforce
In Exhibit 1, we can see the impact of the recent pandemic laid out before us, with significant increases in employees reporting COVID-19-related stress harming their mental health.
Exhibit 1: How COVID-19's Carnage spiked the stress levels among humans?
To contextualize this impact, we had candid discussions with professionals working in the IT services industry. Alongside the challenge of a delicate work–home life balance, they reported the following sources of stress:
- Prolonged working hours: Most professionals advise they are now working much longer hours than they used to, even in busy periods, partly because of the diluted definitions of “office space” and “personal space” and partly because their workload has increased considerably as they support their employer during the crisis. One service professional pointed out how the transition from office work to personal space is not happening. She said, “At any time of the day, I am working. It has taken a toll on my physical and mental health. I am still looking for the pause button.”
- Micro-managing: Managers are becoming extra cautious about deliverables and frequently checking on them because they cannot physically monitor their teams. This is leading to multiple meetings or one-on-ones, putting additional stress on employees to be available at any time of the day. Another professional conveyed, “My manager has become over-interested in my daily routine. When not online, he calls me up over the phone to check if I am not chilling around.”
- Lack of support from managers: During the early weeks of remote working, managers played a very supportive role and checked on their employees’ health; however, as immediate concerns have subsided, employees have noticed more focus on business results than on employee well-being.
All of these factors are leading to employee burnout. Talent management professionals around the globe will know that employee burnout is a major issue for businesses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout accounts for a loss to businesses of over $125 billion per year. So how do we build a middle-management layer that can empower employees rather than fuel greater burnout?
Simply put, the line managers’ role is now more crucial than ever; in many cases, they are the only real link to the rest of the organization. Ultimately, the way managers handle employees impacts on the employees’ stress level directly proportional to the company’s performance.
While initial conversations with services professionals are discouraging, some organizations are extending support to employees. Initiatives like doctors on call, roping in psychologists for emotional counseling, offering e-learning platforms for employees and their kids, conducting virtual coffee and lunch meetings, and virtual physical fitness sessions are some of the public initiatives taken by large companies. But when it comes to management training, there has been a discernable absence of investment.
Avoid mass burnout—it’s time to retrain the middle-management layer to ensure the business below them runs smoothly
Many of the investments made by services firms in the wake of the crisis are laudable. But there’s a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, exacerbated by most firms adopting a “wait and see” approach to the business rather than investing for the long term—and that’s training for management. Leaders must look to implement the following measures to ease the burden on their team and ensure managers have the tools, training, and freedom to better manage employees.
- Mandatory virtual training program for managers: Training leaders to manage in this new environment is key, especially in identifying and handling situations in virtual environments, including managing emotions, identifying early warning signs of burnout, and offering assistance in virtual environments. Managers should also leverage tools such as Tiatros and Get Result in Transition (GRIT), which are applications developed by psychiatrists and psychologists using AI tools.
- Stop scheduling non-essential meetings: Use chat or email platforms to convey non-project-related tasks or less-important project-related issues. According to professionals we spoke to, blocking calendars for multiple short meetings is a core source of stress.
- Let’s do away with micromanagement: A manager’s job is to clear the way for employees to deliver on their goals. Managers need to find a balance between keeping communication channels open and inhibiting productivity. An important part of this is developing mutual trust—just because teams don’t sit in the same room anymore doesn’t mean the trust is broken.
- Be honest in communications: Job security is a significant concern in this crisis. While the realities of the new business environment will undoubtedly lead to changes, open communication from leadership teams will help employees contextualize the situation.
- Give rewards: To keep teams motivated, managers must acknowledge success and hard work. Quick emails highlighting good work and rewards are keys to boosting morale and helping shift to an outcome-focused approach.
- Conduct surveys frequently to capture employee mood: Floating a survey could help leaders assess their employees’ mindset and gauge employee assistance programs’ effectiveness.
- Conduct skip-level meetings: Leaders must ensure a single line manager isn’t the only access that employees have to the management structure. Organizing regular meetings with other senior leaders is key to building a 360-degree view.
The Bottom Line: Middle management training is the missing piece of the jigsaw—leaders must act now.
Without a doubt, our environment will continue throwing curveballs at employees and management teams. Now that leaders have solved for the biggest short-term challenge—implementing technologies to support working from home—they must now focus on the medium to long term and ensure managers have the training necessary to look after their teams.