How Managers Should Act During the Pandemic

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According to a new Willis Towers Watson survey, about 9 in 10 workers say their managers supported them well during the COVID-19 crisis and that their companies provided them with the technology and other tools needed to work productively during the pandemic.

Yet very few believe their companies gave supervisors sufficient training to lead during the crisis, especially when it comes to managing remote employees.

"By all accounts, respondents give managers and leaders high marks for guiding workers through the crisis so far," said John Jones, head of North America talent at Willis Towers Watson. "At the same time ... more employers will need to redouble their efforts in training and developing managers to prepare them to support employees in what will likely be different work environments."

The global consulting and risk management firm conducted the survey of 201 employers representing 2.5 million workers from April 13-27.

A step forward

Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said their managers had "stepped up" to help them perform their jobs during the virus.

"Stepping up" refers to actions taken by managers, such as frequent and systematic check-ins with team members, face-to-face or face-to-face contact, availability, familiarity and comfort with technology and a focus on relationships," said Casey Hauch, senior director of communications and change management at Willis Towers Watson.

Ninety-two percent of respondents said their companies successfully provided technology and other tools to work productively during the virus.

"The top three things companies are doing to support their employees during the pandemic are: enabling the use of personal tools such as the Internet and phone to work remotely, setting up emergency teams to respond to the viral outbreak, and improving access to counseling services," Hauch said.

Need for more manager training

However, the survey found that only a quarter of respondents (24%) saw an increase in training and development opportunities for managers during the crisis.

"Remote management is a very new discipline for supervisors and leaders," said Josh Bersin, HR industry veteran, research analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte. "Leaders who haven't yet managed a remote team need to make progress on this new learning curve. There are new norms, new rules, new cultural issues and a need for a deeper level of trust."

Managers could benefit from training in a number of areas, he added, including having effective performance conversations in light of the pandemic and better understanding the resources available to support employee well-being.

It recommended that manager training include information on:
  • Acceptable behaviors for remote meetings and other remote interactions, such as appropriate dress and information sharing
  • How to foster empowerment and professional growth during the pandemic
  • How to maintain worker morale, connectedness and productivity "in a highly distracted work environment at home"
  • How do you encourage workers to check in more frequently when working remotely?
  • How to be sensitive to the personal challenges some people face when working from home.

"Flexibility and empathy are an important part of this new leadership model," Bersin said.

Listening to workers

The survey also revealed the need for employers to do more about "listening to employees." It found that 60 percent of organizations conduct surveys and have informal conversations with employees, but fewer companies use more formal methods such as satisfaction surveys or focus groups.

Both approaches are important, Hauch says, to address employee concerns and sources of stress or anxiety and to ensure that workers feel supported and safe in their work environment if they are not working remotely.

Some organizations, he says, specifically ask employees about their needs and concerns - for example, about their health, anxiety levels, benefits and job security concerns. They also ask workers about their level of engagement and productivity, their relationship with their managers during the virus, the support they feel from their organization and their perception of management.

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