The pandemic has caused just about everything to swing in one direction or another. As a consultant specializing in change, I’ve seen client after client looking for solutions to challenges they never saw coming.
More than two years in, having navigated remote work, hybrid work, return to office, mask-on-mask-off rules, the Great Resignation, the great re-assessment, and the great big deep breath we take at the beginning of every new day, I am witnessing a simple theme emerging. This will be critical and lasting far beyond COVID: People want to feel cared for, they want to stay connected, and they want the flexibility to figure out how to manage their situation their way—and managers hold the key.
People managers at every level of an organization are the cornerstone to success in difficult times. Through this pandemic, they have had to toss lifelines to so many of their team members—while they deal with similar situations in their own lives. The best of them are heroes in their own right.
Companies have invested in multiple efforts to help managers manage remotely. And, they’ve invested plenty of hours helping managers understand brand new policies around sick time, vaccines, contact tracing, Zoom etiquette, and so much more.
But the real investment should be made to help build people skills in three principal areas: care, connection, and flexibility.
Employees (frankly, all of us) want to feel that we matter, that we are valued as individuals, not just for the job we perform. A culture of care in the workplace can be demonstrated in many ways, but simple human kindness and empathy lead the way. In turn, a genuinely caring environment can lead to higher levels of morale, productivity, innovation, and retention.
Here are three ways for managers to show they care:
- Ask people how they’re doing—and really listen to their answers. Carving out this time should be a purposeful priority, not an after-thought or a question you ask 30 seconds before closing a team meeting.
- Let them know how you’re doing. It creates common ground when you share your own challenges, struggles, and small victories. Your personal transparency (with a proper dose of humility) will go a long way in building loyalty. People want to work for those they like and admire.
- Ask about their aspirations. Try to understand each employee’s needs, hopes, fears, aspirations, and goals, both short- and long-term. Help guide them to achieve their ambitions in a way that works for them – and your organization.
Connection at work matters. People who feel connected collaborate more, readily share knowledge, and are generally more efficient. In addition, most people want to feel part of something greater. They want to see where they fit in the bigger picture and how their work contributes. Managers can build this sense of connection when they:
- Show employees the bigger picture. Make sure employees understand the vision and mission of both your team and the larger organization. Then draw a direct line to the work they do every day. Employees will better understand their internal and external customers and will undoubtedly share ideas on how to serve them in new ways.
- Give them time to connect with others. Employees don’t need to be top-of-the-chart extroverts to find value in connecting with colleagues. Create in-person or online connection opportunities and encourage open sharing in social sites like MS Teams.
- Open access to leadership. Find opportunities for your leaders to get to know the contributions of your employees and for your employees to make connections at the next level. Occasionally invite leaders to team meetings to hear new ideas. It helps employees see that the people up the ladder are open to listening.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there are many factors totally beyond our control. All of us needed to do things differently. We tried to work in new places and in new ways. If it didn’t work, we tried again. Giving employees this same sense of flexibility can pay big dividends:
- Let employees adapt. Show them how the company’s norms and policies are guard rails – and give them leeway to make their own adjustments inside that space. While employees will value the feeling of independence, you’ll know very soon if productivity remains steady.
- Create creative schedules. Allow the flexibility employees need to take care of themselves and their families. They can still meet the company’s needs while taking care of their own.
- Provide choices. Help employees create the work environment they need by giving them choices on office equipment, space, and locations. Choices may not satisfy every demand, but employees can feel very grateful if they are allowed to avoid cookie-cutter restrictions.
Care, connection, and flexibility can sit side-by-side in a manager’s toolkit, but they each require some skill to master. Training in each of these disciplines is widely available, but in a hyper-busy world full of competing priorities, snackable learning experiences in the form of facilitator-led peer mentoring or peer-coaching circles will give you the most bang for your buck. These powerful bursts of learning help managers address real-time challenges and share ideas. They also help managers form the connections that they will find invaluable for the long-term.
By learning to blend empathy with transparency, collaboration with humility, and creativity with a little rule-bending, managers will build more engaged teams that are focused on the future and less likely to look for opportunities elsewhere.