Managing and supporting teams during the pandemic

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

Nowhere is this business as usual. In this pandemic there is and will be a lot of uncertainty and fear. Employers and managers need to be empathetic, educated on COVID-19 and aware of the impact this pandemic may be having on employees who are operating in both essential and non-essential roles.

The reality is: no people, no organization. People aren’t replaceable, and without people working at some level, there’s no hope for the economy and the world we know. Organizations are counting on managers to help them weather this storm. Leaders need managers to stay focused on the mission and keep their organizations on track to achieve objectives as much as possible.

This can only happen if managers are focused and intentional about managing their team’s psychological health and safety. If they are aware, engaged, flexible, agile and patient they will be able to understand what each employee needs and how to best support them.

For the most part, managers are leading two types of employees:

  • Employees who have been classified essential service. The challenge is they live with the daily stress of catching the virus as well as potentially bringing it home to loved ones.
  • Non-essential employees, who, whether they live alone or with others, can experience isolation. And those surrounded by family and children need to figure out how to manage family and work

The reality is, all situations come with challenges; there’s no one magic answer. It is important that managers realize they only have control over their circle of influence, and accept that they don’t have to know all the answers; they just need to be present and authentic. Humility and candor can go a long way in a crisis.

Coaching tips for managers supporting employees in this unprecedented time:

  • Use story telling - By sharing stories of personal experience and challenges that they are facing themselves, managers can help normalize coping and put some humanity into the situation. It can be helpful for employees to see that their manager also has worries, but they are clear on what they can and can’t control and they are doing the best they can. Of course, some vulnerability is fine, but it’s necessary to use discretion.
  • Listen - Managers should connect with employees and open the lines of communication, such as sharing stories. This can help employees have confidence and trust to share their own - both good and bad. It can also knock down some stigma around vulnerability and show that it’s fine to ask for help and to share concerns.
  • Support - Support for employees can come in many forms. When managers are open, transparent and honest, it can help employees learn to trust that they’re there for them, and they, in turn, will also be honest about the good and the bad. It can be as simple as providing positive affirmation and encouragement; listening and asking how to help solve a problem; asking questions; and seeking permission to provide suggestions in the challenging times, such as talking to an employee and family assistance representative.
  • Practice Self Care - Managers can have the same human experience and feelings as their employees. This is why it’s also important for managers to become active in their own self-care and to ask for support when needed. No one is immune to the stress - not even managers.
  • Repeat - There’s no magic formula for a manager in a pandemic like we’re experiencing other than being consistent and present. With the Plan - Do - Check - Act approach the simple tips above can be repeated over and over to keep employees psychologically safe.

There’s no finish line in a pandemic, or even when there’s no pandemic, because there’s no such thing as perfection. Managers who care about their people are active and willing to learn each day, and they are authentic in their interactions. When managers really lean into the human factor of this crisis, they have an opportunity to be there for their team, while maximizing the organization’s sustainability and supporting society and the overall health of the economy.

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