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CREATING OFFICE SPACE

Thoughtful tips for managing people in a pandemic and its aftermath

A sign shows the way to a walk-in corona test centre at a hospital.
Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
If the playbook you’re consulting now is nearly 20 years old, you’re going to need a few updates.
  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz

Published

Early in the pandemic, CEOs struggling to identify a comparable crisis frequently hearkened back to the 9/11 attacks, as a way of reminding teams of their resilience in the face of disruption and grief. It was a highly imperfect comparison—not only because the particulars of the crises are so different, but because workplaces have changed a lot since 2001. Employees arrive, or log on, for work with very different expectations than they used to. While some management strategies are timeless, if the playbook you’re consulting now is nearly 20 years old, you’re going to need a few updates.

Here is some of the best management advice we’ve collected on Quartz at Work since the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, with tips that are highly relevant to our pandemic times, and probably long thereafter.

1. Understand grief and the grieving process

In his decades of work as a hostage negotiator, psychologist George Kohlrieser saw first hand the power of unresolved grief. It was at the heart of nearly every situation he was called in to defuse. Later, in his leadership development work with corporate executives around the world, he noticed a similar, if less extreme, pattern. Beyond the feelings of anguish, their unresolved grief was a source of distraction, stress, and conflict at work, both for the executives and the people they managed.

Today in the workplace, grief is all around us. We are mourning the obvious—the people who have died, the colleagues who’ve been laid off, the trips and events that have been canceled—alongside the more monotonous aspects of our “before” lives. We are mourning daily commutes, casual workplace interactions, the taste and texture of the cafe americano at the fancy coffee shop near the office. We are mourning things we can’t even recognize as a cause of our mourning.

In the workplace, grief creates two tasks for managers: 1) to recognize and resolve their own grief, and 2) to help others recognize and resolve theirs. Managers are rarely trained psychologists. But Kohlrieser, a professor at IMD Business School in Switzerland, says everyone has the capacity to learn to do both of these things.

Read more about the steps to managing grief in this Quartz at Work piece by George Kohlrieser.

2. Get a grip on your vulnerability

For a while, it’s been fashionable for leaders to be vulnerable—to share their fears, publicize their failures, and close the customary professional distance that managers generally keep from their staff. It should follow that in a moment of crisis, employees would appreciate the same rawness and exposed weakness from leaders. But often they don’t.

That’s one of the keen observations made during the pandemic by Siobhan Brunwin, people director at the MullenLowe Group UK, a marketing and communications agency that’s part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

“When everyone is worried about the world and about their own job security, we want leaders who are calm and cool in the face of pressure,” she notes. If you doubt her, think back to the first virtual meetings you were on when the lockdowns began. “If your company’s leadership team had appeared in those calls showing how they were really feeling (incredibly stressed, panicked, and very much winging it), how would that have gone down?” Brunwin asks.

But it’s hard to keep it together for other people if you’re not also checking in with yourself, and making sure you’re getting the rest and support you need so that you are mentally fit to support your team.

Read more in Siobhan Brunwin’s article for Quartz at Work, Who is looking after the mental health of business leaders?

🎥 Watch Quartz’s workshop on leading teams through tension

3. Don’t repeat old patterns

As the first few weeks under lockdown ticked by, Slack, the instant-messaging company, adjusted to an all-remote environment. But chief technology office Cal Henderson was already starting to worry about the next phase, when some members of a team would be working from home, and some would return to the office.

Without changes in norms and processes, he feared having a mix of remote and in-office teammates would be what it always has been: awkward, clumsy, and not optimal for anyone. (If you think Zoom calls are painful now, just remember what they were like when most of the participants dialed in from an office conference room. They probably started 10 minutes late because the team using the room before them overstayed its welcome, and spotty wifi or other conference-equipment troubles made the video patchy, though this was just as well since the office-bound folks were ignoring the webcam anyway. )

“When people start coming back to the offices, we will need to be aware of these old patterns,” Henderson warns. “We will need to create a level playing field” for those in the office and those working remotely. He says that will require three main things: better processes, clearer expectations, and stronger cultural norms across distributed teams.

Read more in Cal Henderson’s article for Quartz at Work, Four tips on leading distributed (or semi-distributed) teams.

4. Remember your “water carriers”

What’s a water carrier? According to Ryan Wong, founder and CEO of the people-analytics company Visier, they used to be the folks who hauled water from rivers and wells to people’s homes. Today, he says, they’re the people who:

  • Quietly go (or sign on) to work every day, skip the watercooler chatter, and get right down to business
  • Don’t seek attention or recognition and often get overshadowed by louder, more visible colleagues
  • Aren’t necessarily your most talented or most senior employees
  • Get more work done than anyone else

“Taking the time to seek these people out and talk to them about their work can provide crucial insight into how your business operates, and where your blind spots are,” says Wong. Particularly in turbulent times, the water carriers in your workplace are vital—and even easier  to overlook.

Read more about how to spot a water carrier and give them the recognition they deserve in Ryan Wong’s article for Quartz at Work, Leaders need their “water carriers” now more than ever.

5. Be flexible in how you measure success

Remember those annual goals for 2020 that you laid out at the end of 2019? Us either. The pandemic hasn’t just impeded your performance; it has required new metrics, and a new timeframe, for measuring success.

“The mental health and morale of your teams—and, consequently, longer-term business outcomes—depend on adapting to this new set of circumstances with a different kind of data,” says Penry Price, VP of global sales for LinkedIn’s marketing solutions business. His advice? “It’s wise to lean on small, positive signals.”

Read more about how Penry adapted his own team’s metrics in his article for Quartz at Work, Managers need to change how they measure success during Covid-19.