The Future of Management is Now!
In the months ahead, managers will need skills and capabilities we have spent decades not preparing them to have. We have weeks to get them ready. Let’s get on it.
Today, April 5, 2020, we are a couple weeks into the new habit of Zooming, Teaming, Slacking and Hanging out. Our team members transitioned from office to home-office, from standing desks to laptops-atop-moving-boxes. The novelty has worn off. The stress levels of forced change are lowering as the “new” becomes habit. The upheaval has become more scheduled. Work and schools have become more proficient at the technology and techniques of distributed work. Work is getting done and most are getting along better with everyone who is now sharing their workspace.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that I have seen the future. And like COVID-19, we simply have a capacity gap that we have neglected for years. Below you will see what is coming, what is needed and a rapid-response guide to closing that gap. It’s not all doom-and-gloom. It will, however, take a concerted effort.
This is not conjecture. It’s not a guess. It’s math. Every week, I interact with hundreds of people from across industries, functions, backgrounds, and geographies through my teaching and my consulting. I ask each person the same question: “How are you doing today?” A basic check-in question. This week, I asked people to answer that question in a shared online document where the example response was 4 sentences long. The data I received was sobering, more so when we combine it with COVID-19 spread projections. People shared their stress, their anxiety, their fears, their heartbreak, their hopes, and their general fatigue. The combined equation is a wake up call.
Just under half of the responses were a variant of “fine” or “good” or “love this working from home thing.” A third of the responses were generalized anxiety about security issues (e.g., job security, family transitions, timelines, etc.) – all reasonable and expected right now.
A significant number of the responses indicated increasing stress and anxiety with comments like:
- I’m doing OK, but my husband lost his job and we’re looking at our financial situation.
- I’m worried because my company just furloughed almost all of us.
- I’m upset because I’m hearing rumors that my full-time offer will get rescinded.
Again, all reasonable for this time in our economic situation. We had a record 3+ million new filings for unemployment last week. We doubled that this week with 6+ million. While 10 million is a relatively small percentage of the US workforce, it is now more likely that people know someone who has lost their job. Insecurity breeds insecurity.
Some of the responses indicated larger concerns:
- I’m OK but I’m worried about my parents who are both in a high risk group.
- I’m finding it hard to focus because I’m worried about my son who has asthma, and my spouse who is a physician who goes into work everyday worried about PPE.
- Please pray for my uncle as he was admitted into the ICU tonight after testing positive for COVID-19.
- I’m really sad because my grandmother past away over the weekend and we cannot attend her funeral.
Again, all reasonable for the time we live in. And we are still early in the curve, unless you are in New York or Italy or China or another hot spot. And when you project the days ahead, more and more people will know people whose health they are worried about, who have COVID-19, and who have died from its complications.
We are going to see the spread of anxiety, stress, grief, loss, fear, and anger – all reasonable, human reactions to those life events – as we see the spread of COVID-19 cases. Worry breeds worry.
The obvious macro-level answers here are: slow the spread, bend the curve, ramp up production and procurement of PPE, convert factories to manufacture ventilators, accelerate the research for a vaccine (which is already moving at a never-before-seen scale and pace). All of those will take months.
In the meantime, we will have a new double-bind on our hands. We may be facing the largest mental health crisis in generations, and a new set of first responders not equipped to handle it. Those first responders are actually your front-line supervisors and managers who will have first contact with their colleagues, coworkers, and family members.
Managers are not mental health workers and they should not be trained to be. Yes. I agree.
At the same time, we used to say, “Be selective in recruiting because we will spend more waking hours with our colleagues than we do our spouses.” Our managers will simply have more face time with their team members than anyone else in their ecosystems – especially younger employees who tend to live away from home, have less of a support system, and are part of the most anxious generation already (based on studies from before the Coronavirus was even identified). Fear breeds fear.
Our managers won’t become mental health workers. They can’t. They don’t want to. They won’t ever be sufficiently qualified. We don’t want them to either. We only have about a month, maybe two. However, managers do need to get good at triage.
Managers as Triage
Triage is not care delivery. It is the process of assessing need, prioritizing response, and allocating scarce resources to maximize outcomes. It is not treatment.
Managers will be interacting with people on video, on calls, and (at times) in person. They will be (and often have been) the first non-family member to come into contact with coworkers. Before, we had a lot more data to tell us if something is ‘off’ or if someone needed help. There were clues: showing up late to the office, becoming disorganized, looking tired, sounding different, declining work quality. Now, people can manufacture a false perception (even a virtual background) to avoid detection.
Employers have been good about telling managers to check in with their now-distributed workforce. Have a video 1:1 video chat. Hold a team ‘happy hour’. Have daily huddles. All good.
We have not trained managers for what to look for in those new virtual settings. We rarely if ever have. But now is different. Social distancing is required at a time when our instinctual response to threats, attacks, loss, and suffering is to come together. Coming together today actually exacerbates the threat. Another double-bind. Isolation breeds isolation.
All we need to do is train our managers and supervisors on a few things:
- Recognize the signs of stress, anxiety, and depression when they are subtle.
- Understand the ladder of support available to employees such as internal resources, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and other benefits.
- Delineate what they are qualified to address as a colleague and when they would be in over their heads.
Here are a few techniques that might help bridge the gap between recognition of the problem (now) and when your organization can stand up a more complete response (ASAP) to stay ahead of the curve. All of the items below are simple techniques that can begin immediately, and improve your skills with practice.
- Know the Support Ladder: Each manager NEEDS to know what resources are available to their employees. This includes services HR can provide on-demand, EAP providers, mental and physical health benefits offered, benefits from federal/state/local relief legislation. One of our client’s HR teams was advising their employees’ spouse about unemployment processes because the spouse was laid off with no instructions or advice on next steps.
- Cameras On / Mics Open: The easiest place to hide in plain site is behind a laptop with camera off and microphone muted. You get credit for showing up without any obligation to do much else. Set the ground rule that cameras are on and mics are open during meetings, the way it would be if we were all together in-person. Visible cues and background noises provide helpful data. Going beyond this, we have each team member give a video tour of their workspace so we can understand their work environment. Do they have space to work? Are there a lot of distractions? Are they sharing their space with other working adults, kids, parents, pets, etc.?
- Schedule and Track 1:1 Check-Ins: Schedule regular 15-30 minute check-ins at times that work for both of you. In addition to a regular schedule, track those conversations. Take notes on the content, tone, language, and mood of the conversation. There may not be anything in the moment, but being able to look back and see that the mood you perceived has been in decline for weeks is important data.
- Lead with Questions and Use Silence: Leaders ask questions. They also wait in uncomfortable silence longer than the other person. That silence is a tool that encourages the other party to start talking. The questions can start simple: How are you today? From there, they can go into specific areas: How is your progress on project X? What do you expect to happen next? How is [spouse, partner, child, parent, etc….by name]? What challenges are you experiencing right now? Again, log your questions and their answers.
- Listen at Multiple Levels: First listen for content – what are they telling you? Then, listen more deeply. Level 2 listening is about the meaning behind the content. For example, in an icebreaker we may ask “What is your favorite dessert and what do you love about it?” and we will hear answers that mention food products. Quite often, we will get stories about parents or spouses or children or events that inform us about them as people. My favorite dessert is carrot cake because it was served at our wedding. Also notice their cadence (are they frantic or lethargic), their level of irritability or anxiety, facial expressions, ability to engage, response to humor, all those are cues that provide more data.
- Mitigate Impacts and Facilitate Recovery: Sometimes the source of stress is short-lived (e.g., multiple simultaneous deadlines), changes in work schedules caused by other sources (e.g., kids on Spring Break vs. remote learning). In those cases, just flexing schedules, shifting deadlines, reallocating resources to provide short-term support may be enough to help smooth out that stress curve. Help them get over the spike, make the adjustment, then help recover into a rhythm. That team support will also send a powerful message to other team members.
- Contact After Separation: More furloughs and layoffs will come the longer stay-at-home measures are in-place (and after if measures are lifted too soon). More people in your personal and professional circle will be affected. Your team may have to go through it. One comment in an interview was that, “There is no lonelier time then when you lose your job – everyone thinks you’re calling for money.” If you know of people separated from their work, your team, your company, reach out to them. Encourage your colleagues to reach out to them. They have lost income, routine, contact, and in many cases, self-worth. A phone call, video chat, or a text to check in could be a big difference in their day and their trajectory.
- Set Clear Expectations: Managers are not mental health professionals (I’m repeating myself, I know). Set clear boundaries for when they need to ask for help. There are some guidelines in terms of mandatory reporting requirements set by legislation. Managers need guidance as to when they need to connect their employee to trained experts. Well-intended, under-equipped resources will create a different problem. Clarify that their role is to care about their people, and triage the response their team members need to be successful in these turbulent times.
This pandemic is a crisis – a state of turmoil or acute emotional reaction to a powerful demand where the usual coping mechanisms fail, individuals and groups are impaired, and the usual balance between thinking and emotions are disturbed for a period of time. We will get to a new normal. Just not yet. The time between then and now is a time of forced change. Change like this can cause strain, stress, anxiety. It can also provide opportunity, excitement, and growth.
One client said to me that there are two types of people right now: those involved in healthcare (doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, medical equipment manufacturers, researchers, etc.), and everyone else. In the weeks head, as we experience more secondary impacts of this pandemic, there will be a new segmentation: physical health caregivers, mental health caregivers, and anyone who needs one or both of the two.
We all need to expand our capacity in both areas. Managers are the new first responders that will be helping us triage this secondary wave. The best time to have started their preparation was probably 20 years ago. The next best time is now.
Stay healthy. Stay home. Stay Connected. Ask for help.