Managing People

Like a Boss: “I need advice on how to be a manager in these scary times.”

March 20, 2020
November 7, 2023
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

I need advice on how to be a manager in these scary times. Specifically, I’d love your advice on how to look for signs that employees may be putting on a brave face but not actually doing so well? And how to approach/raise the topic, while not assuming the kind of help they want? I've seen a few of my junior employees try really hard this last week to look like they're operating at full force, and then meltdown in our 1:1 about how depressed and scared they are. 

Worried that I’m out of my depth here

Dear Worried,

Much like parenting, one of the most deeply rewarding things about managing other humans is the opportunity it gives us to step up, be of service, and think about someone else. And, in a time when COVID-19 has us all stuck inside anxiously eating our own brains, caring for and centering the needs of another person is not only a noble goal, but a welcome distraction. 

Make no mistake: This is a devastating time, a moment when your employees are under enormous stress — not just with work but in their personal lives. The upending of routines, along with social distancing, and an array of unknowns around basic needs and what will come next is making even the most emotionally stable among us feel wobbly and out of control. But thanks to our boss roles, we have the responsibility of leadership, and that responsibility can help ground us in uncertain times. Here are some steps you can take to support your employees right now.

1. Set regular check-ins and at least once-daily communication with your entire staff.

Work is not only a distraction during any form of “shelter at home,” but it can be a ballast, providing structure and routine, particularly for those who live alone and might feel extra isolated. Regular group meetings can help keep your employees connected to a community.

Plan a daily standup meeting with the entire team and allow for time for questions, the answers to which will benefit the whole group. If you can, increase the frequency of your 1:1s to twice per week. Conduct these meetings by video whenever possible (research shows that more than 90 percent of our communication is determined by facial cues — so look at the other person on the screen, not your own weird face!).  

2. Truly listen.

In your 1:1s with employees, ask how they’re coping and listen to their fears without judgment. Don’t dismiss their concerns outright or try to talk them off a ledge with contradictory information, or try to fix how they’re feeling, or quickly make a joke to lighten the mood. Validate their feelings. Sit with them in the discomfort. Ask if there’s a way you can help them right now. Ask them about their lives, their family, their kids, their pets. Encourage them to stay in this moment and not think too far out, if they can. 

3. Don’t assume anything.

An over-performing mid-manager who always had it together is as likely to collapse in this moment as the hyper-sensitive administrator who always seems on the brink of tears. An employee’s domestic situation may seem rosy on the outside when it’s actually filled with tension and loneliness once you’re behind the door.

On top of this, some humans were simply not built to work from home —  you should not assume that a person who is responsible and meticulous will assert the same level of care when conducting business from a stool in the corner of her kitchen. 

Don’t assume your employees know information about what’s happening with the company in a way they usually would. Instead, in calm, tempered, regular updates, inform them daily on any new developments and explain what you need from them and what you don’t. Lower the bar, skip all unnecessary work, and give your employees as much of your focused time as you can.

And don’t forget to build in 30 minutes a day for whatever self-care YOU prefer: meditation, a bath, a walk. Don’t assume you can stay healthy on emotional fumes; give yourself the attention you deserve — and need.