Managing a team is never easy. The traits that make us strong leaders often revolve around decision-making, empathy and understanding, and the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty — attributes that were all stretched to their limits and beyond this year. For leaders and managers at companies of all sizes, managing a team in the time of COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges of their careers.
We reached out to managers across the country to hear what they’ve learned over the course of the pandemic, and what they wish they had known going into March 2020. Here’s what they said.
1. Mental health trumps all.
Avoiding burnout, checking-in on team members, and caring for one’s own mental health became non-negotiables during this year of the COVID pandemic. The global health crisis upended our lives and affected us all, and for many, in more ways than one. Be it the immediate effects of the pandemic, like illness or the loss of a loved one, or secondary but far-reaching consequences, like working from home in the midst of a shuttered society, the pandemic heightened our baseline levels of stress and anxiety.
Managers who were solely focused on the operational challenges of pivoting to a fully remote team at the beginning later witnessed that their workforce was struggling.
“The initial concern was logistics: Do we have the tools we need, and will people be able to use them?” said Todd Ramlin, Manager of Cable Compare, an online cable-provider comparison site. “But after the transition shake-up settled, new issues surfaced — mainly the mental health of my team members.”
Ramlin pointed out that he was so occupied trying to keep operations afloat that he failed to address the stress and anxiety his team was experiencing, even though he, too, was struggling. “I knew how stressed I was, and I should have made the leap to thinking my team was likely feeling that as well,” he said.
Kate Donaldson, Engineering Manager at Tandem, a company that builds custom software for businesses, echoed the importance of prioritizing mental health — both for one’s team and oneself. “It’s been critically important over the last year as a manager to take care of my own mental health,” she said. “You can’t pour from an empty cup, and there have been days when I’m too exhausted to show up and give my team what they need.”
In those moments, Donaldson said communicating when she needs a break has been imperative, even when it means rescheduling meetings or asking team members to work independently for a stretch of time. “It’s been crucial to making sure I don’t burn myself out and leave my team hanging,” she stressed.
2. Trust employees to get the work done.
Ask any first-time remote manager: Letting go is hard. For many managers, the visibility allowed by the shared physical space of the traditional office made it easy to trust employees to meet their responsibilities. On a remote team, this takes practice.
“Trusting my team to get the work done produced better results than worrying where every minute or hour was going,” said Noah Kain, Director of Marketing Services at brand communications and design agency Duckpin. Kain found that employees actually performed better with more agency over their day. “Ultimately, I think people are more productive when they have more control over their time,” he said.
Trevor Rappleye, CEO of Corporate Filming, a video marketing strategy company, recommended supporting employees by giving them the flexibility they need. “I’ve learned to support my team from home by realizing they’re human. They get distracted. They want to go for a run at 1PM. They want to work remotely from Alaska or Hawaii. Let them!” he said. “As long as they’re [getting their work done], it doesn’t really matter.”
3. Be diligent about one-on-ones.
Though managers cautioned against micromanaging, they cited the importance of “checking-in” with employees in its most useful form: the one-on-one.
Lance Wilkins, founder of Call Outdoors, an online community for outdoor enthusiasts, said he had to change his approach to touching base with employees in the virtual workspace, where his former in-office, open-door policy was no longer a possibility. “I became cognizant that my team still needed that time with me, but that they weren’t actively seeking the assistance they needed when walking into my office was no longer an option,” he said.
To remedy this, Wilkins stepped up the frequency of his one-on-ones. “They help you detect where an employee is at mentally and how they’re coping with the workload, and assist you in identifying where they may need additional support,” he said.
Donaldson said she adjusted her one-on-ones to reflect what employees needed most in that moment. The one-on-ones she had with employees who spent much of their time alone during the pandemic differed from those she had with employees who had been mostly surrounded by family or roommates.
“One-on-ones with people who are feeling very isolated are often much more relationship-focused, creating space in their week to connect with another person,” she said. For her team members who craved some quiet time in contrast to their daily stimuli, Donaldson offered a place to disconnect. “We would spend five minutes on tactical items and then listen to music for the rest of the time to give people feeling overwhelmed by constant interaction some non-talking time,” she shared.
4. Stipends for home-office gear go a long way.
Faced with an ever-changing timeline on the return to the office, companies stitched together a patchwork solution of communication tools and newly remote processes to tie over teams in the meantime.
The pandemic further blurred the already iffy separation between home and office. Initially not realizing that we’d be at our mostly remote realities for more than a year, many workers avoided carving out a dedicated workspace in the hopes that we’d be back at the office soon. Employees worked from kitchen tables, living rooms, and spare bedrooms, if they were lucky — closets or backyard sheds if they were not.
The importance of having a dedicated workspace quickly became apparent, though. “Having a space set up specifically for working helps us all get in the mindset for work even though we’re in our homes,” Donaldson said. “It also gives us a workplace to leave at the end of the day to help create separation between work and personal lives.”
While companies couldn’t create more physical space in the homes of their employees, providing a stipend for home office equipment made a big difference.
Donaldson said her employer, Tandem, gave employees an annual budget to purchase the things they needed to make their home working environment as comfortable and conducive to work as possible. Some employees bought traditional office equipment, like desks and computer chairs, while others opted to spend that money on items like baby gates and white noise machines.
A stipend, even if modest, supports employees in outfitting their home workspace with small touches that will improve their workday and reiterates your organization’s commitment to their needs and well-being.
Today, over a year into this pandemic, so many things that were once unimaginable have since become regular fixtures in our day-to-day lives. Looking back on the previous 12 months, it’s important to take time to note and reflect on the lessons we’ve learned during this tumultuous, destabilizing time, and apply them to our workplaces for everyone’s benefit moving forward.
A key takeaway from our conversations with the managers who shared their reflections is that their most important lessons were those rooted in empathy, understanding, flexibility, and support — virtues that are all foundational to strong relationships, be they professional or personal. As Lin McCraw, trial lawyer and owner of The McCaw Law Group shared, “I wish I had known how resilient, creative, accepting of change, and compassionate my staff and our clients would be.”