A new view of management: Where workplace motivation goes from here

A story in the Wall Street Journal in early March headlined “Smile! Your Boss Is Tracking Your Happiness” began, “Your company wants to know what type of mood you are in today.”

It went on to explain that an increasing number of workplaces have begun using software to trawl emails, instant message discussions and other communication to watch for language that could indicate depression or burnout. Other companies have started asking employees to regularly log their frame of mind or track their moods on apps.

“Anxious to retain and energize staffers, more companies say they are making employee happiness a priority. The shift has fueled a cottage industry devoted to monitoring, analyzing and improving workers’ moods,” the story stated.

Employee morale was a distinctly different proposition in that first week of March than it is now. By mid-April, those workers who were still employed were uncertain whether they would return to their office in May — or if they would have a job to return to at all. (By April 17, a total of 22 million U.S. residents had applied for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus outbreak.)

What changes are permanent?

Managing through a crisis, whether it is specific to a company or wide-ranging, received plenty of attention prior to the COVID-19 pandemic toppling world order. In the short time that people have been completely focused on the coronavirus, there has been a flood of stories on how to keep remote workers engaged and productive. Terms like “new normal” get tossed around indiscriminately. The challenge for business leaders is determining what changes regarding management are temporary and what might be more lasting.

“Major disruptions can cause fundamental shifts in social attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new policies, ways of working and consumer needs and behaviors, some of which persist in the long run,” state a team of management consultants from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in an HBR article. The SARS outbreak in 2002 permanently increased the amount of e-commerce; 9/11 brought stricter air travel security; and World War II opened up the work force to women.

Commentators have stated that fallouts from the COVID-19 outbreak may include a shift in health care policies to be more inclusive and a retreat from international interdependencies. “At an individual level, it’s also possible that we may adjust how we view the balance between work and family life, having been reminded of what is truly important to us,” the BCG group states.

Since the outbreak, there has been a plethora of articles on how to manage and motivate remote work teams. Working remotely may be more widely embraced in a post-COVID world, but a shift to all remote all of the time isn’t expected on a grand scale. “There is something unique that humans get from interacting with one another that doesn’t come across as well through technology,” states a Time magazine story on working remotely.

“Screens are distancing,” Dartmouth College psychological and brain science professor Thalia Wheatley told Time. “In face-to-face communication, you are sharing a moment in time and space with someone. That is incredibly compelling for our ancient brains.” The Time article points out that companies like Best Buy, Yahoo and Aetna all experimented with remote work in years past before telling employees to come back into the office.

Management skills that will always be in vogue

While the emphasis on managing remote teams may be moot for many within months, there are some management skills that should be kicked up during crises and not dismissed once things return to normal.

  • Communicate – I try to set the tone upfront with one rule: when in doubt, over-communicate,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a global strategic marketing consulting firm. “If the lines of communication are open and everyone makes an effort to listen and be heard then collaboration will happen naturally and the information will flow. Once we lay this groundwork, it all will be in place to continue moving forward as the economy reopens and some businesses come back quicker than others.”

Many have said during the pandemic that the most important thing they want from government leaders is honesty and as much information as possible. That’s good advice for corporate leaders for the long term.

“People are looking for someone who can help reliably interpret events and lead them into the next best step. A lot of leaders lose credibility because they’re still focused on motivation when what their team or congregation needs is accurate information and some provisional navigation —  some next steps,” says Carrie Nieuwhof, a Canadian-based pastor and speaker on leadership.

“If you can gather reliable information and present it in a way that helps people make sense out of a very confusing moment, then people will begin to trust your leadership,” Nieuwhof adds, “Don’t worry about certainty for your next steps. You can rarely have certainty in a crisis. You can offer clarity. Simply being able to accurately name what’s happening and point to the next best step can be tremendous leadership.”

  • Recognize – As New Yorkers showed when they started standing outside nightly en masse to clap and cheer for frontline health care workers, it’s more important for recognition to be heartfelt than fancy. “Employees need it now, more than ever,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, a licensed psychologist, trainer and best-selling author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.” By doing so, she says, they are showing they truly care about their employees, and loyalty will increase long after the pandemic is over.
  • Focus on what’s important – Remember the human and empathetic part of the manager/mentor relationship, says Ruth Gotian, assistant dean for mentoring at Weill Cornell Medicine. Focus on what is important to your team at this time. Consider their safety, specifically their physical, emotional and psychological state — and prioritize helping them to improve that in your role as a mentor. Gotian says her trainee reminded her, “This situation requires human kindness and empathy. Maybe mentorship here is just realizing the humanity in each of us and being there as equals with one another through an uncertain time.”

How you act now will be remembered

What we are learning about remote work will open up new opportunities for work-life balance, Kim Scott, a workplace consultant and the author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” told the Wall Street Journal.

“Everyone will remember how their boss responded during this time. Did they check in frequently? Did they focus on you at a human level? Did they communicate directly and honestly and give people time to voice their concerns? Did they share information or try to hide it?

“We all need to take responsibility as leaders,” Scott continues. “If we conduct every interaction during this crisis with all the compassion and honesty we can muster, our work lives can emerge from it changed for the better.”

That’s solid guidance that thankfully will last much longer than a pandemic.  

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    Paul Nolan is the editor of Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

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