How managers can better support their people in challenging times

Group of colleagues sittitng at a table having meeting in office

Article by Sarah Danzl, VP of Communications and Customer Advocacy, Degreed

We’re experiencing some of the greatest shifts in modern history, like switching to hybrid work, low unemployment but low employee engagement, and embracing automation and AI.

This signals both an opportunity and a challenge, depending on how you perceive it. Understanding what your team needs to be more successful can help you lead your team through good times and bad.

It’s worth clarifying here that I am talking about situations where employees have their practical needs met in order to live and work effectively. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs defines this as their physiological and safety needs. If those aren’t met, then any tactics employed by a manager won’t be sufficient.

With that said, let’s look at the seven ways you can support your team to achieve their best work despite uncertainty.

1. Give them freedom to work when they’re best

Employees want autonomy to choose working practices and environments that suit their needs as well as energy and creative cycles. Those that are given freedom over how and where they work experience greater levels of engagement, retention, and productivity. This can be a big cultural shift because it relies on managers understanding (and supporting with action and words) that it isn’t necessarily time spent in an office or at a desk that equals productivity and success.

Instead, setting team members free with guidance will help you to balance their need for autonomy with the businesses need to achieve results. Set guidelines for more practical elements, like being contactable during certain times, attending key meetings, and transparently communicating with the team so everyone knows when to get hold of their colleagues.

I’ve adopted this with my own team, measuring success with achieving progress (meeting monthly and quarterly objectives) versus timed responsiveness on our internal social media.

2. Build psychological safety

You cannot drive your business forward if you’re constantly anxious. Psychological safety in a team means that your people feel that they can be open about concerns or challenges without fear of repercussion. It’s the only way to have the meaningful conversations around performance and progression needed for long-term business success. Offer times to speak with you and leadership privately. Make sure you are checking in with your team members as humans and not just team members.

3. Support their complete wellbeing

This links closely with psychological safety, but also considers how someone’s physical and mental fitness impacts their work. It is important to regularly move, stretch, and take mental breaks in order to reach peak performance. You can lead by example here — for instance, being seen to take holidays, not messaging constantly after working hours will give others “permission” to do the same.

Take walking meetings, turn cameras off. Invest in learning that builds skills aligned with better wellbeing can make a lasting difference. My team is currently doing a 6-week course in mental fitness that is designed to help them through all of life’s ups and downs.

4. Offer personalised learning opportunities

Offering personalized learning opportunities shows your people that you care about their future success and it can encourage them to remain with your organization throughout uncertainty. Crucially, it also prepares them for different eventualities, if a new role emerges, market demand suddenly increases or a product shift is needed. Having a range of skills and learning opportunities available gives employees more freedom to choose the topics, content and formats that suit them.

5. Help them grow

Having clear career and skill goals can help employees feel more secure in uncertain times, as well as help them reach their goals. Managers play a key role here and must be actively involved in guiding for new skills, helping teams set goals, and finding relevant opportunities in the company to support growth. Workers who rate their managers positively are 515% more likely to have discussed specific career goals and growth opportunities with them over the last 12 months.

6. Support healthy boundaries

The lines between work and home life have been blurring ever since work went hybrid. You need to support your team to set healthy boundaries around work, to give themselves downtime and lives outside of work. This is especially important with a global team where “together” hours can be limited. In uncertain times, some employees might feel tempted to do more, and thus spend more time working. This can be counterproductive, as tired employees aren’t able to do their best work and will eventually burn out.

I encourage my team to set Slack hours so people aren’t contacting them out-of-hours and uninstall work apps from personal devices (like mobile phones) so they aren’t tempted to check messages in the evening. This starts with leadership though – if you message or email a team member after or before working hours, there is a natural compulsion to respond. Schedule messages where possible, and make sure everyone on the team is clear about communication preferences to take the pressure off.

7. Recognise work well done

Effort without reward is draining and demotivating. Building a direct relationship between effort and recognition will show people that hard work pays off and encourages them to keep going (especially when the going gets tough).

It’s important first to understand that recognition can take many forms. There’s peer recognition during team/company meetings, using dedicated software, or even peer-sponsored rewards. You can recognize excellent efforts during meetings, through formal recognition processes, and during feedback sessions. But there are likely some workers who would prefer quiet praise. Be sure you know the preferences of your individual team members.

Of course, for recognition to happen in the first place, you need a way to track performance. Gather feedback from peers, set KPIs and career goals, and track all the upskilling your team is doing. Clear, meaningful goals will help track progress and achievement. All of this will give you the insights you need to reward people who are going above and beyond for your organization.

Look after yourself

I’ve focused on the needs of your team thus far but you cannot pour from an empty cup. To be an effective manager and to be present for your team, you need to take care of yourself. Your people are watching you – for good and bad. Many of the tips shared can be applied to you as well, from setting healthy boundaries and giving yourself time to switch off from work, to learning skills that’ll further your career and that you feel passionate about.

About the author

sarah danzlSarah has been actively involved in the learning space for 12 years, leading marketing and communications efforts in both corporate and startup capacities. Prior to Degreed, Sarah served as the Senior Marketing Communications Manager at Xyleme, helping grow their comprehensive authoring system into the leading LCMS provider.

When she’s not developing new content, she can be found experimenting with new recipes, getting involved in a local nonprofit, or walking her two pitbulls at the base of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado.

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