Looking beyond the pandemic: data shows how managers & their teams can grow

By Melissa Paris, Lead People Scientist, Culture Amp

business collaboration, teams working togetherWhile 2020 feels like the year we want to forget, there have been important upsides.

Despite so many companies having been forced into structural changes, others have enhanced their teamworking abilities. Strikingly, organisations have realised that line managers are their linchpin, especially in newly-remote environments where leaders don’t have full visibility of managers’ efforts and can struggle to determine what extra help they might need to grow themselves and their teams.

Surveying the year’s major trends and applying learnings from them, we believe there are opportunities to boost workforces’ resilience, managers’ skills and, ultimately, company  performance in the year ahead.

Was it all bad?

Although 2020 evokes memories of changing workloads and isolation, evidence suggests increased employee engagement and leaders stepping up to the many challenges during the crisis.

Official statistics say almost half of the UK workforce was working from home at peak lockdown, compared with only around 5% before. Our recent survey indicates that over half of organisations are actively looking at, or have already converted, onsite jobs into remote ones. Despite these upheavals, organisations are finding ways to innovate: in a July survey of senior executives, almost half said they were digitising customer channels with new apps and ecommerce products. And while these innovations have made remote work technically possible it also shifted organisations and managers to a newly-remote world and associated challenges they weren’t used to.

Companies of every industry and size were rethinking and strengthening their employee listening strategies, revealing line managers’ pivotal role in sustaining performance through the crisis. As the lockdown summer wore on, many leaders and managers began to ease off their high-intensity communication and support they had prioritised at the start of the pandemic and employees felt less connected to others in their business as a result.

Managers have had to manoeuvre performance reviews around shifting business priorities during COVID-19. Over half managed to keep their original performance goals, while a third have simplified or reduced them. Surprisingly, 7% of companies increased performance goals, possibly due to increased demand.

But there were mis-steps. While our data showed that this was relatively rare, there were reports of panicky bosses trying out software that tracked employees’ every move. By contrast, nine in ten companies we surveyed reported that collecting employee feedback through surveys is important, with almost exactly the same number valuing feedback gained during the pandemic very highly too. Showing people genuine warmth and better understanding their motivations is the path to securing better employee engagement and wellbeing.

If 2020 saw managers keeping one step ahead, what lessons can we draw from it for better empowering them and boosting company performance?

Learnings for 2021

Despite organisations’ strong response to the crisis, a lasting question is whether companies can successfully adopt new approaches such as hybrid working models and distributed workforces. In particular, how can we better grow the managers that took the strain in 2020 without always getting the support they needed?

In our research, about three-quarters of respondents felt that managers have adapted well to the challenges from COVID-19. But respondents’ own feedback indicates strongly that the remaining 23% of managers would also benefit from initiatives for refining communication & collaboration, adapting management behaviours to remote working, and adding support resources for themselves and their teams. Although furlough and restructuring saw different teams yoked together on projects, people responded well: 86% of our survey respondents said there was good collaboration between teams responding to changes due to COVID-19.

But a crucial lesson for 2021 workforce planning is that line managers are having to cope with myriad tasks while being expected to have complete skill sets. Managers must, in some ways, be a therapist and D&I expert and insightful reader of engagement and financial reports but too often managers have to figure these skills out for themselves. Research suggests that line managers overestimate their coaching skills. So how can businesses simplify the way managers upskill and acquire new knowledge?

Our surveys show managers looking for new ideas – and a community to share them with. They want to know what other companies do best, benchmark it, and gain wider insights that validate their decisions. And our data also suggest that, even before the pandemic, learning & development was an important driver of employee engagement, not simply a discretionary item.

The shift towards learning on-the-go is being made possible by innovations like combining the data from employee engagement tools with more flexible and responsive learning platforms.

Today’s people and culture platforms not only assess the potential risks and impacts of planned change or sudden crises, they also provide dashboard indicators of employee engagement, stellar performance and skills gaps, enabling managers to more easily assess fast-evolving situations and draw up learning & development needs or improved action plans.

Since new learning systems can be embedded in managers’ workstreams and collaboration tools, they make options like microlearning and hands-on coaching — or getting on-the-spot answers to pressing management questions drawing on other managers’ experiences — much simpler.

Managers and their teams can now upskill as part of everyday one-on-one conversations and hands-on coaching, even during times of drastic change. Where engagement tools were combined with behavioural science-based learning, four in five managers reported changes in their behaviour while two-thirds of their direct reports saw behavioural improvements as their managers went through such programmes.

If companies can help their managers to grow themselves and their teams, organisations can navigate the new world of work and boost their performance in 2021.

Melissa Paris About the author

Melissa Paris is a Lead People Scientist at Culture Amp in EMEA. With a background in Organizational Psychology, applied research, and consulting, Melissa regularly speaks and writes on the topics of organizational behavior and company culture through transformation. She specializes in applying psychology through HR technology, particularly for selection and assessment, psychometrics, and employee feedback.


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