Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

Lessons Learned: What Managers Took Away from the Past 12 Months

More from This Series

Part 1
For People Managers, a Year Unlike Any Other

Part 2
A Virus Upends the Work World

Part 3
When Social and Political Unrest Come to Work

Part 4
Lessons Learned: What Managers Took Away from the Past 12 Months

Whether you're a brand-new manager or have been managing people for decades, you've likely experienced the past 12 months as one challenge after another, pummeling workplaces around the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, business closures, massive layoffs, widespread civil unrest, unprecedented political upheaval—these developments hit fast and furiously, and managers were the ones who had to navigate the workplace fallout. This article is the last in a series that explores those challenges, how new and longtime managers tackled them, and what they learned along the way.

In the past 12 months, managers around the world endured a sort of baptism by fire as they struggled to navigate one crisis after another that hammered not just their employees and organizations, but them, as well: the pandemic, racial unrest, a teetering economy, massive layoffs and political divisions.

And during those months, many managers learned a lot about themselves, their leadership styles and their employees. They learned to be more flexible. Creative. Patient. Understanding. Empathetic.

"For managers, it's been a year like no other," said Ronnie Gurion, former global head of Uber for Business. "It was kind of like being a deer in the headlights. Not only are you dealing with your own personal safety, your family and your loved ones, you're [also] trying to maintain the business and make sure your team is safe."

What Some Managers Learned

What Allie Kelly learned during the past 12 months was to "focus on the people."

"Embrace the uncertainty and spend less time trying to predict what's next," advised Kelly, CMO for talent recruiting agency JazzHR and a manager for 15 years. "Let go of what's not serving you and your team anymore. Instead, focus on what is working now and how you can [use] that going forward."

Before the COVID-19 crisis, none of her five direct reports was working remotely. Instead, she had one team in Boston, where she works, and another in Pittsburgh. So before the pandemic, full team meetings meant video calls between the two offices.

Since the pandemic, the two teams have met over videoconferencing calls more frequently. Although Kelly didn't expect it, this led to a shift from "hard-charging revenue pushing to building a more trusted advisor role." She continued, "That's something that, honestly, wouldn't have happened had we not been in this situation."

The result, she said, has been increased productivity. By remaining focused on her employees rather than on the bottom line, "we've created a happier, more productive work environment."

Kelly explained, "Before, I had the team in Boston sitting in a conference room and the Pittsburgh team up on a screen. But what I never had before [the pandemic] was a slice into every person's life individually. Now I do."

Communication and Trust

Because COVID-19, racial tensions, economic worries and political upheaval touched most workers on a very personal level, many managers learned that communicating with their employees had to become more frequent, intentional and intimate.

John Crossman learned that he needed to be more consistent about meeting with his direct reports, whether face to face, by Zoom or with a phone call.

"Meeting at the same time every week has been extremely helpful," said Crossman, CEO of Crossman Career Builders, a corporate coaching and advising company in Winter Park, Fla. "Even if the meeting was short, it gave us a touch point."

Kevin Miller used to hold periodic meetings with his direct reports, but in the past 12 months, he began insisting on daily Zoom meetings and asking each participant to provide concrete information on the project he or she is tackling.

"The biggest thing I've learned is the importance of seeing people's faces in video calls," said Miller, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based The Word Counter, an online tool for writers. "You can't underestimate the value of face-to-face communication, even if it's over video."

Jeaneen Andrews-Feldman said she and other executives learned that they needed to "overcommunicate now more than ever." And by doing so, she and other managers could support workers who might be struggling.

"You have to find the time," said Andrews-Feldman, chief marketing and experience officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. "It's not as simple as poking your head into the office and asking how it's going, but formally setting up time to [communicate], and that part has been more challenging. If I know somebody's being challenged by taking care of somebody at home, for instance, I ask, 'How can we help you make this better? Is there a project that we need to have more people on? Or a resource that we can support you with? How about a day off to get refreshed?' "

The Case for Empathy

Gurion, formerly of Uber, discovered the same thing. The way he puts it: "Empathy and employee productivity generally go hand in hand—and 2020 was a case study for this. 

"I believe that great leaders and managers should always lead with empathy," he said. "You're able to get the most out of your employees when you have their best interests at heart and genuinely care about them. The uncertainty of the past year has only put a spotlight on the importance of being an empathetic leader and the importance of building true camaraderie and trust with your employees—whether you're working with them in an office or remotely. Ultimately, if an employee feels supported, they will be able to bring their best selves to work each day."

Sherri Malouf, Ph.D., is the author of Science and the Leader-Follower Relationship (Situation Management Systems Inc., 2020) and president of Situation Management Systems Inc., a leadership training consultancy based in Milford, N.H. She acknowledges that empathy during such challenging times may not come naturally to some leaders, so she recommends some simple steps they can follow to show compassion:

  • Think about what others may be feeling.
  • Show you understand why they are feeling that way.
  • Think about how your workers might respond to the things you say to them.
  • Use basic listening skills, such as paraphrasing what you've just heard from an employee to ensure you've captured his or her sentiment.
  • Have weekly individual and group meetings to keep everyone informed and monitor how people are doing.

"Simply the act of giving someone else your full attention—and that means turn off all your electronic devices—builds the relationship," she said.

And Crossman warned that managers should not forget to take care of themselves.

"Exercise, drink lots of water, eat healthy," he advised. "Talk to a friend, see a counselor, journal. You can clean your house or your office. You can control your environment, and that can give people a level of peace."

That same approach to empathy is particularly critical when it comes to racial and political tensions, which can be deeply personal, said Charles Ellis Bush II, an attorney in Ice Miller's labor and employment group, based in Indianapolis. 

For instance, he noted, some Black workers may not be comfortable discussing such tensions with a white supervisor.

"It's very important for a manager to have a good sense of the relationship she has with an employee before engaging in a conversation about race-related issues," Bush said. "How long has the manager been working with the employee? How well does the manager know the employee? Has the manager had conversations with the employee about uncomfortable issues in the past? Has the manager discussed social issues with the employee in the past? These are all questions a manager should consider before approaching an employee to discuss difficult issues related to racial injustice."

If a worker indicates that he or she is uncomfortable speaking with the manager, Bush said, the manager can ask if the employee would prefer speaking with someone else in the organization or, if it's an option, participating in a small-group discussion.

Building Resilience and Hope

The convergence of so many events this past year may have been unprecedented, but that doesn't mean similar crises won't happen in the future, noted Jenn Donahue, a leadership coach and retired U.S. Navy officer who was once in charge of 1,400 Navy personnel and three battalions. For that reason, she advised, managers should start—right now—building resilience in their teams.

"Resilience is the process for adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma or significant sources of stress," she said. "It's how we cope under stress and, once the stressor is dissipated, how quickly we are able to return to normal."

Managers, she said, should remember these three steps to build resilience in direct reports:

  • Maintain positivity. "Learn to recognize negative thinking and destructive behavior in your team. Be an example and focus on the positive events in your life and the situation at hand. Your own negativity will shadow the team morale."
  • Communicate clearly. "Ensure you are transparent, honest and frequent with communications. So often our team members feel alienated when dispersed. Let them know that they are psychologically safe on your team."
  • Embrace hope. "Set and share the long-term goals for where you and your team need to be positioned when conditions start to improve. The situation is not permanent."

Explore Now: People Manager Qualification (PMQ)
Better managers create better workplaces. Get them the training they need to lead engaged, high-performing teams.