Managers Get High Marks for Handling Pandemic

But companies need to provide more training and listen more to employees

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 26, 2020
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Managers Get High Marks for Handling Pandemic

​About 9 in 10 workers say their managers have done a good job of supporting them during the COVID-19 crisis, and that their companies have provided them with technology and other tools needed to work productively during the pandemic, according to a new survey from Willis Towers Watson.

Yet very few think their companies have given supervisors enough training to lead during the crisis, particularly when it comes to managing remote employees.

"By all accounts, respondents are giving managers and leaders high marks for guiding workers through the crisis so far," said John Jones, North America head of talent at Willis Towers Watson. "At the same time … more employers will need to double down on training and development for managers to prepare them to support employees in what are likely to be different working environments."

The global risk management and advisory firm conducted the survey of 201 employers representing 2.5 million workers from April 13-27.

Stepping Up

Eighty-nine percent of respondents said their managers had "stepped up" to help them perform their job duties during the virus.

" 'Stepped up' refers to these actions that managers are taking, such as checking in with team members frequently and consistently, using face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact, being available, demonstrating familiarity and comfort with technology, and prioritizing relationships," said Casey Hauch, senior director for communication and change management at Willis Towers Watson.

Ninety-two percent of respondents said their companies were effective at providing technology and other tools to work productively during the virus.

"The top three actions that organizations have taken to support employees during the pandemic include allowing the use of personal utilities such as their Internet and phone for working remotely, setting up emergency teams to respond to the viral outbreak, and increasing access to counseling," Hauch said.

Need for More Manager Training

However, the survey revealed that only one-quarter of respondents (24 percent) have seen increased training and development opportunities for managers during the crisis.

"Remote management is a very new discipline for supervisors and leaders," said Josh Bersin, an HR industry veteran, research analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte. "Leaders who have not yet managed a remote team need to move up this new learning curve. There are new norms, new rules, new cultural issues and a need for a deeper level of trust." 

Managers could benefit from training in a number of areas, he said, such as having effective performance conversations in light of the pandemic and better understanding the resources available to support employee well-being.

He recommended that manager training include information on:

  • Acceptable behaviors for remote meetings and other remote interactions, such as appropriate dress and sharing of information.
  • How to foster empowerment and professional growth during the pandemic.
  • How to keep up workers' spirits, sense of connection and productivity "in a very distracted work environment at home."
  • How to encourage workers to check in more frequently while working remotely.
  • How to be sensitive to the personal challenges some people have when working at home. "Flexibility and empathy are a huge part of this new leadership model," Bersin said.

Listening to Workers

The survey also revealed a need for employers to do more around "employee listening." It found that 60 percent of organizations are conducting polls and having informal conversations with employees but that fewer companies are using more-formal methods such as pulse surveys or focus groups.

Both approaches are important, Hauch said, to address employee concerns and sources of stress or anxiety and to ensure that workers feel supported and safe in their working environment if they're not working remotely.

Some organizations, he said, are surveying employees specifically about their needs and concerns—for instance, about their health, anxiety levels, benefits and worries about job security. They are also canvassing workers about their levels of engagement and productivity, their relationship with their managers during the virus, how supported they feel by their organization, and their perceptions about senior leadership.


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