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Management professor and psychoanalyst Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries suggests the pandemic brought our vices to the fore, as each of the seven cardinal sins tempted us. And he says the period has also given us a chance to rethink what business leadership should look for in the near future. “Too many leaders refused to acknowledge their own limits, faults or wrongdoings during the pandemic,” he wrote recently on the website of INSEAD, where he is a professor after years in Montreal, at McGill University and Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales.

He argues the leadership style of many female managers – which tends to be relational, empathetic and inclusive – has worked best in the past two years, because it offers emotional support and longer-term vision. As we embark on another year with the pandemic a major issue, he advises we keep in mind the opposite of the deadly sins: the seven virtues, originally presented by the poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. They are self-control, temperance, charity, patience, diligence, kindness, and humility. Each counters a deadly sin (and those sins, he warns, will always be with us). The most dangerous to leaders, he suggests, is pride. So work on your humility.

I have argued the first few months of the pandemic were the greatest test that managers of this era have ever faced, because everyone had to adjust their patterns of operations. A leader of one institution, at a meeting I joined in early April, 2020, said that the previous week they had made the most significant decisions for that organization since the Second World War. And it’s not over. The test continues for managers, but it’s a more subtle challenge – of making new forms of collaborating together, sometimes disjointed and delayed, work effectively.

“Employers that choose the path of remote work must put in extra effort to make it succeed,” Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli writes in The Future of the Office. And, of course, remote remains common these days, even in organizations that have ostensibly returned to the office, or did but have retreated after the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Mr. Cappelli notes that remote work transfers tasks onto supervisors. Constant communication with remote workers on business and office developments is vital. Figuring out team dynamics is challenging in remote situations.

Microsoft has been carrying out extensive research on its own work force, and it unearthed some disturbing findings about digital exhaustion that probably carry over to other organizations. One year into the pandemic, weekly time spent in remote meetings more than doubled, and the average person sent 42 per cent more chats after hours. While initially this seemed like the best way for teams to stay connected, in fact it was digital overload. Employees’ satisfaction with work-life balance dropped by 13 percentage points. That fits with an observation by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen in their recent book Out of Office. The dark truth of remote work as we know it is that “it promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office, but in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance,” they write.

Three key points emerged from the Microsoft research that suggested a direction out of the tailspin. As collaboration time increased, well-being decreased. As people set aside more focused time, well-being improved. Early in the pandemic, notions of vacation were jettisoned, but as vacation time increased later, so did well being.

Microsoft is therefore concentrating on four actions:

  • Prioritize: Data shows that one of the most important things a manager can do to improve work-life balance is to help their team prioritize. “Employees who do not receive prioritization support from their managers are much less satisfied with their work-life balance,” Dawn Klinghoffer, head of people analytics at the company, writes in Harvard Business Review. Do you help your team prioritize or do you leave them alone as you pile on additional (supposedly) urgent tasks?
  • Re-evaluate meetings: In particular, build in breaks between them. Microsoft’s research shows that meetings with just five- to 10-minute buffers between them reduce stress levels and also enable better focus and engagement. And avoid meetings near the weekend. “For example, Monday morning meetings can pressure employees to prep over the weekend, contributing to even greater feelings of being overwhelmed. Instead, designate Monday mornings for focus and preparation to set the team up to successfully collaborate throughout the week,” she advises.
  • Protect focus time: Encourage your team to set aside blocks of time for focused work each week to tackle key priorities. This leads to more progress and reduces stress. Microsoft research showed one after-hours e-mail from a manager can have a ripple effect of after-hours messages and work for the team, so use the delay-send function.
  • Encourage time away: Time away doesn’t look like it used to, but is still vital. Talk to your team about its importance and back them with proper fill-in support when gone.

There has been much talk of flexibility around the hybrid workplace, but Mr. Warzel and Ms. Petersen argue our priorities are often backward. The work, not the workers, must be more malleable. They also warn about how when offices go fully or partially remote there’s a potential to reinforce existing culture out of fear. “Companies implement more meetings and micro-managerial communication in an attempt to preserve existing hierarchies. But management for management’s sake isn’t skilled management,” they write.

So yes, the challenge for managers continues. There’s a lot to ponder, but Microsoft is offering four very practical prescriptions that are bound to help as the pandemic lingers in 2022. Mark them down: Help employees prioritize. Re-evaluate meetings. Protect time to focus. And encourage vacations.

Cannonballs

  • The gender gap in burnout rates has widened during the pandemic, according to Gallup research, from just a three percentage point difference in 2019 to eight percentage points recently. This has resulted from an increase in burnout rates among women, and a slight decrease among men.
  • Letting people off the hook without discussing poor performance is like letting weeds grow in your garden, warns consultant Stephen Lynch. If you don’t pull the weeds out quickly, they will take over your garden and choke crop growth. Weekly one-on-one meetings with subordinates allow you to weed your work garden.
  • Pressure is a privilege, notes Billie Jean King, talking about her classic tennis match with Bobby Riggs.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey didn’t meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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