Adapting boss-worker relationships in the pandemic

COVID-19 has irrevocably changed how and where our work lives are conducted. Here is how managers and employees can adjust to the new paradigm.
Adapting boss-worker relationships in the pandemic

The pandemic has completely changed the way many of us work — and large numbers of jobs that were seen as office-only are now being done wholly or partly remotely. Decisions were made at speed, new technologies were rapidly adopted, and companies had to pull together as never before. It has also hugely altered workplace dynamics. Where managers and those they managed once sat a few feet from each other and had near-constant face-to-face contact, now they might be 50 miles apart. So, looking ahead, what does this mean for boss-worker relationships?

Do we even need bosses?

The early stages of the pandemic were not just the world's greatest natural experiment in remote working, but they were also an enormous experiment in employee empowerment. Millions of office-based staff suddenly discovered themselves working from home, often with very little supervision. Naturally, they became far more self-sufficient and started making decisions for themselves. This led some to conclude that their bosses were unnecessary.

We probably do need bosses

Interesting though this thinking is, it's largely wrong. During the panicked, improvised early days, good bosses ensured their staff were supported, particularly with productivity tools and the technology they needed to work from home. And, as remote and semi-remote working has become the norm, managers have found other ways of helping staff in the longer term. This has covered areas ranging from mental health and loneliness to professional development and assessment. Given that the pandemic could last for a couple of years, short-term fixes will not be enough. Managers need to evolve and find ways of dealing with issues that are still appearing.

Bosses should continue empowering staff

There is almost endless research to show that managers who are trusting and hands-off get the best out of their people. In 2017, academics from Exeter and Manchester business schools (in the UK) and Curtin Business School (in Australia) conducted a meta-analysis of 105 studies on empowering leadership. They found it was associated with positive outcomes such as greater creativity, improved trust, and better performance. Smart bosses will continue to encourage remote and semi-remote employees to take initiative and support them with the tools they need. Interestingly, the centralisation of power in companies (especially around senior management and the board) is a relatively new phenomenon. Writing in The Atlantic, Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School suggested that back in the 1960s, power was far more diffused throughout organisations to the benefit of almost everyone except those at the very top.

Bosses are not just taskmasters

Although many professionals have adapted surprisingly well to the pandemic so far, there are considerable downsides. Many workers have become more stressed, experienced mental health problems, and had demands placed on them in areas such as childcare. Good bosses have recognised that they have a pastoral care role to play and that they need to keep staff happy and engaged. Bosses are also responsible for disseminating corporate culture as never before. This will become increasingly important as new team members join who have never spent time in the office with their colleagues. Worth remembering, too, is that many middle managers are workers themselves and form an interface layer between senior management and staff. They may set budgets, track key performance indicators, and help prioritise work — as well as doing some of the team's work.

Employees need to be visible in new ways

Workers need to rethink how they communicate, too. Virtual meetings are far more democratic, and the days of dominating a room by being confident and talking more than others are over (for the time being, at least). Now, it's more about demonstrating that you're delivering. You need to find ways to do this — you cannot just assume that your boss will know that you've done the work, as they might have when they were two desks away.

Bosses should resist the urge to spy on staff

Digital tools that allow bosses to keep close tabs on staff may seem tempting. But if you want the best from your people, you need to trust them, and watching them continuously is unlikely to boost productivity or motivation. Similarly, digital presenteeism — where people are switched on and make themselves available on platforms such as Slack long beyond their working hours — is not to be encouraged.

Work/life balance is still important, but it has changed

We've all seen the Zoom calls where children run in. In the past, many bosses paid lip service to caring about work/life balance and family commitments. Now they are far more visible. Moreover, many managers are experiencing these issues first-hand themselves. So, expect more empathy about work/life issues. But equally, both sides need to watch for further blurring of the work/life line — and we should all ensure that the time saved on commutes does not just become time spent on work.

Bosses should prepare for a return

The pandemic will eventually pass — but what then? Large numbers of people have expressed a desire to continue working from home. However, although many people now assume they will be able to work from home indefinitely, this is by no means certain. Managing the great return will be just as difficult as adopting remote working and will require just as much care and tact — especially when dealing with semi-remote teams. Both sides should not expect a return to the status quo, either — the staff who return in 2021 or 2022 will likely have become quite different people from those who left in 2020.

Recognise that we are in uncharted territory

Although we know a lot more than we did in March 2020, both managers and those they manage are still feeling their way. Some strategies will work; others won't. Mistakes will be made, and they will often be nobody's fault. Empathy and understanding are needed on both sides. Equally, much has been learned. Bosses should attempt to build on the positives of faster decision-making and more flexible ways of working.

Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at