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Commentary: 5 New Year resolutions every manager should have after a really tough year for workers

Firms and teams have been tested by the work-from-home migration and more in a year disrupted by the coronavirus. Managers must work differently to make next year a better one, says Paul Heng.

Commentary: 5 New Year resolutions every manager should have after a really tough year for workers

(Photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

SINGAPORE: Legend has it the practice of making New Year resolutions started more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Rome.

For most of us, the new calendar year is symbolic of a new beginning – a period when we are encouraged to let go of all negative energy and restart with promises to do things differently to achieve specific goals.

Indeed, this refresh is much needed, after an extraordinarily difficult year dominated by a global pandemic that has upended entire industries and pushed businesses to the brink, forcing employers to regroup and reprioritise.

Most office workers have had to grapple with a wholesale work-from-home (WFH) leap. Most managers have had to deal with fresh challenges from this novel arrangement.

Never before have there been so many commentary and webinars discussing how people can navigate this common challenge.

READ: Commentary: Managers should stop treating work-from-home as a luxury

But with a recent Dell Technologies survey showing only 39 per cent of workers feel they have adequate support to work from home, clearly more can be done on this front and direct supervisors have a critical role to play.

Even as workers return gradually to the office, after a year of work and life blending together, 2020 has showed us the old way of doing things can no longer stand.

Indeed, even for the most cynical who might dismiss the idea of New Year resolutions pre-coronavirus, these last few days of 2020 may be a good time for managers to reflect on all that has transpired during this biggest disruption to work life and how it can be improved.

RESOLUTION 1: QUIT WATCHING THE CLOCK

The first question managers might want to ask themselves is how much you trust your staff. When it comes to trust, there are generally two types of supervisors – those who begin a professional relationship distrusting and those who prefer to trust.

(Photo: Unsplash/Alesia Kazantceva)

Managers who fall into the first category can make their subordinates’ lives even more stressful as they struggle to adapt to a work-from-home reality.

WFH has forced us to review longheld assumptions about work, productivity and outcomes out the window but how many have shifted with the times?

For example, do managers unreasonably expect workers to work non-stop from 9am to 6pm?

Instead of instinctively becoming suspicious when your team doesn’t respond to your online messages instantaneously, lay aside your assumption that they must be skiving. Your workers cannot be expected to be in front of their computers for a continuous nine hours. 

When we were working in the office, workers arguably enjoyed more breaks – to the toilet, for coffee, over lunch and the occasional pantry chit chat. Why should this not apply at home? 

READ: Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home

READ: Commentary: Even in a recession, lowballing job seekers is not only poor form but also poor strategy

Instead, managers should focus on empowering, delegating and checking in on people rather than micro-managing and constantly checking on them. As long as teams deliver outcomes, the role of the manager is to provide guidance, support and advice on potential obstacles – but get out of their way.

Managers should also accept that people need an occasional time-out to recharge, re-focus, or attend to a household situation.

RESOLUTION 2: DON’T FIXATE ON WEAKNESSES, FOCUS INSTEAD ON YOUR TEAM’S STRENGTHS

Say you have a team mate consistently making financial figure-related errors.

Instead of harping on how he or she is slowing down the rest of the team, re-assign this particular task to someone with demonstrated affinity with numbers.

An open-plan office. (Photo: Unsplash)

That allows you to focus on their strengths that add value to the company, instead of fixating on their developmental gaps. 

This way, the team will feel less stressed out, worrying less about making yet another numerical mistake, productivity goes up, and the team as a whole is better able to deliver the goods more timely.

Adopting this mindset may allow us to redirect our energies to be more encouraging, and the resounding positivity can make the work environment more motivational.

However, be careful not to give the person whose work is reassigned a free pass and send the wrong signal to the rest of the team.

READ: Commentary: How COVID-19 has forced employers to be more human – and rewards them in the process

He or she should be asked to take up other responsibilities, for example, helming specific projects if he or she has meticulous planning capabilities, or being assigned to work with external collaborators if he or she has strong people skills.

RESOLUTION 3: COACH INSTEAD OF INSTRUCTING

Have you noticed you work longer hours from home? You do not need to travel around so many of us fold commuting time into work. 

But how are supervisors using that time? My advice is for managers to invest in one-on-ones with workers. One of the most important but often overlooked roles of leadership is to mentor and nurture their teams. 

Much as the onus for professional growth lies with each worker, supervisors should allocate time to coach, counsel and guide each one. 

Office professionals at work. (File photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

From 2021, managers should resolve to allocate time for each direct report. You can talk about work, point out performance issues for correction before they become major and recognise good results, but remember also to make space to discuss their professional development and ambitions.

READ: Commentary: Call me a strawberry millennial, but being passionate doesn’t mean I’m willing to be exploited

RESOLUTION 4: THIS YEAR, REALLY LISTEN

Supervisors should also resolve to do more purposeful listening to understand your team before responding and seek out dissenting views.

Managers are an interesting bunch. They like to assume they must know more than others, but a team is stronger when everyone works together and have enough confidence in each other to acknowledge their blindspots.

READ: Commentary: When Singapore homes become workspaces – huge changes in the house and beyond

Workers often do not surface their biggest work obstacles to their supervisors for fear that they could be seen as less competent. They sometimes “test the waters” by throwing out small snippets to see how their bosses react.

And when managers often listen with the intent to respond, we will be mentally preparing our reply in our heads instead of picking up on such cues to uncover what the team’s challenges truly are.

Part of this requires having enough self-assurance one doesn’t need to constantly prove that they deserve to be in a managerial position. 

RESOLUTION 5: LOOK AT WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP WORKERS REACH THEIR POTENTIAL

“Keng Cheong is always tardy at work, and can’t seemed to be able to get his assignments done properly and on time.  He’s an under-performer. He needs a performance improvement plan, and if his performance does not improve, he needs to be managed out.” I hear this all the time.

(Photo: Unsplash/Matt Wildbore)

Often, when managers talk about an underperforming employee, the focus is always the problem employee – what the person did not do right and how he should be working to meet the grade.

I would urge managers to examine the issue objectively and entertain the possibility they had a role to play in such poor performance. 

Managers should first do some self-reflection and ask themselves honestly how they have been managing the individual, and how they can do that differently.

READ: Commentary: Cure to burnout requires a pervasive culture of rest

After all, poor employee performance sometimes reflect poor leadership.

Perhaps they have failed to communicate clearly their expectations, waited too long to give direct feedback or had unrealistic goals.

Ultimately, this pandemic has forced firms and employers to re-evaluate what their priorities are and many are finding retaining talent to be a chief objective.

Managers, as team leaders, should spend 2021 focused on truly understanding what makes their people tick, how they can coach and support their teams to perform and grow.

Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to one CEO and one HR expert in our Heart of the Matter podcast:

Paul Heng is founder and managing director of Next Career Consulting Group.

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