What comes after survival mode, the case for walking, a place called Remote

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THE VIRUS

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 12% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 61,000 new cases per day. The US has administered roughly 90 million vaccine doses, and Goldman Sachs estimates that nearly 50% of the American public has at this point been either infected or vaccinated.

The business impact: Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said there’s “good reason for optimism.” The latest economic data suggest the worst of the crisis is behind us, as the US added nearly double as many jobs as expected in February. The leisure and hospitality sector, which includes restaurants, bars, and hotels, rebounded in February, adding 355,000 jobs. The US still has 9.5 million fewer jobs than pre-pandemic, and the unemployment rate for Black workers rose to 9.9%, compared to 6.2% overall. The $1.5 trillion extra added to American consumers’ savings over the past year is expected to power the recovery. Less than 25% of workers are back at the office, according to one estimate

THE YEAR OF THE TEAM LEADER

I believe Alphabet was one of the first companies to tell its US employees to work from home—that was March 10, 2020, which makes it just about one year since this massive shift in where and how many of us are working. 

What have we learned? One thing that stands out for me is the importance of managers—who I think of as team leaders—to the success of any organization. In a way, we’ve known this for years. Based on its surveys of millions of workers, for example, Gallup has determined that an employee’s manager affects 70% of how engaged they are. This needs to be the focus as companies start anticipating returning to the workplace, a transition that will add new complexity and challenges.

Many team leaders would be getting failing grades for the past year. Over half of employees surveyed last fall said they hadn’t felt much appreciation for their work, and that was making them feel less motivated. Recent research suggests that a large portion of workers are feeling burned out and many are just “sheltering” in their current jobs until the crisis passes and they feel more confident looking for employment elsewhere. Many managers weren’t prepared for the conversations following George Floyd’s killing last year—and still haven’t taken adequate steps to address racial equity. 

This isn’t to say that leading teams under these new conditions can’t be done—so many managers have actually excelled during the crisis conditions of the past year, and surveys indicate that many workers feel deeper connections to their direct supervisors than they did previously.

Team leaders, by and large, are surely doing their best in unexpected, trying circumstances. But they’re unprepared to begin with. Many team leaders are asked to practice what Anne Helen Petersen calls “add-on management,” where someone who’s a great individual contributor is made a manager as a way to retain and promote them, without necessarily the aptitude, training, or time to perform the team leadership duties. 

On top of that, businesses have for decades made little secret of their interest in stripping out as many middle-management roles as possible to save money, eroding management ranks. In his new book Futureproof, Kevin Roose details how more and more workers find that it’s a computer, not a human, that’s directing their work and evaluating them these days. Managers themselves are feeling especially squeezed and unsupported

That’s a big problem. Based on conversations in recent months with researchers and business leaders, my expectation is that the second half of 2021 could be as challenging for organizations as the first half of 2020 was, albeit in different ways.

The main reason is that many businesses plan to shift to ways of working that are much more complex than prior to the pandemic. Not every company will have the sort of radical reorganization that could allow some employees to work whatever hours they want wherever they want as Spotify and Salesforce have announced. But the move toward hybrid arrangements and greater flexibility is widespread.

If team leaders are struggling now, just wait until their teams are permanently dispersed and primarily working asynchronously. Just wait until everyone is adjusting to new rhythms and logistics for their families post-pandemic; until the one-quarter of workers itchy to switch jobs start tendering their resignations. Then there’s the legacy of loss and trauma many of us will continue to be navigating even as things supposedly normalize.

I spoke this week with NYU’s Anne-Laure Fayard, who studies collaboration. She noted that managing dispersed teams requires a lot of “invisible work” from leaders, and that many companies’ efforts to use “virtual teams” in the 1990s failed because they didn’t anticipate all of the extra challenges of managing virtual and outsourced workforces. 

This is a moment to invest in team leaders, and their support and training—particularly in the context of this new world we all will be navigating when we return to the office. Without that, turnover will be rampant, the return to the workplace will be even more chaotic, and workers will remain disengaged and burned out even once the pandemic has subsided.

It’s the moment to acknowledge that the job of a manager is to hire, retain, and develop talent. Appointing someone to lead a team isn’t just a justification used to give a star performer a raise. It is a critical job that can make or break the success of individual performers, and of an organization itself.

Focusing on developing managers and allowing them to focus on their responsibilities—beyond just taking attendance and routing information between people—will alone go a long way. And equipping them with the tools and training to better communicate, provide feedback, track performance, hire, and motivate their teams is essential.

We’ve witnessed so much resilience over the past year. But it’s time to be deliberate about what comes after the survival mode many of us have been in. The success of our team leaders over the next 12 months will determine all of our success at work and—to a greater degree than we might like to admit—our happiness at work and outside of it. 

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WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW

How about a mental health day? SAP is having all of its 102,000 employees globally take April 27 off. The idea is to step back from the chaos of the pandemic and recharge, to the extent possible. 

  1. The tech company is trying to destigmatize addressing the mental health impact of the pandemic, and will have speakers and mindfulness sessions in the runup.

  2. Why April 27? SAP wanted to make the mental health day to happen soon, and that worked best given global holidays and calendars. US employees also get 10 “crisis leave” days annually for whatever purpose they need. 

Four-day work weeks are also gaining momentum globally amid the pandemic, in part to address issues of burnout. Researchers found that almost two-thirds of companies that tried the four-day week experienced improved productivity.

Front-line workers are exposed and anxious. With the relaxing of mask norms—and regulations in some places—security guards, bus drivers, restaurant workers and others have concerns about exposure and challenges getting people to keep their masks on. 

  1. A new government study found that relaxing mask rules and allowing restaurant dining led to more Covid cases and deaths last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the research “serves as a warning about prematurely lifting these prevention measures,” particularly as new Covid variants spread.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  1. Take a walk. It improves memory, attention, creativity, and sleep, while reducing anxiety. If you have access to a green space, as little as five minutes in nature can improve your mood and self-esteem. 

  2. Walk with a friend. It’s conducive to conversation, helping you keep friendships close and making it easier to process the grief and trauma that arises during the course of our lives.

  3. Improve your Zoom hiring game. Researchers found that job candidates were distracted by virtual backgrounds. Given how stilted Zoom can be, interviews were more valuable to both sides when structured as a flowing, authentic conversation rather than a series of back-and-forth questions and answers. And job candidates expect details of current and post-pandemic benefits and work arrangements—so interviewers are better off prepared to discuss them. 

CODA

There are a lot of jobs—and not much else—in Remote, Oregon. As companies began classifying more roles as being open to “remote” workers over the past year, some job sites such as LinkedIn mistakenly listed them as being in Remote, Oregon. It’s an unincorporated hamlet with a couple of houses and a covered bridge nearby—perhaps as good a place as any from which to do your remote job. 

Why swab people’s noses to test for the virus when you can just ask them to sing? A Dutch inventor is testing an airlocked cabin that people can step into and sing or scream, which would spread tens of thousands of virus particles if they were infectious. The air is collected using an industrial purifier and then analyzed for the presence of the particles, identifying them by their distinctive size. It isn’t clear yet how accurate the process, which takes about three minutes, is. 

People don’t know when to end conversations. Researchers found that in about half of conversations between strangers that they studied, the participants wished they had ended earlier. And, on average, they wished they had only talked for about half as long as they wound up doing so. 

  1. The problem is that people are strikingly bad at intuiting when their conversational partner wants to wrap things up. 

  2. Talking over a meal, a coffee, or drinks might be popular partly because it provides a recognizable ending point, when the plates are cleared or the glasses drained.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.

Reset Work

What companies are doing to navigate remote work, reopen safely, and reset their practices for the long-run.