When the first phase of the covid-19 lockdown began in March, Ketan Dossa was nervous about work. “Being part of a smaller organization, it was scary with business slowing down,” says the Pune-based senior consultant and facilitator at Gakushu Consulting and Training. Dossa was not particularly stressed after this initial phase, business resuming after the early speedbump. Dossa credits his boss as the steadying and motivating force during this time. “He never fails to show appreciation of me as a colleague and as a person, which is a huge motivation. His support and respect were amplified during lockdown,” says Dossa.
He is not alone in his recognition of strong and empathetic leadership in a drastically altered work environment. As a difficult year draws to a close, these working professionals reflect on a ‘Naughty or Nice’ list, appreciating managers who have risen admirably to the challenge, while others pinpoint qualities that have fallen short. Honesty and empathy feature strongly in the bosses on the ‘Nice’ list, while disrespect and myopia relegate others to the ‘Naughty’ pile.
Communication is king
Before the onset of covid-19, approximately 2.9% of the world's employees worked from home, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a number that soared upwards as lockdowns were imposed across the globe. Declining business and job security were key concerns at this time. This is where open communication and honesty was important from leadership. “Having a transparent discussion about the uncertainty actually made me feel more reassured. My boss constantly shared the situation with me and told me he would do all he could to support me through it. I understood and appreciated this.” said Dossa.
With the lack of physical interaction, several managers have integrated deliberate and consistent communication to check in on their teams. Jocelyn Jose, a fundraising and communications professional in the development sector, admires the balance her boss strikes between being approachable and a tough, but fair, taskmaster. “Along with weekly team calls, she schedules separate time with small teams to discuss any difficulties managing work at home, and to check-in on morale and health, especially with some team members who stay alone.”
For Abhijeet Dhar, director sales, South Asia, CNN International Commercial, there was concern that isolation could impact people’s voices being heard on par with the rest of the region. “The communication channel increased and dedicated times were set up to ensure that no one felt isolated. My boss became a great bridge between employees and the Executive team to ensure all information was traveling seamlessly, which is critical in a period of uncertainty.” says Dhar.
Are you ok?
Earlier it may have felt awkward to discuss personal or mental health problems at work, but now many employees value these conversations and support offered by their managers. “This pandemic has caused a shift in our mental and emotional balance and what made the difference is that my manager was always around to keep a check on how I was doing. Besides being a leader, you must also be a friend and a motivator and that’s what my manager is.” says Amentha Marques, business development manager–West India, Globus Family of Brands.
Empathy and compassion have arguably been the most valued qualities in leadership this year. From childcare or elderly parents to housework or loneliness, the best managers have helped relieve the load, mentally and physically. Kavitha Dhanaraj, a public relations associate at an international development organization, greatly values the concern and empathy provided by her manager, which extends beyond work. “There are times I am overwhelmed at home, for example, when caring for elderly family members if our domestic help is absent. My boss immediately understands and tells me to focus on things at home, the team will manage.”
Several managers have dedicated one-on-one time or virtual team get-togethers for drinks or meals, playing games or just talking to help employees blow off some steam and get to know each other better. “We have one dedicated hour a week wherein the entire team speaks on everything but business. My manager had a great sense of what each one in the team was doing, wanting to pursue as a hobby, family, kids, et al. There are also dedicated monthly virtual get-togethers for drinks, karaoke or quiz nights, complete with prizes.” says Dhar.
Not all bosses have been intuitive or empathetic with their team during this time. Disregarding personal space and demanding accessibility at all times has caused much stress. Asking people to return to the office if not essential, thereby putting themselves and their families at risk, is another grievance. Micromanagement, scheduling interminable meetings, and being unmindful of different working conditions has also fueled discontent.
It is easy to blame the boss, but they too are learning to adapt under pressure. Leadership skills are not learned overnight, but this year has presented an opportunity to develop stronger management skills in supporting and motivating employees under challenging circumstances. As is evident from the ‘nice’ list, it isn’t grand gestures but the little things—a phone call to check on them, an opportunity to be heard, honest communication, and feeling included even though apart—that make this fragile period a little easier.