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Managing through change

14th April 2020

Author Olivia Gossage

Managing through change 

Steve Ferguson, GM Transformation & Consulting, sits down (virtually) with Olivia Gossage, Senior Manager Business Transformation, to talk about what managers should be thinking about, and doing, to create a new sense of ‘normal’ for their people in times of change.

Olivia reflects on her experience working with organisations through times of disruption and change, and shares her current personal experience as a manager working with the team to create a new sense of ‘normal’. 

This interview follows a two-part interview with Steve where he shares his insights and advice on leadership in times of change. You can read these here: part one, part two.

 

S.F. In your view, and from your experience, what are the things managers need to be thinking about in times of change or disruption to help their people to build and maintain a new sense of ‘normal’?

O.G. There are a few things managers need to put extra focus on in times of uncertainty and change. It might seem simple, but when there’s uncertainty it’s easier for people to feel lost or derailed if these fundamental elements aren’t in place.

First, it’s about making sure people are okay. This means taking time to check in that people are coping with the situation (i.e. their mental and physical health), and to build an understanding of what else is happening in their world (e.g. if they’ve got kids, or are sharing a house with flatmates). How you respond is going to depend on the individual, and what they need at each point in time from their manager.

Once people are okay and able to work, managers need to be thinking about:

  • Does the team have the right tools to do their job?
  • Do people have a rhythm and purpose in their day?
  • Are people in the team connected to others in the organisation?
  • What communications and engagement is needed to keep people informed?

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen organisations scramble to make sure their people can work effectively from home. It’s been important for those who are managing teams to do what they can so the team has the tools they need to operate effectively. In our case, this meant getting permission to borrow a chair from the office, or approval to claim back an expense for downloading software. It’s about removing the roadblocks so that people can deliver.

One of the harder parts to develop in a period of change is a new sense of normal. We spent the first week developing a new way of working for the team, to build connection, make sure everyone was okay, and create something which would give people certainty and a degree of comfort. For us, our new way of working involves a quick 15 minute videoconference check in, both in the morning and at the end of the day. This is an opportunity for us to connect socially, balance our work across the team, and make sure people are alright.

One of the other things I’ve been focusing on is making sure that people in the team have a clear sense of purpose. This can be quite tricky because a lot of people’s workloads, or work focus, have changed. So we’ve been developing a programme of work that our people can contribute to if their normal workload quietens down. This work is aimed at building people’s capability and sharpening up our business, but I’ve found over the last couple of days that it’s also important in giving people a sense of purpose.

Underpinning this is engagement with the team and clear and consistent communication. This is something which I think a few managers are grappling with at the moment in terms of knowing, How much engagement is too much? How much is enough? What do people need? The answer to that is going to change every day as people’s experiences change and evolve throughout the lockdown period. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is not to underestimate how much a phone call or a check in means to the team, particularly if what they’re working on doesn’t involve much interaction with others. I’ve also reiterated to the team that I, and other leaders in the organisation, am around if they need a chat – for both work and non-work related things.

Olivia Gossage and Steve Ferguson

Olivia Gossage (Senior Manager Business Transformation) and Steve Ferguson (GM Transformation & Consulting)

 

S.F. As managers, our teams are all made up of individuals, and everyone has different triggers. In a remote working context, how do you look for the triggers that suggest that there might be something going on for them that they’re not necessarily telling you?

O.G. When we’re face-to-face with other people, we pick up on so many nonverbal cues that our brain processes and tell us whether people seem okay or not. That’s obviously a lot harder when we’re working remotely.

One thing we have been pushing for with our team is to turn the video on when we are having catch ups. That’s partly to build in those physical cues, as when we can see people’s faces we can gauge expressions and level of engagement with the conversation. This allows us to pick up on when people seem a little off. The other reason is that seeing other people’s faces builds connection.

As a team we’re having conversations that go beyond work, tapping into what people are doing outside of their work time. How are people integrating exercise, getting outside and what do people enjoy? This recognises that everyone’s different, but over time if someone says they’re not doing something as much as they used to, that might give you an indication that something’s not right.

I think the manager’s role is to be attuned to what ‘good’ looks like for each person, and respond to that in a way which fits them. At this point in time we’re thinking about how we keep people engaged as well as maintaining a good sense of wellbeing – their mental health as well as their physical health. Once we move out of crisis mode we’re going to start treating this as the new normal, and that’s where I think there’s going to be a subtle but important shift to focus on productivity. We might get to a point in a few weeks’ time where we realise that some of our people aren’t being as productive as they could be. Or, on the flipside, they could be spending more time on work than may be healthy for them. It’s important for managers to balance all of these things and keep their finger on the pulse.

 

S.F. To pick up on the comment you made about performance-related conversations, what advice would you give to leaders and managers at times like these if tough conversations around performance are needed, or if you need to have a potentially challenging conversation around someone’s health or wellbeing?

O.G. In an ideal world, you’d be having those kinds of conversations face to face. While we’re working remotely, there’s a nuance of finding the right avenue through which to have that conversation. If the conversation you need to have relates to concerns about someone’s wellbeing and if they aren’t keen to turn the video on in videoconferences, give them a phone call and have a chat in a way that feels a bit more offline or informal.

If it’s a performance related discussion, I think that’s a slightly different one, because it’s a case of flagging the issue early and highlighting it to the person to say, Hey, based on the data or the information that I’m seeing, the perception I’ve got is that you may not be as productive as you could be. Am I wrong? Is there something I’ve missed, or is there something you’re struggling with that we can help you with to get you to where you need to be?

This is a tricky one because as a manager if you’re having daily catch ups, it would be inappropriate to be having jokey, informal conversations in the team catch-up and then pulling one person aside later on and saying, I don’t think you’re up to scratch – what’s going on? So it’s about balancing the mood across the team as we go through this.

S.F. How are you thinking differently about how you might manage performance conversations in this new environment? What would your advice be?

O.G. I think that’s a really interesting question because a big part of remote working is building and maintaining trust. Trust is critical for remote working to work.

The starting point is you have to trust that people want to do the right thing and are going to be productive. What might be missing is a clear sense of purpose or understanding of what’s required of them.

I think, where possible, we have to try to recreate face-to-face conversations so that you can explain what’s happening, see the reaction, and give the person a chance to respond or explain. More importantly, I don’t think operating with remote workers should change the level of attention you’d normally give to low performers. It’s a case of being clear on what’s expected between both of you, giving targets that people can work towards that give an indication of performance, and also creating that space where they can identify, or you can collectively identify, if any other support needs to be put in place to be able to help them to perform.

I think one of the biggest challenges of remote working at the moment is that we have to be lenient. People are juggling a really unique situation where we’ve got families at home and people who have an underlying level of anxiety about their own health or the health of loved ones. There’s also a loss of physical social connection with friends and family (which is something which contributes to our wellbeing), and for those of us that like getting outside, we’re missing that a lot as well.

“Now, more than ever, we need to understand people’s contexts, and take the time to appreciate what else is going on in their lives. Basically, seeing ‘the whole person’, rather than the person who usually turns up to the office.”

It might be the case where discussions with a team member might involve exploring different working hours if that would help parenting arrangements at home. Because people still want to do a good job, and they want to be good parents as well, as organisations we need to support this.

It’s about understanding that and agreeing where the boundaries can be a bit looser at this point in time, and having this clear enough to say, Here’s still what’s expected of you and here’s how we’re going to measure that. I understand that there are a lot of other things going on in your life that you’re juggling at the moment. How do we reset the boundaries or change what good looks like to suit your situation?

 

S.F. Our jobs as leaders is to front things and to ensure that our people are in the right space, especially in times of change. This can be quite taxing on leaders as individuals, particularly when all the things you’ve mentioned apply to managers and leaders as well.

What are the mechanisms that you personally put in place to stay in a healthy, balanced state and attuned to the needs of your team?

O.G. One of the key things for me – and one of the things I’ve been conscious of throughout this period – is balancing physical activity, and setting boundaries around when my work day starts and finishes.

I like running, so I try and get out of the house twice a day – for a walk at lunchtime and for a run at the end of the day to clear my head. I’m setting boundaries and I’m sharing that with the team as well, but not in a way that says, Here’s what I’m doing, therefore you should do it. Instead, I’m asking about what people have been up to and creating more of a conversation, flagging that it’s okay and normal to get out for some exercise during the day if you need it. As a team, we’re also talking about what other people are doing to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing.

In terms of staying attuned to the team, I’m constantly thinking about how the team is thinking and feeling, and what they might be needing next. In a management role, you get stuck in the ‘middle of the sandwich’ between the executive, which is thinking about the organisational priorities and the overall health of the organisation, making sure that we’re keeping the lights on, and people who are more ‘on the ground’ who don’t have visibility of these things, or have other worries. They’ll be more focused on what their role is in the new way of working, whether they feel valued, and how they can add value to the organisation in this unique situation.

I think it’s a manager’s role to create this sense of connection, to show people that, yes, the work that you do is really important and here’s how it feeds up to the bigger picture, and then translating the bigger picture back to the team and say, here’s what the organisation is thinking about and this is what it means for you.

I’m also staying connected with peers who are in similar positions. We have videoconference coffee catch ups where we chew the fat and talk about any issues or challenges that we’re having, what’s working well, and what we can learn from each other. This is really helpful, because no one is perfect, but we can all try to improve on what we did yesterday.

 

There are common leadership attributes which apply to any organisation who is leading and managing in times of change. If you’d like to know more about Leading through Change, we are pleased to offer a short one-hour workshop to help you focus on what’s important now.

Contact Steve or Olivia at steve.ferguson@davanti.co.nz or olivia.gossage@davanti.co.nz to organise a free workshop where we will share views and discuss simple but effective ways to support your people, customers and organisation.

 

 

Olivia Gossage

Olivia Gossage is Davanti’s Senior Manager, Business Transformation.

Olivia’s areas of expertise include organisational design, operating model design, change, organisational capability, talent management and leadership.