#Covid-19 HR Leaders Virtual Roundtable: Managers Matter

Our third #COVID-19 virtual roundtable was an opportunity for HR leaders to share insights into the challenges that workers are facing as lockdown eases, what might be the ‘new normal’, and the roles of everyone in the organisation from the top down in maneuvering through this difficult period.

Joining me around the virtual roundtable were Ruth Jackson, People Director of Zizzi Restaurants; Megan Kille, People Business Partner, Farfetch; Roz Orchard, HR Business Partner, Thomson Reuters; Gabriella Payne, HR Business Partner, McDonald’s; Melanie Redfern, Senior HR Advisor, SNC Lavalin Atkins and Natasha Wallace, Head of Wellbeing, Clear Review . Rich Goddard, Editor, Monday State of Mind was co-host and the discussion was Chaired by me – Claire Farrow, Global Head of Content, Make A Difference.

Across the range of sectors, sizes of organisation and stages participants are at on their journey to supporting workplace mental health and wellbeing, I was struck by the many complex challenges now facing HR leaders.

All roads lead to the line-manager

If it wasn’t clear before, the coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight on the crucial role of line-managers. Throughout the lockdown, employers have been relying on them to communicate with a diverse and dispersed workforce, keep people connected and cascade messages. At Zizzi’s alone, the workforce comprises 83 different nationalities spread around the country.

Even though we’re going through this together, we’re feeling it in very different ways. It has been critical for line-managers to supplement the support offered by employee resource groups (such as Reuters’ Peers and Farfetch’s Wellbeing Guardians) by tuning-in to feelings and having conversations that consider individual needs.

The need for empathy and listening skills has become essential. Several participants agreed that they have seen a natural increase in empathy. But empathy doesn’t come naturally to everybody – particularly managers that have been delivery focused for most of their careers.

Even those that have had the training in how to have conversations around mental health might not have had the chance to practise them. And even if they have practised them, it probably wasn’t remotely.

At the same time, it’s important to recognise that line managers may be struggling themselves. As well as being empathetic, they’ve got to keep performance and productivity going.

There will be some managers and leaders that are suffering from imposter syndrome. Others may have gone into hero mode, where they are trying to save everybody and are taking on more and more pressure. More empathetic managers, who really care because they’re programmed that way, may be suffering from anxiety.

It boils down to the fact that managers need training – whatever their personality, and not just in mental health awareness. They need to learn to listen, to empathise, to have constructive, compassionate conversations and to take care of their own wellbeing too.

Communication is king – particularly from the top

There was consensus that trying to create a sense of certainty, when there is so much uncertainty, is a significant concern. It’s difficult to do this when the recovery roadmap is unclear for the UK, let alone from a business perspective.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

There’s speculation about what hospitality will look like with social distancing measures in place. In a sector with a strong ‘fun’ culture, people are saying that they can’t wait to get back to their friends again. But the new normal is likely to be quite different. Will face masks and social distancing take the fun element out of the work?

If your team is particularly young, like at McDonald’s, and they’ve spent lockdown on 80 percent of their salary – perhaps binge-watching Netflix, experimenting with recipes, exercising, or generally having the freedom to spend their time however they wish – it may be more difficult to engage them with the idea of coming back to work.

Communication is key to manage expectations, head-off anxieties and get people ready for the next big change curve.

The good news is that the pandemic has improved communication – particularly from the top. There has been more acceptance from MDs, CEOs and Executive Teams to communicate more widely with the workforce. In some cases, they’ve also changed the way they communicate – becoming more visible via video.

Some have learnt quickly that over-communication with colleagues is counter-productive. But all agreed that executive team role modelling, with regular, consistent and transparent communication, is helping to reassure and keep colleagues engaged.

Suggestions included: keep the lines of communication open with weekly open-forum meetings; reassure people by talking to all teams through a brand app; have a Slack channel which anyone can post a question to, and to which a member of the exec team will respond.

Humour can ease communication too. When your CFO confides that in between Zoom calls they like to do their ironing, it’s clear that we’re all in this together.

Valued opinions and transferable tips

Understanding what people want from their employer during this transition period is more important than ever. Increasingly, leaders recognise that a one size fits all approach may not be realistic and that people’s different needs should be accommodated as far as possible.

Surveys are being used to keep the finger on the pulse. Questions include: “What can we do to make you feel safe when you’re returning to work” and “In an ideal world, how would you like to work?”

Other useful tips that could apply to any organisation grappling with how they are meeting the challenges of getting people back to work, whilst supporting their wellbeing include:

  • Don’t forget that learning is a fundamental part of wellbeing. If people feel that they are developing or are supported to develop, it can impact wellbeing positively and vice versa.
  • Remember recognition. Balancing communication with lots of recognition of the work people are doing is fundamental to a sense of worth and wellbeing.
  • Focus on gratitude too as this supports mental wellbeing. One idea could be to start meetings with each person sharing three things they are grateful for.
  • Think about how you can embed nudges to manage the increased risk of burnout associated with remote working through the crisis. Also encourage colleagues to talk about their vulnerability and share how they are really. If everyone else seems to be coping, it can be hard for those that are suffering to speak up.
  • Support can be provided cost-effectively. Atkins’ Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is providing wellbeing webinars on key topics. Yours might be able to do the same. Simple measures such as collating answers to frequently asked questions on your intranet can also be very effective.
  • Don’t forget financial wellbeing as this could be a big concern for colleagues facing worries about reduced hours, debt arrears or mortgage repayments for instance

Pandemic positives

It’s clear that challenges are widespread, but that there are positive changes that have come out of the pandemic.

On the one hand, it’s now apparent that jumping on a plane or train to attend a meeting is not always necessary. Even high-level meetings can work well face to face. And even though there might be less business travel on the horizon, in their shared experience colleagues have been brought together globally; breaking down silos previously created by geographical and time-differences to enable cross-function collaboration.

Companies have been able to demonstrate that they live by their values and in workplaces where stigma was just starting to be addressed, conversations around mental health have become normalised. The pandemic has created the impetus to train managers, review working practices, and create mental health policies and toolkits.

As one participant summed up: “The key now is to jump on the bandwagon of this conversation and really push the agenda forwards”.

A huge thank you to our virtual roundtable participants.

We’d love to hear your views. You can contact me at [email protected]

You might also be interested in the suggestions that Dr Jo Yarker makes in her article “Key Resources to Inform Your Back to Work Strategy”.

Also check out Terry Waite CBE and Anne Usher MBE’s virtual keynotes to hear about listening skills and approaches to thriving through change.

About the author:

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times


Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.