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Line managers are a critical factor in each team’s level of employee engagement. This has been thrown into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic, as each manager has acted as the pivotal connection in many cases between each organisation’s crisis strategy and how well each employee is supported to achieve this.

According to our UK Reward Management Spring Survey 2020, 37 per cent of organisations had concerns about employee productivity during lockdown and as restrictions were eased. Trust is an issue deterring some employers from rolling out remote working in the longer-term, but it is central for effective line management in the long-term.

Remote management

Lockdown has sharpened the focus on line managers’ abilities to motivate and manage teams. Managers have also faced the additional challenge of dealing with a situation where events are unfolding, having to keep teams abreast of continuing developments and the majority having to manage teams without being face to face. Communication skills have been a central tenet of successful relations, which have been crucial when coordinating and managing teams, and giving much needed clarity to employees at the most tumultuous time.

Organisations have anecdotally shared the challenges raised by leaders who have never offered home working before and struggled with micro-managing teams. Managers have had to trust that individuals are doing the work, adding stress to both sides of the employee-employer relationship. The increase in furloughing and redundancies has meant that job security is increasingly valued. Some even suggested that decreased sickness levels might be attributable to employee presenteeism from home. With the distrust flexible working can create, some employees may soldier on at home if they don’t have to physically present at the office. The varying success of remote management does suggest that greater training of managers may be required, so that they are in a position to better manage the workload and psychological wellbeing of staff.

Supporting phased return to work

Managers have had to adapt and remain responsive throughout the pandemic. Unfolding events changed the situation daily at the outset. When lockdown was introduced in March, almost overnight, managers had to deal with the logistics involved in getting people to work remotely – both from an employee and customer perspective. Many organisations reported that what they achieved overnight would have taken them months in ordinary circumstances. In May the focus moved onto how to furlough people, whether a restructure was required and a real strategic focus on what each business needed to survive this period. This meant a lot of difficult conversations with people during persistent uncertainty.

From June onwards, the drive has been to look at how businesses can achieve a gradual return to the office. Organisations have been grappling with how to best manage and define what a return to work will look like and when, with a huge focus on safety. Many are offering a return to work assessment based on whether employees are ‘ready, willing and able’; this gives employees tailored support.

The consensus in the HR Groups we have hosted across all sectors is that a very limited return to work is underway, currently with 1-2 days a week. Others are preparing for all employees to come back with one way systems and a system of booking a place in the office to manage capacity. Some organisations have filmed the workplace to explain the new systems in place and prepare employees for the new ways of working that are a far cry from the office they left. The psychological attachment of many to the office should not be underestimated and videos are a fantastic way of addressing this ahead of requiring individuals to physically return.

Handling difficult conversations

The effect across all sectors has been prolonged. Many are set to ramp up pay freezes and cuts in the wake of the pandemic and even with these measures, companies anticipate that it will take two years to return to pre-pandemic profitability. Difficult pay conversations will increase and it is essential that line managers are equipped to handle discussions around pay and the employee’s future at the organisation in a consistent way.

It is important that line managers underline the fair and objective way in which each individual is being treated. This will have a long-term effect on employee engagement; even for those staying within the team who want to know that the organisation they work for has acted ethically.  If pay constraints are putting pressure on pay decisions to reward employees who have gone the extra mile over lockdown, consider reviewing your reward strategy holistically and the added value you offer employees in addition to their base pay. Total Reward Statements are a valuable way of reinforcing the additional benefits you provide, such as volunteering days or gym memberships, in order to retain key talent.

Sing from the same hymn sheet

We currently offer workshops with line managers that can support them to have effective and amicable conversations on pay. This can help HR to define and set out a consistent approach to frame line managers’ conversations with employees. The risk is that line managers go off piste, resulting in inconsistent decisions. Managers need to be equipped with the skills to handle these conversations and make the right calls, rather than passing issues up the “chain of command”.

Feedback from the Construction sector shows that senior management is embracing the changes introduced by lockdown and encouraging more flexible working arrangements. Our customer is utilising the guidance for their line managers that they developed for managing their teams when they are not in the office or onsite. However this is communicated, having a transparent and fair approach will be critical for long-term employee engagement.

Get in touch

If you would like to discuss how we can help shape your engagement strategy whilst bringing people back from furlough or in the wake of a restructuring, call us today.

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