Management in a time of covid
blog post | creative + ux

Management in the Time of Covid (A not-so-magical-realism tale)

When the pandemic hit we all had to make some pretty drastic changes. Those of us who were lucky enough to work in advertising or marketing-related industries were able to fold up our computers, head home, and continue to work in our short pants. However, now that those days fade behind us, and certainly aren’t over yet, the face of work has been dramatically altered. No less so for the life of those in a creative department.

In the past, our team would sit down over a cup of coffee and collaborate. Or grab a whiteboard and jot down ideas together. We’d grab a conference room and hash out thoughts about an upcoming campaign, debate the value of a user interface, or simply spend some time thinking… together. So how did that all change?

First, let me say how impressed I was that our teams at WebMechanix immediately and seamlessly transitioned to remote work. It made sense. Even in an office where you might be able to see someone across the cubes, employees still used Slack to communicate. This was a combination of digital native behavior and keeping the noise of an open office to a minimum. (Especially when you’re working side by side with the developers).

Our communication stream stayed consistent. But there were hurdles. And being the head of a department, it was up to me (and my marketing peers) to keep our teams efficient, engaged, and encouraged. So here are some things I’ve learned in the past 18 months on managing a creative group from a distance.

1. Stay in Touch

Management in a time of covid

We’re in the business of communicating, so it makes sense to communicate with each other. A healthy dose of morning meetings could have felt overwhelming, but we used our time to quickly run through projects, ask for help if need be, and make sure everyone knew what was coming.

We also had regular “happy hours” agency-wide at the end of the week. Literally, an hour or so for all of us to get together (when we were in the office, we actually ate LUNCH together. We’re weird like that.) We’d see each other’s faces, share a laugh over whatever potable we’d brought, and continue to bond across departments, which contributed to our overall morale.

Additionally, we had specific department meetings to show ongoing work and 1:1s with team members to make sure morale was high. it wasn’t, we would allow time for our team members to work it out. The pressure of the job can exacerbate the fear of what’s going on, so giving them lots of space is very important.

2. Be Empathetic

Empathy in management

As a manager and leader, you’ve always got to listen. Sometimes that’s translated as body language, facial expressions, or tone. While it’s near impossible to understand tone over chat (thus, the invention of the emoji… a topic for another day), being on a call can keep you attuned to those signals.

For some, the stress of staying cooped up in that little home office or apartment all day can be grinding. And there are moments when the raw nerves of it all can translate into curtness. Be mindful of that. Put yourself in the place of your employee. How often do you love “chatting it up” with the boss? Different people have different communication styles, so it’s important to understand that.

There is an exercise that was introduced to me and I’ve incorporated it with my team a few times. It’s called Start/Stop/Continue. Without your input, and wholly anonymously, your team creates a list of things you should stop doing, start doing, and continue doing. Sometimes, the feedback you get can be painful. But as a leader it’s important to listen to what your team perceives are issues, so you can correct them. More importantly, you may learn a little about yourself and it can help you grow (I’m now working on my listening skills and trying to suppress my “sidetracking” skills).

All in all, it’s just important that you listen to your team and take appropriate action, tempered by a little kindness.

3. Trust Your Team

Trust your team

One of the “panics” from managers when an entire workforce went remote was, “OMG, how will I know what they are doing?” It’s a lot easier for me as a group creative director to answer that question, because my team produces tangible deliverables against a scheduled deadline. Watching the progress of the work or knowing your team members’ skill levels helps manage that flow. But maybe you work with less tangible products. If that’s the case, how do you alleviate that worry?

If you’re a manager, you know that hiring the best possible talent is how you get the business to succeed. And if you hired your team, you surely thought that about your team members when you hired them. Let them do their jobs. This bears repeating… they know what they are doing and you hired them to do it, so let them. Being overly concerned with productivity, knowing they may be struggling with things already mentioned above puts you at risk of being the cause of your team’s failure.

Trusting your managers is paramount to having a great working relationship. Knowing they will do what they say and are transparent enough to say what they are doing. Give your employees the trust you want them to have in you. I had no doubt that our team would continue to be productive and was unsurprised when our productivity went up.

4. Be Consistent

Consistency in leadership

If you had a successful management style when you were all in the office, then you should be mindful of changing it up when you go remote (unless of course, you were a monster, then we have other things to discuss). Your team may be remote, but they’re still a team. Are you giving them time to interact with each other? Are you still overseeing work and providing feedback? You have to be the good leader you were, despite not being face to face.

The word “consistent” also implies steadiness and fairness. You still need to be the guiding light of your department or team. Were you the last person out of the office when you were there? Then make sure you check in with your team at the end of the day remotely. Did you provide a regular time to evaluate work or progress? Make sure that’s on the weekly/bi-weekly/whatever schedule you had before.

5. Be Flexible

Flexibility in managing a team

I realize it sounds odd to follow “be consistent” with “be flexible.” but as things change, you should be open to it.

Things do change. Things HAVE changed. Some employees, with a taste of working remotely, may never want to return to the office. If you have a business that requires employees to be on-site, then this information isn’t for you. But if you have the opportunity of remote employment, consider the possibilities:

  • A remote workforce means you can pull talent from anywhere in the country (or world)
  • A wider footprint for your company means greater opportunities
  • Remote employees help keep down the costs of office space and all the issues that come with it
  • And you may be a dog-friendly office, but now you can be a dog, cat, hamster, snake, hermit crab-friendly business.

As we evolve digitally, so will the ways we work. Be ready to evolve. Businesses that adapt are businesses that survive (just ask Netflix and Amazon about that). So too, leaders that can adapt to change will always go further in their careers and manage happier teams.

Go forth. Be kind. Listen. Trust. And most of all, remember: we’ll all get through this.

About the writer
Bart Heird
Bart Heird
Bart Heird is a creative director for WebMechanix. He loves dungeons and dragons.

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