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COVID-19: What can managers learn from the crisis?

10th Jun 2020
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We put the question: What can managers learn from the COVID-19 crisis? to Emmanuelle Léon – Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at ESCP Business School. Emmanuelle is an expert in this field, and recently published an article on this as part of the ESCP Business School’s “Managing a Post-Covid19 Era”series. Here are her thoughts:

As lockdown exit begins cautiously, as companies reopen their doors and as employees prepare mentally to return physically to their workspaces, it is time to draw the first lessons of this unprecedented crisis from a managerial point of view. I believe the crisis is an accelerator of managerial transformations and is an opportunity to reinvent management in the post-industrial era.

We have learned through this crisis to work and manage differently. So be it. But this involuntary learning has been done in a hurry, under stress and sometimes even painfully. Such a drastic change in our work habits could only be made under duress. This is a far cry from the progressive teleworking projects, with pilots, feedback, etc., which have been implemented in the past. Besides, can we really talk about teleworking? In a matter of days, employees who were able to do so, found themselves pursuing their professional activity at a distance, confined to their homes, installed as best they could in unsuitable workspaces (dining room table, sofa, kitchen counter), equipped or not with tools enabling them to work at a distance, and surrounded by their families living in the same situation. Overnight, a new segmentation between professional and private life had to be invented. In less than 24 hours, we all became experts in remote work and management...

The primacy of managerial maturity

The crisis has highlighted a key element in the digital transformation of organizations: it is less a question of tools, however sophisticated they may be, than a state of mind. Of course, a minimum level of equipment and connection is required to function properly at a distance! However, a company's digital maturity is measured first and foremost by its ability and willingness to experiment with new, more open, more horizontal ways of working. The last few weeks have made it possible to clearly distinguish between digital maturity (at company level) and managerial maturity. Faced with a sudden, brutal and full-time shift to remote work, it is first and foremost managerial intelligence and maturity that we need.

Managing with blinkers, in anguish, or in a different way?

I propose to distinguish three postures adopted by remote managers: the first concerns those managers who have tried, against all odds, to do "the same at a distance"; those who have not been able to cope with the distance component in managing their collaborators, amplifying "micro-management" behaviors; those who have been able to successfully adapt to the situation.

Our first manager is the one who has tried, whatever the cost, to continue practicing his or her activity in the same way as in a face-to-face environment. One concern: to conceal geographic distance. They are easy to spot : they are the ones who are used to spending their lives in meetings, and have continued to do so – and to impose it upon their collaborators - at a distance.

The second case is guided above all by the fear of letting go, by anguish, because even though teams can exist without a manager, can a manager exist without his or her teams? From this point of view, remote management creates anxiety, and this is one of the reasons why it has been so hard to implement teleworking in France.

The third case is that of the progressive manager, who quickly understood that lockdown required new working methods and who decided to take advantage of this unusual period to progress and develop his or her teams. This manager has abandoned all forms of supervision of the team's working hours. When working from a distance, management by objectives must take precedence. However, this means being able to clearly define these objectives and monitor them over time. You also have to learn to trust. This is the key word in a long-distance relationship, whether professional or personal. Unfortunately, it is often an empty word, sometimes used to make managers feel guilty for not delegating enough. But trust does not exclude control!

Management in the post-industrial era

What if Covid-19 could be construed as a rapidly-induced learning opportunity, to adopt a management style in line with the changes that are happening in the world?

For a long time, work has been assimilated to time spent in a place. This logic, inherited from the industrial era, was imposed when presence was synonymous with production, as in the case of assembly line work. Call centers are typical modern illustrations of this type of logic since all activity is both measurable and measured. But the world has changed. We live in a time when working no longer means being in a dedicated space-time all the time, especially for those knowledge workers who manipulate above all symbols, to use Robert Reich's expression, and not objects.

That being said, this industrial logic still carries a lot of weight in the current representations of work . The reluctance to allow employees to work remotely is evidence of this. While a study by the Concorde foundation considered that 26% of French employees were eligible for part-time teleworking , according to INSEE (France's national statistics institute), only 3% of them were regularly teleworking in 2017 . In a research conducted in the United States by Elsbach, Cable and Sherman show that physical presence in the workplace is perceived as a sign of reliability and being present beyond working hours as a sign of commitment. It is therefore not a uniquely French prism, contrary to what we often hear!

An opportunity to reexamine our certainties

Over the past few weeks, we have come to understand that working remotely is not the same as working face-to-face. Distance is an indicator of managerial shortcomings. It does not tolerate improvisation. As far as managers are concerned, it is no longer their charisma that is at work, but the availability and responsiveness they show towards the demands of their employees. An organized, reactive manager, attentive to others, listening to the needs of his /her teams will be more valuable from a distance than a charismatic leader.

Are we now going to see a new business model emerge where teleworking is the norm and office presence the exception? Some companies are headed this way. However, we will have to be all the more attentive to what happens when we are close to each other. Coming to the office today is like taking a risk. If we have to take that risk, what happens in the office has to be worth it. So, we're going to have to be particularly vigilant about all the things that a context of proximity takes for granted: non-verbal communication, socialization, informal exchanges, sharing of tacit knowledge, to name a few. It is now time to reflect in depth on the working methods implemented at a distance, on the modes of communication used, on the standards of behavior to be adopted both face-to-face and at a distance. We have learned to work, and to be effective through teleworking. But we are only at the beginning of the learning process...

This is part of a interview series focuses on how COVID-19 is impacting on HR, management and leadership practices.

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