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Leaders Versus Managers In The Pandemic-Era Workplace

Article originally appeared in Forbes Human Resources Council by Ayesha Whyte

The past year drew a stark line between those who manage and those who lead. The Covid-19 pandemic redefined the workplace in more ways than one, presenting managers with unprecedented challenges — and just as many opportunities.

What Makes A Leader?

The management versus leadership debate far predates Covid-19. An effective manager gets the job done. They know how to successfully steer their team toward a business goal and their performance is satisfactory. That said, simply managing a team of employees doesn’t make someone a leader.

On paper, a manager may hit all the marks, but true leadership requires more than execution. A leader puts improvement at the forefront of their work, viewing the people they manage as valued teammates, not just means to an end. They motivate and mentor lower-ranking employees to reach their full potential and are quick to adapt their processes if it benefits the whole of the group. Whereas managers have subordinates, leaders have followers.

In the midst of a persistent pandemic that’s dramatically altered people’s personal and professional lives, leaders are perhaps more essential than ever.

A Strange New Workplace

Before the pandemic, talk of the workplace likely conjured up images of an office: conference rooms, copying machines, corded phones and water coolers. Today, every employee’s workplace experience is different. It might be a couch, a dining room table, a bed or a patio. It might be a shared — even cramped — space, or an isolated area. It may or may not come with speedy Wi-Fi, may or may not include ergonomic chairs, may or may not have access to printers and copiers.

Leading a team remotely during a pandemic involves recognizing that the playing field is no longer even and providing your employees with the individualized tools they need to keep up. The old rules of the in-person workplace no longer apply.

Keep Tabs On Employees’ Well-Being

The best leaders lead with empathy, and right now, people need a double dose. A 2020 study from the Limeade Institute found that 72% of employees are experiencing burnout, compared to 42% before the pandemic. The same study reports that managers have a large impact on employees’ well-being. Sadly, 45% of nonmanagerial workers feel that their employer didn’t care about their well-being.

Covid-19 has put unprecedented stress on people worldwide. Grief, anxiety, loneliness and economic hardship are just a few things employees might be dealing with in their personal lives. For families, that stress is heightened, as parents play the role of babysitter, tutor and playdate, all while trying to manage their workload in a crowded space.

Leaders recognize the external factors that put pressure on employees and they’re sensitive to them. That’s because a dash of understanding can make a world’s difference in relieving stress and showing that their employee is valued. Empathy could be changing meeting times to work around a parent’s family duties. Maybe it’s extending a deadline when someone’s Wi-Fi goes down. It could be encouraging a worker to take a mental health day when they start to show signs of burnout.

When managers aren’t attentive to their employees’ well-being, personally or professionally, they aren’t doing their part to look out for their own and maintain morale.

Foster Community And Connection From Afar

A big hit on many workers’ well-being has been the feeling of isolation that comes with remote work. Co-workers no longer have the luxury of chatting in the breakroom as they pour their morning coffee. Executives can go unseen and unheard by lower-level employees now that they aren’t seen in passing around the office. Employees who have been hired since the start of the pandemic may not know a single person outside of their immediate teammates who they’ve seen on video calls.

With an entirely digital workplace, activities are restricted to the internet, but that doesn’t mean co-workers need to feel isolated. Working from home gives leadership an opportunity to shine if they’re willing to expend a little creativity and think beyond Zoom happy hours.

Since the start of the pandemic, leaders have come up with all sorts of unique ways to keep connection alive among their teams: Think virtual murder mysteries, game nights, cooking sessions, trivia competitions and cocktail classes.

This is another area that distinguishes leaders from managers. Managers are all about staying on task. Leaders know that sometimes pausing work and focusing on community-building is better for the bottom line.

Today’s Lessons Still Apply After The Pandemic

For all the difficulties Covid-19 brought, it shined a bright light on ways that companies can do business more efficiently and effectively.

It turns out some meetings really can be emails, and almost all office work can be done with just a computer and a phone. We now know that working from home for a bit is totally doable if an employee ever needs to get out of the office for a change of scenery. And taking proper lunch breaks away from the screen? That’s a good thing.

When the pandemic slows down and the traditional, in-person workplace is resurrected, managers on autopilot may revert to the old way of operating. Leaders will be ready to apply the lessons of remote work to the in-office experience to maximize productivity and inspire their team.