Oxygen mask for leaders first. Three lessons learned from advanced People Analytics
General business | Specialist | Expert

Oxygen mask for leaders first. Three lessons learned from advanced People Analytics

As the world battles against COVID, a lot of focus is being drawn towards guaranteeing the well-being and work-life balance of employees, and how leaders can support their remote team. However, not enough is being said on how this can take a huge toll on leaders, as they’re often overwhelmed with the growing expectations and the drastically increased physical, cognitive and emotional workload. 

Just like with the parent-child oxygen mask safety procedure in an aircraft – if leaders do not take proper care of themselves in the first place, they aren’t capable of supporting their team. Below, I share a few tips for companies on how this can be tackled in a remote environment. 

Three tips to supporting leaders’ well-being 

Three tips to supporting leaders' well-being

#1: Avoiding the ‘overburden’ trap

Based on the data I’ve analyzed through the Network Perspective platform, leaders might be 200% more overloaded during COVID than before. The experience for leaders drops more than for regular employees – they might have booked 34-44 hours a week for meetings, handle 800 emails a week, and end up working 12 hours a day.

To better illustrate this, let’s consider the following scenario: Anna, a leader at a big fintech company who manages a team of 10 people regularly holds weekly and daily meetings with her team. However, the pandemic strikes and the entire business has to move to the remote work model. Anna tries to continue being there for her people, but by doing so she falls into a trap. Assuming she has 10 employees working for her, she decides to drop or strictly limit the number of team meetings in favor of more 1-on-1 meetings (for example, two meetings per week for each employee). She thinks it’s the only way to make each employee feel cared for, but has so many calls, Slack messages, or email each day she struggles remembering the context of each of these interactions. 

Another potential trap and concern for the leader during COVID is that their team might fall apart. Daily team meetings help people bond and discuss their work-related experiences. If leaders remove team meetings in favor of 1-on-1s, they also remove predictability. How so?

If there’s a daily team meeting, employees can assess whether they can wait with any topics until tomorrow. If leaders stop organizing daily team meetings, however, people will start disturbing the deep work time of the leader and each other by calling or sending them messages, as there will be no other way to get through to them quickly. 

To enable leaders to maintain the right work-life balance, it’s crucial that they set up regular daily and weekly meetings (both 1-on-1 and intra-team). Do not cut out team meetings in favor of 1-on-1 interactions.

#2: Help leaders establish daily team bonding routines 

Let’s dive deeper into how leaders can organize daily team interactions. There are three steps I recommend:

  • Invest time in regular 15-min team status meetings. If you make sure that the meetings are regular and the team leader is always present, eventually, there will be less need for the leader’s guidance and coordination. As a result, people will be less likely to interrupt each other at work, knowing that many things can wait until the next day.
  • Make sure that, on average, 80% of your team members take part in your intra-team meetings on a regular basis. This will allow you to instill the feeling of belonging and a sense of a common purpose, ongoing support, and knowledge exchange. 
  • If people don’t take part in the meetings regularly, review the quality of your intra-team meetings to check if they bring value. Among others, pay attention to the meeting’s structure, role clarity, and action points.  
  • Regular status check-ins do not mean that longer team bonding/knowledge exchange meetings are not necessary. Status updates are critical for ongoing coordination, but longer weekly or bi-weekly team bonding rituals foster the sense of belonging, psychological safety, and peer-to-peer learning so desired by the team members to sustain their intrinsic motivation. 

If your leaders are successful in the way they conduct team meetings, they will be relieved of the need to provide individual guidance (or, in extreme cases, micro-management). 

#3: Help leaders create an effective 1-on-1 routine 

It’s important to stress that the previously-mentioned team meetings cannot replace (but should supplement) 1-on-1 presence and the personalized attention of a leader. Access to individualized attention from the leader is especially important in turbulent times to allow for vulnerability, compassion, and tension mitigation.

Here are a few recommendations for leaders:

  • Hold regular 1-on-1 meetings with every single team member, either weekly or fortnightly. 30 minutes is enough but only provided that the leader is 100% focused.  Such meetings are the only mechanism for giving and taking constructive feedback and discussing long-term development plans. They give the team members the feeling of care and empathy they need in order to thrive.
  • Make sure that leaders have an equitable approach to 1-on-1 meetingstime. Usually, all newcomers (not just juniors!) need more time with their leader in the first 6 months at the organization. Remember that employee seniority is not the same as employee development level, and all newbies need dedicated time with the leader before they reach their optimal productivity levels. 
  • If you have limited time as a leader in a specific week and you have to give up some of your meetings, then cancel one of the team meetings, but never 1-on-1’s

Closing remarks

Leaders naturally buffer the negative effect of COVID by increasing interactions with the team which is the source of work overload for them. Still, while human-to-human rituals are super important, you can’t have your leaders overburdened with meetings and disturbed from deep work. Encourage them to practice 15 minute-long daily’s, weekly’s, or bi-weekly with the team, and either weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1s. By limiting the number of interruptions, leaders will be more capable of focusing their entire attention to the meeting at hand, making it more productive for all engaged parties.

August 3, 2021

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