Back in the pre-COVID-19 days, Mitchell Spearman didn’t talk to his staff much about their feelings.
As senior director of principal gifts for the University of Texas at Austin, he helped set goals for his team of fundraisers, assisted them in meeting those goals and celebrated their successes when they did.
He aimed to be supportive and encouraging, but delving into staffers’ personal lives? Inquiring about their support networks? That wasn’t part of the job description.
But as the country abruptly shut down in one unimaginable week in March, Spearman, like many managers at companies large and small, found himself taking on new roles: counselor, supporter, wellness coach.
Goals and metrics temporarily went out the window. The mental and physical health of his staff became the priority.
As Spearman scheduled one-on-one meetings with each member of his team, he wrote a checklist of things to talk about: Where are you living? How comfortable are you going out? Are you getting food delivery? Do you feel safe?
He also invited each team member to share their biggest fears.
“That was a watershed moment,” he said.
One of his employees is married to an assistant manager at a grocery store, and the thought of him going to work every day terrified her.
Another feared that her partner, who worked in the hospitality industry, would lose his job.
One person was scared of being sick and alone, another worried about an elderly parent living in another state.
At the same time Spearman shared his biggest fear: that he would get sick and not be able to get a test for the virus.
It was the most vulnerable he’d ever been with his staff.
“I wanted to let them know I’m in the same boat,” he said.
As businesses grapple with the economic fallout and disruption caused by the novel coronavirus, experts say the pandemic may have a silver lining: Helping to create a new breed of managers — those who talk less and listen more.
“There is an element of this crisis that is forcing managers to be the kind of managers people always wanted, which is really caring about their team’s welfare, and really listening,” said David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work.”
Inquiring after the well-being of employees and understanding their unique challenges has always been part of good management strategy, said Samuel Culbert, author of the book “Good People/Bad Managers” and a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Before the pandemic, it may have been easier to gloss over.
Today, however, knowing who may have recently lost a loved one, and who is chasing after a toddler half the day, has become essential information for any team leader.
“Most managers may intend to help their employees, but they don’t start off with the most basic questions: What do you need? How can I help you?” Culbert said.
A manager may not be able to solve everyone’s problems, he added, “but you can listen, give, support and back them up.”
As the weeks passed and Spearman’s team settled into their new reality, he gradually turned the focus back to fundraising goals.
But the more intimate relationships he established in the early days of the pandemic remained.
“This has been a transformative experience for me,” he said. “We talk about productivity, but we also talk about canoeing and coffee with friends. I’m learning to manage that whole person, not just the performer.”
Studies suggest that the stresses associated with COVID-19 are affecting people on every rung of the corporate ladder.
In a global survey of 2,700 people, the technology company Qualtrics found that self-reported declines in mental health in the early days of the pandemic were equally likely across all seniority levels — from executives (40.5%) to individual contributors (44%).
“Nobody is going through this unscathed,” said Ryan Smith, chief executive of Qualtrics.
Supervisors may worry that inquiring after the mental health of their employees is inappropriate, or none of their business, but the data suggest otherwise.
The Qualtrics survey found that 57.7% of respondents said they are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health, and 41% said they want their managers to ask them about it.
And when respondents were asked who they would rather talk to about mental health issues, 35.6% said a co-worker or peer, 33.5% said a manager or supervisor, and just 19.5% said somebody from Human Resources.
“Traditionally, mental health has been one of those taboo topics — don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Michael Thompson, president and CEO of National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, a nonprofit employer group. “But when you break the silence, employees like it. They think more highly of you as an employer.”
At the same time, many managers are experiencing their own fears and challenges, and experts say it is important for them to monitor their mental health as well.
“You have to get your own stress level low enough so you can focus on someone else,” Culbert said.
He recommends a buddy system in which managers check in on one another and share challenges and stressors.
Smith is already doing this. Before the pandemic he had a standing weekly call with 12 other tech CEOs, but after COVID-19 upended everything the conversation took on a new tone.
“It’s turned into a therapy group,” he said.
Felicia Jadczak was expecting 2020 to be a year of growth for She+ Geeks Out, the Boston company she co-founded that helps companies create a more inclusive workforce and runs networking events in tech and tech-adjacent fields.
As the country went into lockdown, Jadczak’s anxiety grew as client meetings got canceled, contracts vanished and sponsors began pulling out of She+ Geeks Out events.
At the same time, she and her co-CEO, Rachel Murray, had to transition their small staff to working from home, which meant ensuring everyone had a functioning internet connection and a suitable space to work.
But the biggest hurdle was emotional, Jadczak said, “just understanding what everyone was going through — not just the team but me and my business partner too.”
Some employees had small children at home, others were supporting older family members.
“Every meeting started with, how are you? Is your family safe? Are you OK? And really listening,” Jadczak said.
The two women say they don’t mind taking on these additional responsibilities, but they require emotional energy.
As Jadczak put it, “It’s a lot of lift.”
After the news of the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor began circulating, Jadczak and Murray added a weekly meeting to the team’s agenda that they call “the hang” — as in hang out.
“We found that our team needed some time to come together and process and chat like we were in the office, around the coffee machine,” she said.
They also experimented with giving everyone, including themselves, a four-day workweek.
Even as the demand for their training services has skyrocketed in the wake of the national reckoning on racism sparked by George Floyd’s killing, Jadczak and Murray plan to continue with four-day workweeks.
“We don’t want anyone to burn out,”Jadczak said.
Tracy Keogh, chief human resources officer at HP Inc., which has 55,000 employees worldwide, said her team has also worked to alleviate burnout by urging employees to shift 30-minute Zoom calls to 25 minutes, and hour-long calls to 55 minutes. It may not seem like much, but the small breaks make a difference.
Here in Los Angeles, Merrick Lackner, cofounder of Rently, a company that helps renters see homes and apartments without a listing agent, said the coronavirus has helped him to get to know his 50 employees in a whole new way.
“Ironically, it’s easier to make surface-level assumptions about people when you see them every day,” he said. “But with everyone apart, we’ve been having deeper, more honest conversations.”
Since the pandemic started, Lackner has made more of an effort to reach out beyond his direct reports to find out how other staffers are doing, and hear what they think should be happening at the company.
“To be frank, I should have been doing it all along,” he said.
As for Spearman, he’s learned that he doesn’t have to pry into his employees’ lives to let them know he’s available to talk if that’s what they need.
It’s like having someone to your house and offering them coffee and a cookie, he said.
They don’t need to take it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.