January 16, 2022

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The trials of managing people in a pandemic

Nobody ever said management was easy. But in this liminal phase of the pandemic, between the acute crisis of early 2020 and the promise of a world where coronavirus may be tamed, it is even harder than usual. Under such circumstances, managers deserve our sympathy. It is only a few weeks since the emergence of the Omicron variant forced even the most gung-ho back-to-the-office advocates to defer — again — their plans for a wider reopening of the workplace.

Managers are now having to thread their people strategy between existing legal requirements, shifting national rules and guidelines on office work and business travel, the turbulent economics of labour shortages and inflation, responsibility towards staff, and the mutating disease itself.

Take the overarching imperative to guarantee a safe workplace for all staff: as the Omicron wave sweeps through companies, some are increasing the pressure for all to be vaccinated, unless they can prove they are exempt.

A number of US companies have pressed ahead with requirements for employees to be fully vaccinated, helped by government guidance. Citigroup is taking a particularly strict line, threatening to fire staff who have not been jabbed or have not received an exemption by the end of the month.

In the UK, companies such as Wessex Water, a utility, Wm Morrison, the supermarket chain, and the local arm of Ikea, the Swedish furniture group, have adopted policies to reduce sick pay for unvaccinated staff who have to self-isolate after contact with Covid-positive cases.

For legal, ethical, and practical reasons, corporate encouragement to staff to be vaccinated remains preferable to coercion or a “no jab, no job” policy. It is easier to see why healthcare staff should be inoculated. But even outside these sensitive sectors, managers, like some governments, are starting to see a justification for controversial policies to protect the collective health of their wider community or merely to maintain adequate staffing.

In many sectors, regardless of vaccination or sickness policies, hybrid work will endure. Lack of a clear definition of the practice is one challenge facing managers. For every team leader appalled by the chaos of a poorly run meeting in which half of the participants are online and half there in person, or worried that homeworkers may be idling, there is another applauding the productivity benefits available when tasks are assigned appropriately to efficient remote staff or creative in-person teams. Either way, implementing truly flexible working requires a significant adjustment in management techniques and a higher level of co-ordination and communication than office-centric teamwork usually does.

Hard decisions about how to run a late-pandemic workforce are informed, but also complicated, by employment shortages in many countries, exacerbated by a wave of resignations as lockdown-weary staff quit or retire. In the words of the human resources head of one US group, “we have to embrace [hybrid work] and figure it out because otherwise staff will go to another employer who will give them that flexibility”.

This year has started with more hopeful signs for hard-pressed managers than 2021. In developed countries, there is already talk of society learning to live with Covid-19, as it does with endemic diseases. Good managers should stay alert for unexpected twists. While it is hardly best practice, a few may be tempted to apply a time-honoured technique for dealing with intractable workplace dilemmas: delay radical action and hope the problem solves itself.

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