A reader writes:
Your advice around the pandemic and expectations for managers has been extremely helpful. However, I am struggling with when it is reasonable for employers to expect employees to get closer to pre-coronavirus work outputs. It seems clear that we will not be going back to a “normal” work environment anytime soon, so do you have any guidance on how long it may take people to readjust?
For context, my company is working directly on the fight against coronavirus, though we are able to work from home. We are also a small business, so our workload is increasing, we don’t have a lot of staff redundancies built in, and it’s a make-or-break moment for our success.
I have one employee in particular who is finding it hard to focus on work. He has been with us for a year and is a good worker though not our highest performer, and has been open about his mental health struggles. I have been flexible with him and my other team members in terms of taking breaks or time off, and understanding of the difficulty of meeting deadlines. However, the fact is there’s not a lot we can deprioritize. I have been taking on an increased workload to help out, but this doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution. I have also suggested we could switch the projects he is assigned to with me or other team members if there are some he is more comfortable working on. Is there anything else I should be doing, and when is it reasonable to expect employees to have adjusted to this new situation? When should we worry that some may never perform well in this environment?
I don’t have an answer to “when?” but I know we’re not there yet.
Things are still in chaos! Covid-19 cases are still increasing in many parts of the country, (many) people are (sensibly) afraid to leave their homes, and people and businesses that are trying to accelerate our path into some kind of new normal are stumbling and encountering or causing more problems when they do.
It’s still early days, really. We are maybe approaching the end of the beginning — but that leaves us still just barely starting to figure out what the rest of the year will look like.
And for employees with young kids at home, nothing has changed — because schools and daycares and summer camps are mostly still closed, they’re still in the impossible situation of trying to work while doing full-time child care.
To be clear, I don’t think you’re wrong for asking this question! Work still has to get done, and we have to figure out how to navigate this. But it’s understandable that people haven’t adjusted enough to return to pre-pandemic work levels yet.
With the employee you’re asking about in particular, I think it depends on how his work is being affected. If he’s a little scattered and not as productive as he used to be but is still getting work done to acceptable standards, well … that doesn’t sound out of the realm of an understandable response, and one you should expect to see on your staff. I think you chalk that up to the pandemic penalty and accept it’ll be the case for a while.
But if he’s regularly missing deadlines and turning in low-quality work and creating genuine problems for your team, that’s a different situation. If that’s the case, I think you manage it how you normally would, just with extra empathy and more chances to improve. But it is okay to say, “I know it’s a hard time and none of us are at our best, but your work is really far afield from where I need it, even building in extra leeway because of the current situation. What I’m seeing from you is ___ and what I need to see change is ___. What do you need from me to help make that happen? Some ways I can support you are ___ and ____.”
And then all the normal pieces of how to manage performance problems will be extra important to get right — being very clear about what needs to change, being clear about how important those changes are, and being clear if things are getting to the point where they could jeopardize the person’s job.
The idea is to (a) cut the person more slack than you usually would, because global pandemic, and (b) when things are truly unworkable given what your team needs to achieve, give the person every chance to hear exactly what they need to do differently and to talk to you about whether there are obstacles to that and to collaborate with you on solutions.
But as for expecting people to be adjusted, that’s not now and it won’t be for a while. This is about how to manage meanwhile.
when can managers expect employees to adjust to the “new normal”? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.