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The shift to permanent hybrid office schedules in post-pandemic workplaces presents a unique challenge for managers and team leaders. Although flexible work has been shown to reduce psychological and physical stress in previously non-remote employees, a distributed team requires different approaches in managing employee orientation, performance issues, and conflicts. While the pandemic may have emphasized the importance of mental health in the workplace, leaders may find that the human elements of their roles, including their ability to regularly connect and relate with their employees, have become more complex.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has created a resource for managers looking to minimize the virtual divide in the workplace. The Manager’s Toolkit: Leading in a Hybrid Work Environment provides actionable guidelines for managing workplace conflicts and maintaining social cohesion.
“The Manager’s Toolkit provides useful and concrete information to people supporting and leading others, to help them resolve workplace challenges in a way that puts people first,” says Nicole Chevrier, Marketing and Communications Manager at the MHCC.
Most importantly, The Manager’s Toolkit presents a strategy for integrating mental health awareness into hybrid environments and helps managers to recognize signs of declining mental health in employees.
“Applying The Manager’s Toolkit to assess the mental health of your team is similar to how medical professionals scan and evaluate the health of their patients,” explains Dr. Ellen Choi, Assistant Professor in Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).
The resource includes workplace scenarios and actionable solutions for a multitude of managerial responsibilities affected by hybrid work. These include strategies for managing performance issues, conflict resolution, onboarding, mental wellness, and mental health awareness.
Using A People-First Lens When Addressing Performance IssuesBecause signs of burnout, anxiety, and stress are less apparent during virtual interactions, the first sign of an employee in distress may be in their performance.
“You may find out that it’s not entirely a performance issue, and that other underlying factors are contributing to this change,” explains Samuel Breau, Manager of Access to Quality Mental Health Services at the MHCC.
Virtual teams will make the ability to understand employee issues more important, and more challenging at the same time. The Manager’s Toolkit provides strategies for leaders to evaluate their existing processes for performance measurement and productivity with a more holistic view of the employee. This includes encouraging dialogue around burnout and anxiety, responding with empathy, and supporting employees in prioritizing their mental health.
Dr. Ellen Choi – Photo credit: Ivey School of Business, Western University
Creating A Conversation for Conflict ResolutionBecause distributed teams may interact less, conflicts are more likely to be reflected in meetings, emails, and collaborations, without a clear space for conversation. In hybrid environments, the role of a manager in facilitating critical conversations is emphasized, says Dr. Choi. “Honest conversations test the temperature of the hybrid workplace, so when vitals are low in the team, leaders can step up and hold that space or steady it for others.”
The Manager’s Toolkit provides useful strategies for leading conflict resolution in a way that models open communication, to prevent further issues from repeating.
Thinking Outside the Box in Virtual OnboardingEngaging with work teams is an important way for new employees to feel included, informed, and connected, and managers can help to make this experience fun for all. Julia Armstrong, a manager of the Mental Health and Substance Use program at MHCC, suggests using input from your employees’ own interests and hobbies to plan virtual team warm-ups and social events, for a more authentic experience.
“This is so critical, and not just when onboarding. Find out how team members would enjoy spending time together before assuming you know what folks want,” explains Armstrong. “Sometimes the simplest gatherings can foster the most meaningful connections when you need them most.”
Normalizing Health and Wellness: A Prevention, Not A CureCreating a safe space to talk openly about mental health in the workplace is equally as important for employees as it is for managers, says Dr. Choi. “You can’t empathize with others’ vulnerability if you yourself can’t be vulnerable. If you’re unable to stop judging yourself, it prevents you from allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and you may end up just judging other people’s vulnerability as weakness.”
Dr. Choi believes keeping mental health top of mind starts from within. Specifically, managers who may feel the pressure to ‘hold it together’ or be ‘all-knowing’ should regularly practice self-compassion.
“When you feel you have no room to fail, when everyone’s counting on you, you may have limited access to ‘be human’. Without that buffer around our own psyche that allows for vulnerability, there is only a brittleness, and that’s unsustainable,” says Dr. Choi. “Challenge defeating self-talk or self-doubt by relating to the parts of yourself that are overwhelmed by asking ‘am I doing the best I can?’ [or] ‘what do I need right now to give myself a break?'”
Checking In, Not Checking Up, On StaffManagers of hybrid teams must find new ways to monitor the mental wellness of their teams, and taking a leading role in destigmatizing mental health can make this task easier. The Manager’s Toolkit provides multiple strategies for creating dialogue around mental health at work, including casual check-ins, sharing their own stories, and understanding the signs of declining mental health through training, like The Working Mind.
Whichever approach feels most comfortable, having an open mind while lending an ear to employees is at the heart of creating a safe space of trust and communication between managers and teams in a hybrid workplace.
“We can apply the same principles of being a compassionate leader that listens attentively, observes and checks in when noticing changes,” explains Samuel Breau. “A hybrid model means being even more disciplined in practicing those listening and observing muscles.”
The Manager’s Toolkit serves as a resource for managers navigating the changes of hybrid workplaces with a mental health focus. Find more information on The Mental Health Commission of Canada, and further resources here.
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