How Covid Taught Me to Boss Better

It's a historic moment to rethink how we manage talent

It doesn't matter where you're located right now, the predominant view when you look out your window is most likely the curve. That big wavering line leads from total corporate lockdown to wide-open offices, and the more you look, the farther down the sunny side we seem to be. Which means it's time to make a big decision that you probably aren't thinking about.

Not "When are you reopening?" or "Is it time to light a stick of dynamite under your open-concept seating plan?" Those questions are most likely haunting your HR and operations people at this very moment, but they're not what I'm talking about. I know our agency is going to embrace hybrid work going forward, even if I don't know all the details of how it will shake out. Not just because our employees want it and have functioned amazingly at it for the last year. Not because 80 percent of the people we've hired over the last six months live away from our office in San Francisco. I know it will work because mid-pandemic we shifted our thinking of what an office is from location-first to culture-first, and as a result the agency has thrived.

As we went through the transformation of breaking down what makes our company function and hum, a few themes have risen to the top—ways to think about management, equity, feedback and the independence we give employees at Muh-tay-zik/Hof-fer. If I'm being honest, each lesson didn't come easy. I can only speak for myself here when I say there were a few missteps and mistakes. But overall the pandemic has made us a stronger, healthier, better agency. And me a better leader.

Which gets us back to the big question you should be asking: What sort of boss do you plan to be as the high tide of Covid slowly recedes and once again reveals your office doors? Whether you're planning on riding the Zoom train from here on out or heading back to your midtown office, these are the three big lessons Covid taught us about how to better manage our talent.

Embrace equitable leadership.

The word equitable is tossed around a lot, and I have found there are still plenty of people who are confused about what it means. So try for a second to remove the word from your brain, scrub it clean, and start with this simple thought: Give each employee what they uniquely need to do the best job possible. That's it. The simple understanding that each person is unique, and each one may need a different explanation, or bit of feedback, or extra moment to process information if they are all going to get to the results you want.

Equitable leaders don't mandate their own way of thinking; they create a set of tools or understandings that employees can utilize to complete a task their own way. They don't point at a destination and tell everyone to run toward it; they give everyone a map and compass and send them on their way. A system that is greatly preferred by employees. A recent survey showed the evolving communication between boss and employees, with 31 percent of employees saying they only need contact with a boss a few times a week, 27 percent saying once a week is sufficient, and 22 percent saying "as little as possible."

This is exactly what every decentralized company had to do during the last year. Instead of managing where people sit, when they clock in, how they dress, how they present, etc., successful companies mandated what all employees needed to achieve and then set the teams free. A study conducted in partnership with Microsoft and the Boston Consulting Group found that only 15 percent of companies had flexible work policies in place when the pandemic hit. By the summer of 2020, that number had jumped to 76 percent. And 88 percent said they expected remote working to form a greater part of a more hybrid form of working in the future.

That's great news, not just for fans of remote culture but for fans of equitable working. As each employee is given the chance to create an environment and schedule that best fits their style of working, more are put into a position to be judged by what they achieve.

Culture is your most important product.

A boss's role has always been functionally all-encompassing, but more and more it's becoming emotionally all-encompassing as well. You are responsible for a corporate well-being, creating a place, process and profitability that all benefit from. But more and more, you are now also responsible to individual employees for a happiness and understanding level that goes beyond the group. Why? Because individual happiness and understanding leads to more productive employees who feel more invested in their job. The product isn't just what you think up or make or sell, it's the culture that employees participate in. A culture that embraces individuality as opposed to normalizing a singular corporate image.

That is a drastically different way to think about "product." In fact, product has meant the same thing since the Industrial Revolution. Product is what rolls down a line. It's a rigid thing that people follow rigid rules to make. But equitable management does away with that rigidity and replaces it with flexible systems that match the working styles of employees.

Managing people as individuals, not groups, inherently makes a boss more empathetic as you recognize that your management style is not the only one employees learn from and react to. And it makes employees more productive (and less stressed) because they can spend more time doing their job well, and less time trying to fit the system the boss or company prefers.

For anyone who works at Amazon, this will seem like a big deal. For over 20 years, Amazon leadership required presentations to start with a six-page memo. The thought was, if you can get your idea across in a six-page memo, then it's a tight idea. And by looking at Amazon's stock, we can all agree the system has worked. But what has been the employee price paid for that rigidity? True, those who can adapt to a system described as "purposeful Darwinism" have a successful career, but how many amazingly talented, smart employees were cut out because their style of thinking, presenting and achieving didn't get "properly" formatted in a six-page memo? A New York Times article from 2015 quoted an employee named Bo Olsen who noticed, "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

The sad reality is that almost everyone reading this has felt like breaking down on the job at some point. No matter how you handled your own emotional overload, you can relate to the feelings of helplessness that are common. Did those feelings make you a better employee? Did they make you more loyal? Did your work improve? Did it make you rate your company higher on "best places to work" surveys? Did it make your clients more successful?

We are about to enter the most migratory work environment in a generation. According to the Prudential Pulse of America work survey, almost one in four workers are considering looking for a new job as the pandemic winds down. Your best hope of retaining your best people, and attracting new ones, is a winning culture that supports individuals' emotional needs as well as their workplace desires.

Be Ted Lasso.

Perhaps the hardest question for any leader is what sort of boss am I? For most of us, we dive into the examples set by those we learned from. Those who made the biggest impression on our development. But as the acceptable forms of leadership have changed, we need to look at our own role models and separate what we learned from how we learned it. If you came up at any number of ad agencies that were dominated by creative greats, whom we would now refer to as well-intentioned tyrants, you need to ask, do I want my people to feel like I often felt—belittled, taken for granted, disposable?

Hopefully the answer is no and how you communicate and motivate your teams will take a different form. One that treats employees as collaborators, worthy of honesty and transparency. One that mentors more than mandates. One that recognizes that the traditional pathways to success and motivation flew out the door years ago.

You have to start over. You have to reintroduce yourself, relearn how to have a positive working relationship, and adjust to a more personal communication style. This can take any form, but the one I am most excited about right now is the Ted Lasso path. Ted is the always optimistic coach on the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, but more than a character, he is a master class in emotional balance, culture building and empathetic leadership. He embraces the uniqueness of his players to make them as good as they can be. And best of all, Ted demonstrates that strength and leadership don't have to be devoid of empathy and thoughtfulness. Which is a far cry from the traditional film and TV portrayals of bold leadership styles.

Don't get me wrong, being Ted Lasso doesn't mean you lower the standards of success or reduce expectations. That isn't the job of a boss. What it does mean is you paint a better picture of what success is, and make it clear how much work is necessary to get there.

So think about it. Marinate. Come to your own conclusions. Covid has given us an opportunity to press pause on everything we believed to be true in the workplace. It's challenging what, how and why we do what we do. Right now we have a rare opportunity in the world of modern business to be introspective, to rebuild, to reinvent ourselves and boss better.

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Joel Kaplan
Joel Kaplan is executive creative director at MUH-TAY-ZIK / HOF-FER.

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