In this podcast episode, learning specialist Garth Sheriff, CPA, CA shares three emerging techniques that are essential to managing hybrid teams, with CPABC communications specialist Leah Giesbrecht. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.
Hear from Garth when he presents the CPA Firm Manager Leadership Skills Certificate Program (June 28-August 16, 2023). See the benefits of attending.
Below are some highlights from CPABC’s conversation with Garth.
Since the pandemic, managers have a lot more on their plates. What would you say is the top challenge for managers in our hybrid work environment?
In working with managers and CPA firms across Canada and the US, I’ve seen that the move into the hybrid workspace has been a challenge. And I think the biggest challenge right now is psychological safety. This is a concept first identified by Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard, and it’s the feeling that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, that staff feel safe in communicating with and asking questions of their managers, and that managers feel comfortable to trust and communicate with staff. Psychological safety has been damaged by the pandemic, and redeveloping it for the hybrid workplace is one of the biggest challenges that managers face today.
So how can managers assess psychological safety in their work environment?
There are observable factors that can tell you if psychological safety needs to be improved. One of the clearest signs is turnover. Turnover can be multi-factorial, but one of the core factors is an employee’s relationship to their manager in the hybrid workspace. If the relationship isn’t strong, many employees don't feel it’s safe to communicate. They don't know when to talk and ask questions.
Another observable factor is how often you are proactively communicated with by your team. For example, how often are they asking you questions? How often are they seeking poll feedback – that is, how often are they coming to you of their own initiative to ask for your opinion or input? That demonstrates psychological safety. It doesn't come for free; managers need to establish it. But when there are radio silence gaps between managers and staff, when there are deliverables that don’t meet expectations despite managers having given what they think are clear instructions – these can indicate a lack of psychological safety in that staff don’t feel safe informing their managers about issues they are experiencing. For managers interested in increasing psychological safety, this article from Forbes is a good place to start.
Another topic that we hear a lot about in today's workplace is the need to demonstrate empathy. So how can managers create an empathetic environment?
We can look to research for this, and a great article is “Google's Quest to Build the Perfect Team”; it was published pre-pandemic, but it’s really applicable to hybrid teams. Google was trying to figure out what ingredients are needed to have teams work efficiently and effectively regardless of turnover or project changes. And what they landed on was a correlation between high psychological safety and high empathy.
Empathy is the sense that you can understand what someone else is going through. It's not as easy to have because we’ve all experienced our own mental and physical stress during the pandemic, as well as the challenges of adapting to the new hybrid environment. Accordingly, there’s a greater desire in staff for empathy – to feel heard and understood and for their managers to understand that they are trying their best.
However, this understanding can be fraught right now. Through my own experience working with managers and staff in the hybrid workspace, I’ve seen there's a divide. Managers feel that staff might be shirking, might not be working as hard in the asynchronous environment, and might not be working when they're supposed to. That's information I get when I ask managers polling questions –they don't feel staff are as effective and as efficient as they were pre-pandemic. But when I ask staff how they feel about their managers, they say they don't know when to communicate with them. They don't know if their managers understand that the hybrid workplace isn’t the same learning environment as it was pre-pandemic, when there was on-the-job training.
So there's a lack of empathy for both sides. But when managers take on an empathetic mindset, this can help address challenges in the hybrid workplace. Managers might be thinking, "Okay, I'm frustrated right now with productivity/efficiency/communication with my staff." But they can approach these feelings with an empathetic mindset. They can take their frustration aside and try to understand what might be happening with staff from their point of view. What are their struggles? What are they going through that managers might not be going through because of their level of seniority, experience, and knowledge?
Managers are also in a situation where the behaviors that they model can affect the mental health of their team and also how their team members find meaning in their work. And this can be positive or negative.
Let's be honest, most of us, including CPAs, have not really discussed our mental health in the workplace before. When I started my career in the late 90s, I don't think I ever knew the term mental health or stress. I just worked hard, got a salary, had stability, and I just accepted certain things.
The pandemic has made all professions, and specifically the CPA profession, think inwardly about what makes us happy and connected to our job, which is one of our most important relationships. We spend most of our days working, after all. We want to feel connected to our jobs and happy at work; this is referred to as meaningfulness of work and it is a research area of organizational psychology. If people feel like they're working with somebody or for an organization that makes them feel like their work matters, their commitment, productivity, and performance improve.
And managers can tap into this. They can support the mental health of their staff by answering and acting on the question, "What is it that will give my staff a connection to their job, to the work, and to me?" Managers can also acknowledge that their relationship with staff affects their mental health. They can ask themselves, "How can I make sure that my relationships with staff are positive so they feel connected to me?" If staff feel that managers are there for them, supporting them, creating a safe environment this can help their relationship.
When staff feel safe, they feel better mentally, they feel more connected, and many other positive things come from that. The research is in, and focusing on psychological safety, empathy, and mental health will help effectively manage teams in the hybrid environment.
Garth Sheriff is the founder of Sheriff Consulting which specializes in designing and delivering professional and leadership skill courses for accounting and finance professionals. Garth has worked as an assurance professional and learning provider for over 20 years. He has prepared and trained CPAs for key changes to the profession, including internal control documentation (SOX), Canadian Auditing Standards (CAS) and Canadian Standards on Review Engagements 2400 (CSRE 2400).