Make Over Your Management Style in 2021

Pandemic worries, higher unemployment numbers, remote work and Zoom calls, and a sea change switch to online shopping … things definitely look different than they did a year ago. 

“Given the monumental shifts in what ‘business as usual’ looked like last year, it’s very likely that 2020 is a harbinger of 2021 and beyond,” says Doug Holcombe, who works in business development for employee benefits at Marlton, NJ-based Hardenbergh Insurance Group. “Small to medium-sized businesses were forced to change the way they operated. Many had to navigate remote technologies to continue to serve their clients from home.  This included providing employees with laptops, monitors, switching phone systems over to VOIP, and remote servers—all of which can be costly investments.” 

We realize this is a totally new experience for many shops, so we talked to leadership experts to learn how you can respond even better to your team’s needs, while also helping them get excited about hitting your new goals. Here are 10 ways to rethink leadership, employee motivation and team-building in 2021.

1. Lead with empathy and compassion.

As a shop owner, you already wear many hats. However, COVID-19 has touched and changed people’s lives in such profound ways, that many people actively grieve what they’ve lost or missed while they’re working. Now it’s time to lead with even more empathy. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably evaluate your company policies and procedures about sick leave, time off or telecommuting, and evolve them to fit the new normal. You’ll also need to be more attuned to when a team member needs extra words of encouragement or to be referred to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for counseling.

“The best motivation for employees is to consistently show them how much you care about them through your actions. Support, validation, thank-yous and great communication increase employee buy-in and engagement.”  Tyrone Robinson III, Opportunities2Serve

“When employees see their leader being real and honest, it can create a greater sense of commitment and motivation as in, ‘Wow, the boss is dealing with challenges, just like me,’” says Chantelle Fitzgerald, founder and owner of Mindset Strategies. “For executives and managers, this new side of leadership  means talking about how they’ve managed a work/life balance in this pandemic, what has kept them motivated and what values they hold. You can even share pictures of what motivates yourself and talk openly about what the last year has meant for you personally and professionally.”

It’s important to take this more empathetic leadership role seriously, since just a few tone-deaf or dismissive responses or decisions can implode your team. “Nothing should be top-down in your shop,” says Tyrone M. Robinson III, owner of Opportunities 2 Serve, who works with SMBs including print shops. “It should be all inclusive. Everyone counts.”

2. Offer support and validation.

These days our work colleagues often feel like extended family, or at least part of our smaller pandemic-induced communities. “Within the last year, leaders and employees both realized how important support and validation are,” Robinson says. “In the scenario we’re in today, the leaders who’ve learned to adapt and grow know how to support and validate their workforce. That leads to increased employee buy-in and engagement because your team feels heard.”

The way leaders respond to uncertainty or change is another aspect of this leadership. “Leaders who listened to employee concerns and provided alternate work arrangements or accommodations grow trust,” says Robinson, who points out that even if employees wanted to work at home, other concerns and fears arise from that new arrangement. For example, a remote worker may feel less connected to the team, or worry that they’ll lose their job to someone who shows up in person.

“When you understand that change can also cause concern, and you listen diligently, your team bonds to you more,” Robinson says.

3. Make the most of your (virtual) meetings.

Holcombe has noticed that SMB leadership goals have drastically changed in the last year. However, it’s even more challenging because of the remote work atmosphere. “There’s a much greater need to create a sense of unity, shared purpose and motivation, all while speaking to many employees via a webcam,” he says. “As a leader, you can bridge the gap and make them feel valued in a few ways: host weekly video conferencing meetings, send staff lunches or gifts, and provide employees with a safe space to ‘vent.’”

alphabroder|Prime Line marketing team weekly meeting

When you check in with your staff via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex once a week, you can see each other and remain connected at a human level. “As a leader it’s important to acknowledge that these are highly stressful times, so when you give your employees a space to speak, you’re indicating to them that they’re heard,” Holcombe says. “You’re showing that you care and empathize with the hardships the pandemic caused for them.”

4. Cut down on the meetings.

Yes, this is counterintuitive to our previous point, but hear us out. Lots of people are suffering from the very real Zoom fatigue. We spend a lot of our time on these calls: 76% of employees participate in virtual meetings, and say they spend one-third of their workday doing these calls with colleagues and customers, according to a study by global staffing firm Robert Half

Meanwhile, 38% of workers say they’ve experienced video call fatigue since the start of COVID-19; 26% say the novelty and practicality of video calls has worn off; and 24% say they find virtual meetings exhausting and inefficient. In fact, employees say they prefer to communicate in other ways, like via phone, emails, chat or text.

Here are questions to consider as a leader to your employees: How can I be more supportive? What’s going well as an ally to you, and what isn’t going well? What could I be doing better to support your growth and goals? What opportunities are you looking for that I can help in creating a path for success?” Chantelle Fitzgerald, Mindset Strategies

Fitzgerald challenges the leaders she works with to see if it’s possible to have a no-meetings week. If that doesn’t make business sense for your shop, how about one meeting-free day or afternoon a week? “This helps employees take a much-needed break and have more time to balance their other tasks,” she says. “If you want to start small, take that idea to a micro level and have a no-meeting hour across your shop each day. That’s equivalent to a lunch hour.”

If you make this a shop policy, Fitzgerald says, your team will get a “pause” during their day to eat, take a break or have a non-work focus. “They can take walks or even meditate,” Fitzgerald says. “Studies show that when we take breaks, we’re much more motivated.”

Tip: Send your employees short meditations like this “2 Minutes to Arrive” one from Fitzgerald, meant to be used when you’re bouncing from meeting to meeting. This 120-second break helps employees calm down and get geared up for the next meeting. 

5. Simply say thank you.

This is an oldie, but a goodie. When it comes to motivation, employees want to hear their managers say “thank you” more often. This is the top way that workers want to receive your positive feedback, according to a survey conducted by Reward Gateway, an employee engagement platform. The main finding: 75% of employees surveyed agreed that motivation and company morale would improve if managers simply thanked them in real time when they do a great job. 

“I always say the best motivation for employees is to consistently show them how much you care about them through your actions,” Robinson says. “Support, validation and thank-yous via great communication increases your employee buy-in and engagement.” 

6. Focus on diversity and inclusion in your shop.

This year, thankfully, diversity and inclusivity have a bigger seat at the table, especially with consumers being interested in working with companies who are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)  efforts. In 2021, leaders should focus on engaging employees in meaningful ways, to spark cooperation and change.

“Listen more and pass the mic,” Robinson says. “Listening more is obvious, but when I say, ‘pass the mic,’ I mean there’s a natural disposition a leader takes that positions them as the expert or the most knowledgeable about any and everything within the company.” Oftentimes, Robinson says the leaders he works with miss an opportunity for personal and professional relationship growth by not allowing everyone within their organization to show up as themselves authentically and communicate their needs and feelings freely. 

In addition, Fitzgerald says many people who identify as women, LGBTQ, people of color and individuals with disabilities don’t feel like they have a voice in the workplace. “It’s important for managers to check in with employees to see how they’re really doing,” she says. “You need to learn how you can be more of an ally to create a path toward success for all employees. This takes a lot of empathy and compassion on the leader’s part.”

Fitzgerald recommends asking your team questions like: How can I be more supportive? What is going well as an ally to you and what is not going well? What could I be doing better to support your growth and goals? What opportunities are you looking for that I can help in creating a path for success?

“These are highly stressful times, so by providing employees a secure outlet to ‘vent,’ you’re showing them they’re heard—and that you care or empathize with the hardships the pandemic caused for them.” Doug Holcombe, Hardenbergh Insurance Group

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Robinson reminds that what’s best for certain groups is typically best defined and expressed by members of those groups. “It’s important and appropriate to allow for safe spaces and opportunities for employees to voice and share respectfully, frequently and without fear of retribution,” he says.

7. Take a stand.

In the last year, even more consumers and employees expect the companies they support or work for to take a stand on important issues. In a recent Gartner study of more than 30,000 people worldwide, 87% of employees said businesses should take a public position on societal issues relevant to their business. And 60% of employees reported improved engagement among peers after witnessing employer involvement in societal issues.

Tip: Survey your employees to learn what causes and current events are important to them, and see if your values align there. Consider adding a cause to your mission statement and donating part of your proceeds to those efforts, as a start.

8. Offer attractive benefits that focus on employees’ “life experience.”

Employers that support their employees with their “life experiences” see a 23% increase in the number of team members reporting improved mental health and a 17% increase in employees reporting better physical health, according to Gartner’s 2020 Reimagine HR Employee Surve. This translates into a benefit for your shop, especially if you see a 21% increase in the number of high performers compared to companies that don’t provide the same degree of support to their employees.

An effective way to continue to attract top talent, and retain key employees, Holcombe says, is to offer a benefits portfolio that’s more attractive than your competitors’. “During a normal year, employees want a comprehensive benefits package,” he says. “However, in a pandemic year, they have a heightened sense of a need for even greater security.”

“Next to the people in your business, systems and technology are the most important. Proper investment into systems and technology are crucial for you to be competitive in today’s business landscape.”
Tyrone Robinson III, Opportunities2Serve

 “Security” can manifest itself in the form of a strong health insurance plan offering, life insurance and disability, all while minimizing the employee’s share of the benefit’s costs. One particular benefit that has strong relevance during a pandemic is an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP is typically offered and administered by ancillary carriers, such as Principal Financial Group or MetLife. 

“The idea is to provide your employees with resources that will support their mental health, provide coping strategies for at-home issues, and address specific needs like substance abuse,” Holcombe says. “The cost to the shop is typically minimal, and the morale boost and perception enhancement it provides to an employee is typically well worth the investment.”

9. Try the buddy system.

Fitzgerald recommends peer coaching and accountability buddies to her business owner clients. “Having a team paired up and so you have a ‘buddy’ to go through this strange and unsettling time with can actually help create a deeper commitment to your work and projects,” she says. “Employees may also develop a deeper sense of psychological safety, which is paramount to building a great team. Plus, it creates a deeper relationship to each other and builds a deeper empathy and compassion for your co-workers.”

“At alphabroder|Prime Line, we’re offering a Mentorship Partnership Program that partners mentors and mentees throughout the company’s U.S. locations, after enjoying success in Canada,” says Maria Ellis, Director of Human Resources at alphabroder|Prime Line. The goal: Mentors will share their expertise and knowledge with mentees who want to develop their careers and gain more industry expertise. This is an idea that you could replicate on a small scale in your shop.

10. Try team building, virtual-reality style.

As we’ve mentioned Zoom fatigue is real, and people are ready to leave their social isolation behind. While this may not be on every company’s radar, Robinson has explored team building in virtual environments using VR sets like the Oculus Quest 2. 

“There are a number of games and activities ranging from arcade, to painting and mindfulness training,” Robinson says. “It’s a new and exciting way to meet people, pass time and share experiences with others. In the future of the workplace, virtual reality activities will be commonplace.”

What You Can Do Today

A good place to start is to look at what’s happening in your shop right now. “When I start working with business owners, my job is to help them create an environment of continuous improvement,” Robinson says. “Once we establish the proper procedures and processes and understand the company’s culture, we begin building a series of wins and contingencies between management and employees to increase buy-in and engagement from both sides.”

From there, Robinson says, it’s key to build in a number of opportunities that allow employees to go through a biweekly, monthly or quarterly process where they can communicate and share any issues or concerns they may have freely without fear of response with an expectation of action.

That way, your shop will stay on the cutting edge of what your employees need from you right now. Plus, they’ll be more willing to share what they need in the future, so you stay competitive and your team stays happy.


If you’re a decorator, it’s a smart idea to have an arsenal of imprinting options, to appeal to more buyers. For example, for a short run or a single shirt, Tanya Doyscher at The Visual Identity Vault, steers toward heat-transfer vinyl, direct-to-film (DTF) transfers or sublimated glitter (if appropriate for the job). “For larger jobs, if the design is too many colors for us to screen in-house, we work with a transfer vendor or someone with a DTG printer or the Digital Squeegee Hybrid Printer to help us out,” she says.

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