The new year, 2021 offers unique career opportunities to renew, restore, and recreate the future of work. Rather than dwell on the wreckage of last year, high potential workers and leaders look forward to being principals in tomorrow’s work design and execution in our new year 2021 and beyond.
Top-level officers in Human Resources, Talent Management, and Training & Development from well-branded corporations gathered recently for robust thinking and collaboration. Instead of trembling before what comes next, members of Best Practice Institute pegged 2021 benchmark for new metrics. At the beginning of 2021, it no longer makes sense to prepare for “the next big thing.” They approach everything on deck now as outcomes from which they can learn about this going forward.
So far …
If we have spent the months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic dealing and coping with its effects, we have learned enough about managing the response. These months have been like one lasting natural catastrophe. Leaders have been dodging bullets, covering butts, baling waters, and fending off increasingly powerful waves.
It is time to lean into this assault, manage goals and outcomes, frame objectives and key results, and implement rolling milestones. It is an opportunity to self-reflect, self-identify, and recreate a future of work that does not trail the debris of 2020 behind. Grabbing this opportunity is not without risk; we lack the in-depth and longitudinal research to ground decisions. Nonetheless, this affords the chance to think big. It is the chance to think and move beyond “recovery” and “repair.”
One show of hands found 55% of major employers going fully remote and almost 25% going hybrid. They were asked − based on what they have learned –
- to discuss what management these future workers want and need,
- to identify the activities with the most impact on the productivity of people working from home, and
- to name the behaviors employers should increase or decrease, start or stop in managing the COVID-impacted workforce.
Connectivity, Communication, and Collaboration Technology…
Remote workers have embraced the use of platforms like Zoom, Skype, and others arriving on the scene. Over the months, they have become more adept at using these innovations. However, they also present problems.
Where these platforms should optimize connectivity, they are failing in many ways, perhaps because they have been misused and mismanaged. Many workers and managers are required to use platforms without training in those systems. Thrown together with multiple members online without direction, they feel overloaded and overwhelmed. Participants talk of meetings lasting over eight hours without breaks.
Workers complain of incoherent, lengthy, and disorganized online meetings because managers do not engage and facilitate the sessions. This discomfort increases the demand for focused training on how to use meeting mechanisms effectively and productively. This demand means recruiting talent with these capabilities, and onboarding hires with more intensive training in optimizing offsite technology. Managers and workers must be more than comfortable with the potential.
Nonetheless, while technology allows connectivity, it does so only in a limited way. It enables seeing, talking, and meeting with others; however, digital connectivity does not empower emotional engagement on its own. While gig workers and independent contractors understand their relationship with the organization, workers at home miss the socialization they enjoyed in the workplace. They miss the watercooler and coffee break room. Some employers are stepping up to offer group activities, birthday and anniversary acknowledgments, themed meetings, trivia games, online newsletters, senior management videos, non-alcoholic happy hours, and other icebreakers. Participant managers have found value in smiling, listening actively, and reiterating participants’ names. They might ask personal but nonintrusive questions like asking after a child’s schooling or the member’s bowling score.
It is crucial to survey the participants on the meeting’s conduct and outcome. Leaders should consider and integrate the participants’ preferences periodically. Soliciting and incorporating their feedback gives them ownership and affords them respect. If invited to collaborate on the future of their work, their work and productivity should evolve and increase.
Nothing is in the way of empowering emotional connectedness at a distance. Even virtual contacts can sustain the emotional connectedness necessary to the Killer Achievement analyzed in In Great Company (Carter, 2019):
|Align strategy with structure.||Balance focus and flexibility.Communicate goals clearly.Set people free to achieve.Channel feedback for achievement.|
|Set people up to succeed.||Train continuously.Make learning inclusive.|
|Play to win.||Think big.|
Be best or bust.Have a way to win.
|Foster resilience.||Focus on strengths.|
Fail forward.Manage burnout.
Employees Health & Wellness …
Employers report an increase in employee discomfort. Some of this arises from their removal from the workplace. However, much of it also combines their anxiety and depression presented by the pandemic and social/political/financial stressors. Many employees working from home find it difficult to pay the bills in the face of a spouse’s job loss, work online while homeschooling children, and live life meaningfully while quarantined. And studies report increases in reported depression, alcohol use, and domestic abuse.
- The CDC reported significant increases in incidents of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide ideation across all age, gender, and racial/ethnic groups. (Czeisler, Lane, Petrovsky, & et al., 2020).
- Later, JAMA cited research findings, “depression symptom prevalence was more than 3-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Lower-income, having less than $5,000 in savings and having exposure to more stressors were associated with greater risk of depression symptoms during COVID-19” (Ettman, Abdalla, & Cohen, 2020).
- Johns Hopkins acknowledges the data suggesting a decline in IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) during the pandemic lockdown. However, the fear of reporting may explain the decline because the data also increased in spousal murder-suicide incidents (Campbell, 2020).
Employers are increasing their breadth and accessibility of their EPAs (Employee Assistance Program). Employers have offered EPAs in the past, but they have done so passively, allowing them to use the program on their own initiative. Employers are now pushing the EPAs forward, regularly reminding employees how to use them, and offering signs and symptoms that promote their use. Management is promoting EPA services as preventive rather than responsive.
Managers should bring employee assistance forward in such meetings, establishing employee assistance as value aligned with overarching goals. EAPs should be framed and promoted as collaborative support, not only available to but hopefully used by all. Of course, it may also require executive leaders to assess the depth and breadth of their current EAP. This may also be an opportunity for vendors to imagine new employee benefits and innovations in employee wellbeing.
Companies have learned that employees are their own ecosystems; they are the embodiment of a System of Systems − part of social, financial, political, and other dynamic systems. It also means each employee has their emotional baseline, a center that managers must respect and address in ways that make up for the lack of in-person contact. They should use one-on-one meetings − on the phone or online − to initiate and develop this emotional connectivity. And, where regulation, wisdom, and sensible precautions permit, they may hold small in-person meetings.
Such direct contacts allow managers to address specific performance goals and key performance indicators. They enable training and development. However, they importantly recognize and reward the individual worker’s personhood.
Organizational Culture …
The continuing pandemic puts productive organizational cultures at risk. With teams split up and projects deployed, it can be challenging to sustain teamwork and full collaboration. With workers sent home, there is no floor for managers to walk around. With teammates working at a distance, others lose the connectivity in voice and body language. With both sides of a zoom meeting struggling with meeting technology, participants grow frustrated, burn out, and report absent.
Leading organizations have wrestled with culture issues: how to sustain their culture and/or how to reshape their culture in recognition of new realities. Organizations − hoping to design and model their culture from the top down − must understand employees develop and continue much of the culture around the water cooler, the loading dock, and the lunchroom. Culture is defined and developed wherever workers gather. With workers sent home, leadership has little opportunity to observe and monitor its culture.
- The leaders’ first option is to message the organization’s values forcefully. They must continue to demonstrate transparency and show how leadership continues its accountability to core values. They must now share their work for this purpose in multi-layered print, voice, and video communication. The managers monitoring remote work and conducting meetings must continue referencing those values, repeat the vocabulary surrounding the values, and repeatedly draw attention to how the individual productivity or teamwork connects with those goals.
- At the same time, leaders must accept and integrate the feedback they have from individual contacts or periodic surveys. Leaders need assurance the workers see the benefit in the organization’s values, but they also need to pick up on tensions, discomfort, and disappointment in those values. Some organizations must lean into these conversations, preparing to reshape their thinking, strategies, and tactics, knowing that means changing the culture too.
It is not hard to identify and measure issues in the years before the appearance of COVID-19 in late 2019. Things are harder to grasp after that. Thinking of 2020 as a COVID-19 era assumes there is an end in sight. If Big Pharma distributes its vaccines as soon as promised, there may be a post-COVID world. However, both active and passive reasons undercut this optimism.
If organizations return to “normal,” they ignore the internal and external damage already done. If organizations value what they have learned and carry it forward, they treat the traumas of 2020 as a blip in their timeline. Forward leaning organizations will seize the disruption as a call to reinvent themselves.
Now, there is no template for this reinvention. It requires an understanding that inevitable globalism will facilitate this virus’s mutations and social/economic/justice transmutations with increasing power to overcome organizational defenses. History demands much more than traditional Response and Recovery Plans. Leaders must accept that certain activities and behaviors matter only in given contexts. Successful and sustainable organizations must inform structures, value systems, goals, cultures, and mindsets with agile and resilient.
Everyone concedes it is difficult to turn the organizational culture around. However, that difficulty tests leadership in those who feel the pressure to reshape or redirect the culture. The events of 2020 are defining the playing field where this can happen, an optimistic occasion freed of legacy constraints.
Leadership & Management Context …
People in leadership positions and/or in coaching roles should start with a grasp of context. Each organization operates in its context defined by scores of variables: size, location, economy sector, and many more. No two exist in the same context.
The diversity of contexts suggests two concerns:
- Anything any single organization has learned from their 2020 experience is not prototypical.
- Any action that has succeeded is relative to its climate, context, and current environment.
The year and its events are too much to predict an end date or clear way forward. This requires thinking future forward to a date and behavior that deals with its evolving context instead of parsing pre- and post-COVID metrics.
For example, working remotely can engage participants in work more agilely. Members can act and cut through red tape faster and more keenly. People report feeling more comfortable in stepping up challenges and embracing opportunities they might not otherwise have tackled. Engaged workers enjoy the perceived independence of being on their own.
Still, any environment creates at least three levels of relationship between an organization and a remote worker:
- Technology level: People find some meeting platforms easier to navigate than others. Some platforms are more intuitive than others. However, from onboarding forward, managers must identify individual employees’ technology issues. They may require continuing training. But they may also need help with their hardware; they may not have sufficient bandwidth or heavy use, and multiple users may overwhelm the VPN. Organizations must invest in technology that helps people succeed.
- Contact level: Employees benefit from regular and consistent contact. They need the organization’s daily news to continue their connection with the whole. Individuals want the contact that directs their work and reports its progress and contribution to its goals. Moreover, they want to reach their coworkers, teammates, and cross-functional partners to expedite their productivity.
- Connectivity level: Distant workers miss the social connectedness felt in the workplace. Employers can continue customs like birthday celebrations, anniversary acknowledgments, and holiday cheer. However, the necessary emotional connectedness requires more effort. It requires consistent and constant shows of empathy for the individual and team needs. This empathy begins with listening. For example, virtual conference meetings too often allow people to talk over each other, interrupt others, and/or shut down conversations. Meeting facilitators and administrators must model and empower participants with the deep and active listening necessary to the dialogue that sustains engagement.
Training and onboarding, then, take on a new urgency. Managers may have stepped up to train at-home workers and new employees to use the technology in place. However, they also must teach them to optimize their use. Distant workers must understand why their work is vital to the organization and its relation to customer experience. But they must also feel the emotional connectedness that begins with the dialogue and diversity necessary for productive collaboration.