While many leaders are still trying to get their heads around what to do and how to function in our current COVID-19 environment, the way they handle this moment will define how their people and customers think about their organization as we navigate the next several months and beyond. None of us could have anticipated this or what it would do to the economy, our daily lives and the collective human spirit. However, organizations would be short sighted not to think ahead to the implications it will have on our people and workplaces going forward. This is not a time to let the employee experience fall by the wayside. What will it take to rebuild culture, engagement and performance in a post-COVID-19 world?
STEP 1: TRIAGE
Address the current environment and all the discomfort that accompanies it. In order to restore higher levels of productivity, performance and engagement, leaders need to first address the current state of uncertainty, tough calls and understand everyone is in a different place with different needs. As companies transition to the new normal, it’s important to acknowledge that many employees are facing other pressures at home, like homeschooling their children. Alternatively, those who live alone may be feeling isolated and anxious. Leaders need to acknowledge these realities, as well as the lack of control, focus and motivation being felt by their people.
This is a time for emphatic and transparent leadership...even if it hurts. Leaders need to be upfront and candid in moments like this. Not doing so will breed anxiety, rumors and mistrust. If the news is bad and there need to be furloughs and layoffs, it's better for people to hear directly from their leadership what is happening and why, than to get a call from HR telling them the news. If you aren’t sure what is going to happen, let people know that and that you'll continue to provide updates as information becomes available. They will respect your candor.
Double down on communication. As events unfold at record speed, this is no time to assume one email will get the job done. Provide people with a sense of trust, community and clarity even from a distance via updates on a daily (or even twice daily) basis, have weekly ‘Ask Me Anything’ meetings with leaders, etc. These connection points provide threads of hope and direction for your people.
Managers should be looking for signs of distress among their people. Managers should have frequent check-ins with their people and an ongoing two-way dialogue to provide employees with the information they need, while allowing them to express and process negative emotions and increase their feelings of control. To facilitate this, HR can provide managers with guidance on how best to address sensitive subjects arising from this situation like alternative work models, impacts to staffing, as well as feelings of anxiety and tension.
STEP 2: REBUILDING
Rebuilding engagement, productivity and culture. Never was there a time the employee experience was more important than right now. Crisis and uncertainty evoke all kinds of primal human needs and this is an opportunity for organizations to make their people feel safe and that they matter. Doing so will set them apart from all the others whose people are getting lost in the shuffle.
Creating a sense of connection, belonging, and psychological safety is always important (as countless studies by Google and Amy Edmondson have shown), but right now, in our new uncertain and highly virtual world it should be first and foremost. Empathy is a crucial tool here, offering a way to connect, promote inclusiveness, and create a sense of community in a void of physical interaction. Increasing social interactions within the team, particularly through one-on-one catch ups and broader team connection points, guard against feelings of isolation and demoralization, while creating space for people to speak up and share their thoughts. By creating a sense of psychological safety for their colleagues and offering perspective in challenging moments, managers can keep a pulse on what is going on, surface issues, and help their teams solve problems effectively. Creating channels for sharing best practices, success stories, challenges, and water-cooler chat is vital to creating a human connection. Finally, you will need to be intentional about rebuilding trust with those who were furloughed or let go. After you’ve just shown them they are expendable, don’t assume they will be grateful just to have their jobs back and will jump back into high performance mode. You’ll need to rebuild their trust and commitment through artfully conveying why you had to do what you did and how things will be different this time.
Use objectives to create clarity and build purpose. A major driver of performance, motivation and feeling a sense of purpose in one's work is seeing the impact his/her day-to-day tasks have on the broader business, their team, their customers and/or community. One of the most important roles of a manager or leader is to connect those dots for their people so that they can see their contribution to the bigger picture. Establishing clear objectives that tie to the broader business goals will increase employees’ focus and confidence in the importance of their job even in a challenging business environment.
Focus on development. For organizations facing a slow down in business, individuals should take advantage of the organization's learning offerings and managers can take this opportunity to provide development opportunities to employees who normally do not have capacity. This is an especially critical time to develop new/inexperienced managers so that they are equipped to lead in this new environment. This reinforces the organization’s commitment to the long-term success of the employee and will build loyalty and reciprocity in your people.
Drive engagement and innovation via inclusivity. Times like this not only welcome, but require reinvention and disruption. Engage your people in finding ways to work through the current constraints. Treat your people like owners and push information down as low in the organization as possible (as Netflix does) and they will act like owners, taking responsibility and co-creating solutions to your most difficult problems.
Over index on listening to your people. Feedback mechanisms are always key to improving the employee experience, but providing outlets for them to share what they are thinking and feeling right now is paramount. This enables them to feel heard while allowing you to prioritize what needs to be done to improve the experience and performance.
STEP 3: TRANSFORMING
Now is the time to experiment and pilot new business models and ways of working. This forced experiment has shown us the necessity of making the option of remote working the norm. Although this crisis pushed most companies off the cliff because they weren't proactively moving towards a more agile model, we were long overdue. Technology has changed the way work gets done today and with the increasing bleeding of work into life, remote work allows us to integrate the two instead of being suffocated by the former. This is a wake up call for organizations to explore the benefits, effectiveness and necessity of remote work. As someone who has participated in remote roles for almost a decade, I’ve seen firsthand that with the right infrastructure, culture and trust in place, it is a game changer for the employee and the organization, with advantages that outweigh any initial clunkiness.
This is a time to revisit and define a new standard for your vision, values, culture and behaviors. your business model can’t change unless your culture changes with it and remote work offers the opportunity to actually build a stronger culture because you have to be deliberate about it instead of it being an afterthought based on the lowest common denominator. Take the time to reassess and realign your culture to your aspirational organization and don’t forget to bring the abstract down to concrete behaviors and embed the new culture in every aspect of your organization.
Reinvent the employee experience. Take a look at your entire employee life-cycle, from before the candidate has even heard of your organization, to the Moments That Matter and everything in between, and get honest about what isn’t working. By the way, you shouldn’t do this in a vacuum. Involve employees at every level in this process. Do you have disparate platforms, systems and technology that don't speak to each other? How much clutter or extra work does it take to get work done in your organization? Are your offices unconducive to the type of work your specific people do (Open Plans anyone)? Do you need to implement more thoughtful processes, technology, norms and trust to allow for successful remote work? Do your leaders walk the talk? How transparent and inclusive is your culture? How seamless and impactful is your on-boarding process? How do you develop your people? Is it obvious to them how they get from one role in the organization to another and what training or experiences they need prior to? Have your managers been prepared...and more importantly opted-in to lead others or did they get promoted just because they were a great individual contributor? How do you collect and implement the employee voice? Do people see the direct connection between the day-to-day work and the impact it has on the broader whole? Do they know the reason (the ‘why’) the organization exists? How personalized is every Moment That Matters in the employee journey? How comprehensive are your people analytics strategies and practices?
As you work through these steps, I’d love to hear what’s working and what isn’t. Feel free to DM me with questions.