Article: Employee experience – the evolving dynamic

Employee Relations

Employee experience – the evolving dynamic

The willingness to go above and beyond, being emotionally invested in the success of the organization, and feeling of belongingness are hallmarks of an organization with highly engaged employees; If their actions can be verbalised, we would hear them say “We are safe & connected”.
Employee experience – the evolving dynamic

“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute” – Simon Sinek

Emotional investment does not happen overnight, it builds over a period of time, when people have experiences which evoke powerful emotions that ‘bind’ them to the organization. Typically, these experiences have been defined as moments that matter in the employee lifecycle, and have the most impact. Most organizations identify these moments, from onboarding, to performance reviews, career development, life stages, exit, etc and have well thought through processes around these. 

Having said this, over the past year of the pandemic, there is a lot which has changed, especially in the mindsets of employees. Some of these changes are so subtle, they may not even be acknowledged or visible yet. These changes are happening across the dimensions of an individual, a team or an organisation. 

For Individuals

YOLO (You only live once!)  is taking over the mindset of many. In a short span of the past few months, there have been stories of those leaving corporate jobs to pursue farming, one of my team members wants to relocate to Thailand with family, a colleague switched jobs for international opportunities, and another one started their own entrepreneurial venture after over a decade of corporate experience. The mindset is changing from saving up to live the life you want, to living your life now without waiting or worrying. Arguably, as things shift/evolve to a ‘new normal’ some people who made these drastic changes are likely to return, some will be retained by flexibility/benefits that their organizations will create, some are likely to forge  ahead on the chosen path. 

I have come across a few perspectives or often discussed opinions from peoples’ pandemic experiences that, in my view are shaping this shift in mindset and approach to life and career - 

  • Work and life – people took up many different hobbies, learnt something new, and an average 14-16 hours (a day)  worker discovered there is more to life than work. Closer home for me, after years of nudging and prodding, my husband took up bonsai as a hobby, and it’s a joy to see him absorb himself in something other than work. 
  • Work from anywhere - Many people even shifted out of big cities and realized the value of ‘non-city’ life. Some worked from different travel locations, experiencing destinations which they could never have without remote working. From the looks of it on social media, the hills and Goa seemed to compete for attention. 
  • Working habits – shifted to being in your own space/room vis-a-vis the ‘open’ office set up prevalent in most organizations. Some juggled with chores to keep things running at home too, right from helping children start their virtual schools, to taking care of sick family members. 

For Teams

The pandemic forced people to work virtually with their colleagues, isolated in their homes. To begin with, it was those who worked in person, transitioning to virtual working. As the pandemic progressed, there were new additions to the teams over a period of time, those who never met their teams or managers in person. Most teams and organizations were quick to adapt technology, collaboration tools to facilitate the transition, and it’s safe to say that performance of teams did not suffer in the short run. Research suggests that trust has the strongest influence on performance, which in turn is influenced by cohesion, ability of virtual team members to get along with each other. 

  • Connecting with others - While early on in the pandemic, people made conscious time to have tea with co-workers or set time to connect, as things progressed, there was little or no time between household chores, managing family expectations, and spending time with co-workers. In the best case, people managed to stay connected with 1-2 of their closest friends at work. Worst case, with none socially at work. Famously, Gallup discovered that “having a best friend at work” was the most predictive of employee retention. Long term impact of this shift in socializing, and how it impacts cohesion, therefore trust at the workplace is yet to be seen.
  • Integrating the New Hires – Many virtual engagements, buddy programs and training modules helped people settle in and start performing. Could someone build ‘friendships’ at work while virtually connecting – some did soon enough, while some others took their time in new virtual environments. I started a new role just before the pandemic began and found myself working remotely within three months; the support of my team, co-workers and mentors were my biggest enablers during the transition. 

For Organizations

Organizations went through different phases during the pandemic, starting from enabling teams to work productively at the start, to helping people cope with burnout, emotional & mental health challenges which came from being isolated at homes for long a duration, to assisting people & their families during COVID wave/breakouts, and now planning for the best way to return to office. As Lazlo Bock says, the result of everything which happened during the year is a ‘fatigued and fragile workforce’. As we get to the next stage, it is important for organizations to address these vulnerabilities, and plan for return. 

Huge changes in the way work got done, remotely: Most organizations experienced a diverse and distributed workforce at this scale for the first time, working together to deliver. Remote working gained a new level of acceptance, and at some level also helped build a mindset of trusting employees, shifting the focus from ‘presence’ in office to results and impact. 

Changing expectations on employer’s role in wellbeing: Employees want to know if the organisation would support them. Expectations around health & well being from employers have amplified in the past year, and we have seen most organizations deliver strongly on this front - from sponsoring vaccinations, to announcements of family support/care benefits, and many others, corporate India has definitely stepped up.

Agility in delivering experiences where & when it matters: Experiences in the moment of need took precedence over well-designed experiences around key milestones designed to delight. E.g. as an employee, knowing I have support if my family member or I am sick, took precedence over a very well-designed onboarding experience. The past year introduced another dimension to employee experience, which is experiences ‘in the moment’ and how to deliver these at scale.  It also reflects in what people appreciate - I feel very grateful when I see emails from employees on how a benefit, or someone from the team helped them during a crisis situation where they needed urgent support. 

With these shifting dynamics, what does it mean for organizations, and how to prepare for what the future might hold?

Listening & adapting – The next normal is still evolving, and it is an opportunity to shape the future. As things take shape, and we settle into new ways of working, it is important to continue to listen. 

What makes it more challenging is the diversity of the workforce, with unique needs and preferences. There are some who miss the productivity they can achieve with the infrastructure in the office, those in roles involving higher degree of people interface such as sales, and those where their work is best done when they have space to focus deeply. There are also those who have enjoyed spending time with their family, and consider remote working has helped bring their families closer. 

Many organizations are trying out newer models of working - whether hybrid or some deciding to go completely remote, and offering flexible options. It will be important to keep listening, and iterate these options to the point when they can be efficient, effective and largely meet the needs of a diverse workforce. One size fits all approach might not work for everyone. It also helps to set the tone with the workforce by stating upfront that we will try this approach for 3 months, and adjust as we need, so people are prepared for change and embrace it with the spirit of learning and experimenting.

Another aspect to remember is that there are many other ways to look at flexibility outside of hybrid working too, e.g. recharge leaves from time to time, a day off every month, travel leaves, family care leaves, or maybe even unlimited options to take leaves - getting creative with flexibility and benefits is a good idea in these times. 

Culture Building, Rebuilding & nurturing – working norms are being re-established, and will  evolve further  - Most of it will happen organically, but organizations can help accelerate and support.

Working with a diverse and distributed workforce, in newer models such as hybrid work, necessitates organizations continue to build a strong purpose which unifies their workforce. Mechanisms such as leadership principles or values, which are over communicated, and codified through processes such as hiring, learning, performance reviews & rewards is the need of the hour. Active conversations, sharing the stories where people demonstrated values, recognition, and especially articulation of culture are important to bring this into the conscious awareness of people, especially those who are new to the organization.

If you don’t manage the culture, it will still exist, manage you and your business. The choice to carefully craft or live with an ‘accidental’ culture, is in the organization’s hands and a critical leadership choice.

Consciously created and curated platforms to connect - whether in person or virtual, to foster a sense of community will gain even more relevance to help people find the new normal, and get back in some sort of balance after the shifts experienced working remotely.

Managers can play a critical role by enabling connections within smaller groups, through conversations, games, or some activities to build cohesion between teams.

Role of leadership - Through the shifts, transitions and journey to shaping the new normal, the basics of people centricity and empathy remain the same, and it is important to have this as an anchor for the entire leadership team and every people manager.

Experiences cannot be created by HR alone, the day-to-day decisions being taken across the organization by leaders and how people experience them have a powerful impact.

These decisions shape the culture, and how people experience it every day.  Leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin, and leaders play a very strong and important role in shaping and nurturing the culture. Any amount of posters, messages, artefacts won’t suffice if actions are not in line with what is being said. Transparency, clear and frequent communication, listening, and connecting can help foster trust with teams. 

As an organization, you can enable leaders by providing a clear lens for arriving at decisions in the organization and help create day to day experiences for people which are consistent. While policies are expected to provide this consistency, the changing and dynamic times sometimes necessitate judgement and decisions in the moment, and clear, aligned principles help facilitate and enable leaders across the organization in making the right decisions.

The next normal will emerge after a series of new normals, as the situation evolves around us. This is the most accelerated transformation that any of us have ever experienced, an opportunity to shape the future. It is exciting, but can be unsettling too. Organizations and leaders can play a significant role in acknowledging the emotional uncertainty which comes with these changes and transitions for everyone. Understanding what people need around us based on what they are going through, helping them in these times can be the most impactful experience we can create for everyone. 

As Tom Peters says “Understand the power of our smallest actions: Amidst uncertainty, when people are grasping at straws in an effort to understand the topsy turvy world about them, their symbolic significance is monumental”

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Topics: Employee Relations, #EmployeeExperience, #GuestArticle

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