It is interesting to note that according to the 2019 World Economic Forum Executive Opinion Survey, less than 10 percent of business leaders from the G20 and OECD (37 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries considered the spread of infectious diseases as a global risk. Yet today, in 2020, organizations are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic that has swiftly brought about unprecedented changes in the work environment. What began as a threat at an individual level has burgeoned into severe stress on the healthcare sector and has set alarm bells ringing across several businesses and economies at large.
Over the last few weeks, the impact has been tectonic with a large part of the workforce across sectors working remotely, and businesses being tested to their limits. The key challenge for enterprises has been to develop a course of action that strikes a balance between maintaining operational health in the short term and ensuring well-being of the organization and its employees in the long term. As both emotional and financial pressures rise within the workforce, it has become imperative for talent managers to focus on boosting employee morale and productivity during these tough times. After all, a positive work environment makes an employee feel safe and recognized for their work contributions, thereby empowering them to be more productive.
Challenges of the remote working model
In the wake of the ongoing situation, employees across the organizational hierarchy have been compelled to transition into working remotely. While the work at home (WAH) model has been in practice for years as an occasional flexibility provided by employers, the situation today is not quite the same as before. This is because working remotely for a sustained time period has brought along unanticipated challenges. Take for instance the case of employees who are working parents. One of their biggest struggles has been to create a ‘dedicated’ work environment that is free of interruptions, along with the challenge of making kids sit through online classes.
Further, most people’s roles and responsibilities have now expanded to include chores and tasks related to keeping the wheels in motion within the household. As a result, many employees, especially working parents, are experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety and emotional stress. From balancing housework and office work to taking care of kids and the elderly, the mental load has exponentially grown for them during these times.
Depending upon the geographical location and personal circumstances, some of the other challenges in working at home include creating a ‘home office’ zone within the constraints of space, coping with an unstable internet connection, and also dealing with occasional power outages. Then there is another area of concern, which must be addressed on priority: to ensure complete data security.
Each of the factors mentioned above have the potential to bring work to a grinding halt and sever the cord of connectivity altogether.
How to maintain high employee productivity and positivity?
In times of physical distancing, communication is the glue that binds a geographically dispersed workforce. Staying socially connected is crucial not just from a business standpoint, but also from the point of view of ensuring the mental well-being of employees. Isolation has been known to adversely impact motivation and productivity.
The need for social distancing is leading to new ways of employee engagement, supported by the widespread adoption of digital platforms. Several organizations are identifying or creating channels for employees to share tips, pictures and videos of their time spent during the lockdown. This not just serves as an emotional release for employees, but also provides an opportunity for catalyzing interactions. For instance, At Optum we offer well-structured employee assistance programs, covering the key aspects of physical and mental well-being. The virtual sessions focus on themes such as mental health, meditation, healthy eating and nutrition, parenting, family and relationships and engaging kids while working from home. In addition, the programs feature capsules on tax and financial planning, tips for investing right and so on to plan finances in these unprecedented times.
In the absence of face-to-face communication, there is a need for managers to clearly communicate goals and expectations to their team members. In this regard, one-on-one video interactions with managers can provide an opportunity for employees to express ideas and discuss unique operational issues. Here, it is also essential for managers to decide whether they wish to focus on employees putting in the required number of hours per day or adopt the results only work environment (ROWE) strategy. The latter allows employees the freedom to choose where, when and how to complete their work, as long as their daily targets are achieved.
Backed by strong support from managers and leaders, the remote working model can empower employees to productively invest the time otherwise spent in shuttling to and fro from office.
Employees can enjoy the flexibility of achieving the day’s deliverables while taking care of the elderly and also completing daily house chores. This, by itself, is a hugely motivating factor for people working at home. The difference can already be seen across organizations – several e-meetings and huddles have become more creative, and employee-to-employee relationships have become more personal with people introducing their parents and kids on video calls. As a result, an overall improvement in team bonding is being experienced and there is a drastic reduction in employee absenteeism.
In facilitating the WAH model amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of industry bodies has been especially critical. Going forward, organizations will also need to keep themselves abreast of changes in government policies and regulations regarding employment during global crisis situations and adhere to the new guidelines, policies and legislations in order to stay compliant.
The future of work is here and now
Going by the current situation, the future will see the creation of a flexible, yet engaged workforce. As organizations navigate the choppy waters of the ‘new normal’, they will need to keep up their efforts towards safeguarding the physical as well as mental well-being of their employees, providing them an all-encompassing support and wellbeing ecosystem. Depending on the criticality of the business, employees will be able to switch easily between the work office and home office environment. An optimum mix of working remotely and working in office will enable employees to pick the model that best works for them as well as their employers, thereby helping them to strike a new ‘work-life’ balance.