Article: 'In preparation for the new normal, let's re-evaluate how we do work'

Employee Relations

'In preparation for the new normal, let's re-evaluate how we do work'

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to present challenges to business around the world, we need to prepare for the new normal that will follow. Gallup scientist Jim Harter shares some insights into where to begin.
'In preparation for the new normal, let's re-evaluate how we do work'

Jim Harter, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Well-Being at Gallup. He is co-author of the No. 1 Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, It's the Manager, based on Gallup’s largest global study on the future of work. Jim's work has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and TIME magazine. Gallup has offices in India, Singapore, and Thailand.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

Business leaders around the globe are dealing with the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 outbreak has brought to companies, economies, and societies. What qualities do business leaders need to address in this situation going forward?

Gallup meta-analytics have found four universal needs followers have of leaders:

  • Trust—be predictable in an unpredictable time. It is hard to trust an erratic or visibly anxious leader.
  • Compassion—say out loud that you care, and back it up with policy and what you expect of your managers. How you treat people now will be remembered after the pandemic is over.
  • Stability—clearly define and communicate your process for making decisions. Get people what they need to do their work in a changed work situation.
  • Hope—Hopeful workers are more resilient, innovative and agile—and better able to plan ahead and navigate obstacles.

Tell people what you want to achieve this week, this month, this quarter, and how these goals can be reached.

These four needs are especially acute during crises. When leaders address and meet them, people get the signal that their life will be ok and that they can be engaged in the future—and be a part of the solution.

From a business perspective, we have seen an increasing number of job losses across the globe. How will this play out once the crisis comes to an end?

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, organizations were increasingly focused on improving their employment brand through the experience they design for employees throughout their lifecycle in the organization—with the goal of attracting star employees who were more difficult than ever to find. Even though the massive and rapid increase in unemployment from the crisis has temporarily flipped that script, how organizations treat employees today will have a big effect on whether employees want to join them in the future—when attracting stars is again more difficult and the job market becomes more competitive again, especially with the return of furloughed and laid-off workers.

One of the top challenges that business leaders face would be getting their people to follow them through the crisis and out of it. What can leaders do to maintain the confidence of their people?

Leaders need actions that meet the four needs of followers—trust, compassion, stability and hope—referenced above. Gallup research has identified some very practical and actionable organizational practices to do this. Employees need to strongly agree that the following practices are happening:

  • My organization has a clear plan of action in response to the coronavirus
  • I feel well-prepared to do my work
  • My immediate supervisor keeps me informed about what is going on in the organization
  • My organization cares about my overall well-being 

In addition, employers play a major role in setting the expected social distancing norms, either explicitly in terms of how work gets done, or reinforcing what has proven to work in flattening the curve so that everyone can get back to “normal” life or a “new normal.”

Employee health and safety must continue to be the foremost consideration of any business even when the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside. How can leaders ensure well-being going forward?

It’s very important to both consider the current state of employee well-being and to manage what employers and employees can control. Stress and worry have risen higher in a shorter time period than Gallup has recorded in its history of tracking well-being. Compared to 2019, reports of daily worry have increased from 37 percent to 60 percent of the full-time working population. Daily stress has increased from 48 percent to 65 percent.

There is almost certainly a compounding effect of multiple negatives at once that is causing these spikes in stress and worry. So, the question is: How can employers best reduce the stress and worry? Employers can have a direct influence on the practices listed above—a clear plan for dealing with the crisis, preparation to do work, supervisors who keep people informed. In fact, doing these things well can improve employee well-being.

Employers also show they care about what Gallup has discovered are the five elements of well-being: career, social, financial, physical, and community well-being . Employers can influence these elements through multiple channels—policies, physical space, incentives, recognition, virtual events, and development. The key conduit to communicating and individualizing these to each person’s situation is the manager.

Many organizations are seeing opportunities emerging in addition to challenges, whether it be in addressing new client needs or opportunities to improve your organization’s effectiveness. What opportunities are you seeing?

Organizations are learning to re-examine methods of doing work and practices—what is necessary and what isn’t. For example, many organizations have assumed that having most people in the office is the only way to get work done—and to avoid an “out of sight, out of mind” employee mentality toward work. 

I think assumptions about remote work will undergo a drastic re-evaluation. Organizations will discover that some people can get more done in a work-from-home environment—or that the difference in quality or productivity is minimal. Many organizations may notice star performers they hadn’t seen before. I’ve heard people say that video meetings bring a certain democratization to the workplace. People meet coworkers and their families in different ways too. Crises can introduce newfound budgetary discipline, too, whether it involves reconsideration of travel expenditures or other past default spending.

I also think organizations are seeing, in a different light, the value of great managers—the role of managing was already complex, but in a remote setting it becomes even more so. Employees may need many more intentional quick connects, check-ins, and developmental conversations with their managers. Also, managers need to help each person to blend their work and personal life into a formula that gets work done while not deteriorating from thriving well-being.

What are your thoughts on how the world will be different after COVID-19, and how are you moving to address that new world?

One of the most often asked questions of our team is “how should organizations go about preparing for and prioritizing the transition to a new normal?” Organizations are already considering who and how they bring some people back to the physical work environment and in what order. This requires considering many factors simultaneously:

  1. Which job responsibilities align best with remote vs non-remote work? We have been forced to learn how to work in new ways. In some cases, remote work was easier than imagined, in other cases very difficult. There has been a learning curve for many organizations. Re-examining jobs according to the actual value of in-person collaboration and the measurability of work outcomes will be key.
  2. What’s the state of the pandemic during transition stages? Assuming a vaccine isn’t widely available for a year or two but social distancing is eased and parts of the economy open back up, there will likely be a need to maintain some distancing. This will require different considerations of office space and different types of physical interactions among workers. Protocols like keeping six feet apart and wearing masks to the office may become new norms, at least temporarily.
  3. Not all people will have the same psychological “readiness” to go back to work. Currently, most people are hesitant to go back to work as normal. This may change as things progress—so having a pulse on segments of your workforce and their “readiness” will be very important. Flexibility on this front will be crucial.
  4. Life situations will vary by person. Some have kids who will not yet be transitioning back to school or daycare. Some have elderly care that needs to be considered. Every organization will need great managers to adapt to these idiosyncrasies to create work that is productive, fair, and maximizes well-being. 

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Topics: Employee Relations, #TheNewNormal, #ResetWork, #COVID-19

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