Authors: Anna Liang & Tatum Bass
It’s been over a year since the world shut down. In March 2020, state by state and country by country, the world shut down. People were told to stay home, except to conduct essential activities including grocery shopping, walking outside, etc.
People who had careers that allowed them to do their job at home were asked to “work from home”. Others had careers that required them to remain in the office for various reasons. Everyone panicked and asked themselves: Will I keep my job? Will we survive the pandemic? How will I support my family? Am I going to go crazy? The unknown left many unanswered questions regarding the state of the economy and the pandemic itself.
Over a year later, as the world opens back up and organizations determine what their new normal will look like, how will you re-engage your workforce?
Challenges from Working Remote
Suddenly moving to a fully remote work environment transformed the very nature of organizational behavior. It had a tremendous effect on employees in both negative and positive ways. However, toward the beginning half of the pandemic and as work from home and fear of job loss stretched on for longer and longer, the negative effect on employee wellbeing was exacerbated. Although it differed depending on the job, role type, and industry, anxiety, mental health, and the inherent motivation to do and continue in one’s job, all took a major hit.
Anxiety: One of the most cited drivers of anxiety in the psychology world is ambiguity. And, with COVID there has been nothing more prevalent in both the personal and professional realm than the uncertainty COVID has cast on every individual’s life. The quick, drastic changes that began in March have endured and continued to change for over a year and four months now. The most common theme across this “moment in time”, which sometimes feels literally frozen in time, has been ambiguity. Ambiguity about job security, ambiguity about salary stability, ambiguity about when restrictions and the pandemic itself were going to end. Now with widespread vaccination in the United States, the new phase of ambiguity and in question now is what the workforce will look like. Will we continue fully virtual, hybrid, or fully back in person? Will any of the positive outcomes introduced into our standard ways of working survive or will we just go back to the way it was, after so much upheaval of the normal work-life that existed pre-COVID?
Motivation: The stress factors imposed upon employees during this time are not the type of stressors typically perceived as motivating “challenges” when faced with difficult situations. When stressful situations are viewed as “challenges”, employees are more likely to react with a motivated outlook and in turn, increased employee performance. In stark contrast, when the stressful situation is viewed as a barrier to their very ability to overcome the challenge, employees tend to react out of anxiety, magnifying whatever stressor they are faced with, both intrinsic and extrinsically. Thus, decreased motivation, and worse one’s ability to self-actualize their capacity to face the situation, result in decreased employee performance that can evolve into depleted employees themselves depending on the length of time suffering under the circumstances.
Envisioning One’s Career Trajectory
Encourage Your Employees to (Re) Envision their Career Plans: Some people have lost a lot of their careers, while others may have advanced in their careers due to changing circumstances during COVID. With this, we highly suggest leaders encourage employees to (re) envision their careers. For some, this will mean they simply need to envision their career trajectory again, in the same way they were working toward before COVID, while others may need to entirely re-envision their plans for the next 5 to 10 years.
This is pivotal in inspiring employees to be able to self-actualize and see themselves developing in their career paths and achieving long-term goals again. Moving from “survival” mode to “development” mode is also key to re-instilling motivation and passion in your employees about their work and believing they have a future that they can shape in their own tailored way again; to feel that they have a hand and control in their futures again.
From Anxiety of Unknowns to Excitement about the Future: Everyone has been in a grieving process through, during, and toward the end of COVID restrictions and changing circumstances in their work and personal lives. Leaders must help flip the script from the anxiety of unknowns everyone had of “when is this going to end?”, “is it going to be forever? “are we going to have to wear masks forever?” to being hopeful and excited about the future. Employees need to see and hear their leadership looking forward, bringing momentum back into the day-to-day and away from unknowns that prolong anxiety.
Initiate the “Career” Talk: As companies want to re-engage their people, they need to initiate one on one, group, and company-wide conversations that re-set employees into a new frame of mind. The new mindset should re-affirm employee trust in their futures with the company and re-invigorate their career drive. It is as simple as sitting down with them and kicking off the “let’s talk about the future and what you want to do with your career” talk.
In many ways, this is a new aspect of succession planning that needs to be closely analyzed and monitored by leadership down and across their organizations. If employees do not first feel safe or motivated, they will begin to see the organization itself as the problem and potentially move on to other opportunities.
Novel Ways Corporations and Leaders are Re-Engaging their Workforce
Encouraging Use of Time Off: many companies are encouraging and reinforcing the importance of using available time off to reset and stay healthy, both mentally and physically. Some companies are also providing additional time off. During 2020, 55% of employers located in the United States offered time off for mental health and personal self-care in order to accommodate the declining mental state of employees during the pandemic. Leaders and mentors should sit down with their people to talk about prioritizing their time off and its importance to their health and, ultimately, their ability to perform at their best while working. Right now, it is common for employees to feel they have too much to do and succumb to the fear of not catching up. In Poland during 2020, one in four Poles felt extreme depression and concern for their health. In the United Kingdom, a survey conducted in May 2020 found that the pandemic caused people to feel the most negative emotions possible based on a scale of 1 to 10. The notion that they need to “get it all done” and remain more visible from time missed during COVID has left many hesitant to use even paid time off. Leadership should have conversations with their employee to shift the mindset from “Get it all done” to “Let’s see how we can shift some of your assignments”.
Completely Remote Model: some corporations, large and small, have shifted to a completely remote model. As of August 31. In 2021, 4.7 million people work remotely at least half the time in the USA. An Owl labs study showed that globally, 16% of companies are fully remote.
Flexible/Hybrid Model: During this time, people have proven that they can work effectively and successfully remotely. There are many pros to this new shift, among them a decrease to complete elimination of travel time to and from office, and an overall decrease in travel generally.
Ways to Re-engage your Workforce
Your people are your biggest asset. As employees begin their “Return to the office”, whatever that may mean for your organization, it is critical to evaluate the best ways to re-engage your workforce. Here are our recommendations for leaders to consider:
Encourage employees to Prioritize their Mental Health: It has been a challenging year for many, and even more challenging as people navigate shifting to the new normal environment. In the United States, the average symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in adults rose from 11% in 2019 to over 40% at the beginning of 2021. Ensure you are communicating the available Mental Health resources out there as part of the company’s insurance plan to employees. Make sure employees are getting the support they need to perform their best.
Encourage Time Off: As previously mentioned, encourage employees to take personal time to destress, go on a vacation, have a staycation – anything to get them to step away from their computers and phones and truly take a break.
Increase Employee Recognition: Whether it’s that email a colleague helped proofread or a deliverable or meeting that someone crushed, a little gratitude goes a long way in helping lift employees’ spirit. At Collective Insights, we implemented a virtual “Gratitude Box”, an anonymous online submission process in which anyone can submit words of gratitude to show appreciation for a fellow peer or leader at the company and make employees feel valued. Additionally, we send out a monthly newsletter that has a designated section where we highlight employees who have earned certifications and other professional achievements. A little goes a long way.
Improve Open Door Policy with Company Leadership: Navigating life through the different stages of the pandemic has its challenges, many of which are unique to the person. Employees are looking for supportive, transparent leaders who are willing to step up and initiate conversations about not only how the business is doing but also checking in on each other regularly. A message delivered acknowledging that we have never been through this environment before, and we are all working together to figure this out. Perhaps the solution is for leadership to hold designated in-person office hours or schedule regular breakfast or lunch meetings with individuals, evaluating how to make leaders more accessible during this time will be critical to maintaining the company culture, continuing to boost morale, and preserving the full trust employees once had.
Return to the Office
Provide Flexible Work Options: As COVID restrictions are lifted, organizations have been thinking hard about what their office re-opening plans will look like, or if there will be an office re-opening at all. Some companies such as Twitter are shifting to a fully remote model, while more commonly, other companies such as Apple are implementing a hybrid model in which employees are asked to come into the office a few times a week and the other days they can work remote. Starting in 2019, 66% of employees in the United States responded that working remotely enabled better concentration on work due to fewer distractions typically seen in the workplace. As many employees proved that they can be as productive working remote as in-person in the office, they will be looking for employers to provide a more hybrid model, enabling them to come into the office a few times a week, and work remote a few days of the week or shifting to a completely remote model. Either way, ensure you are providing opportunities for your employees.
Provide Opportunities to Congregate and Socialize Safely In-Person: Other considerations that are driving office re-opening plans include the type of work and activities that may be more effectively conducted in person such as workshops, work in which individuals, teams, or functions need to conduct their work in person, and what space needs are if any.
Additionally, hosting in-person social events again has been critical in maintaining our organizational culture. As many people are beginning to feel comfortable venturing out again, we have organized several outdoor happy hours to provide an opportunity for colleagues to mingle again while adhering to COVID policies and procedures.
Continue Virtual Practices that Mimic the In-Person Interpersonal Office Experiences: Since we were not physically in the office and could not go to the kitchen to grab a coffee and chat with a colleague, we organized weekly 30-minute virtual coffee chats for groups of 5-6 people at random so that people who were on different projects could get to know each other. While not the exact same in-person experience, it provided a space for people to have a conversation about sports, the latest trends, project work, etc.
This past year has presented challenges that individuals, families, and businesses could have never imagined. People and organizations were forced into forming new habits and new routines, adopting an increased use of technology, and modifying ways of working. As your organization evaluates what the new normal looks like for your people, use this time to also re-evaluate how engaged your employees really are by sending out a pulse check to gauge the level at which employees feel valued and appreciated and determine gaps.