How the Global Pandemic Acts as a Catalyst for Transformation

By Ilana Meskin, Managing Expert, Clinical Center of Excellence

I have been reading and watching, along with all of you, the way our world has been disrupted by COVID-19 in 2020. “Nothing will ever be the same” is the refrain. Fortunately, some things will be for the better. Crisis may bring about unprecedented organizational challenges, but it can also be the catalyst for positive, powerful organizational change.

Leadership and employee engagement experts have spent several decades persuading employers to exemplify the well-known mantra: “your people are your greatest asset.” Yet, it takes a crisis to bring it home.

It has not been easy to adapt to the new work environment over the last few months, yet fast and impressive to watch the pivot. Frankly, the harder task will be to maintain the characteristics of healthy leadership, engagement, and culture being demonstrated in a crisis once we are in a post-COVID-19 environment.

The most obvious is the unplanned experiment of working remotely, in which even the skeptics have been forced into this pilot. For decades, a global community of remote-work experts has worked to convince employers that providing greater autonomy to employees leads to increased productivity. They have responded by providing tools, skills, and strategies to support virtual teams. Obviously, no one is advocating we stay in the stifling “cabin fever” environment, but I join the many who predict that the proliferation and full acceptance of flexible work arrangements will have finally been proven the hard way – in crisis.

The recent pandemic has not changed the truths that drive high engagement or the ways leaders demonstrate effectiveness. However, the pandemic has created the perfect storm of conditions to spotlight the ways teams get work done, employees are treated, and leadership behaves.

There are many inspiring examples we are hearing from progressive leaders. I recently spoke with two mid-size biopharma companies that regularly take pulse and survey their staff – the results are interesting to say the least. The HR VP in one biopharma organization found their engagement scores are up from 68% to 76%. “We want to make sure we leverage this unusual time and stare into what is working before we return to work too quickly,” the same HR VP mentioned.

The second organization’s Head of Talent and Inclusion said they have just completed an employee listening tour, where “the corporate veneer seems to have eroded and leaders are keeping it real.”

These organizations are doing so many things right that I will refer to them as my role model organization (RMO) from here on out. Here are a few “pandemic-friendly” tangible strategies they believe are making a real difference:

  • The manufacturing staff are their front-line workers – they are onsite and working in harm’s way to get product out the door to patients. Senior leaders are reaching out to five of these staff every day to check in, show they care, and express gratitude.
    • This is not a complex initiative. Yet, it’s a powerfully tangible leadership investment that demonstrates employees are valued and recognized.
  • They are conducting interactive bi-weekly all employee Zoom meetings with a commitment to communicate regularly whether they have answers or not: “Here is what we know, here is what we are thinking about…”
  • The first organization has partnered effectively with the benefits and EAP providers to deliver targeted ways to remain productive at home, build resilience, manage 401k in turbulent times, deal with stress, practice mindfulness and yoga, and survive being a working parent with kids at home (while supporting their schoolwork online!)
  • The second biopharma company launched a successful, cross-functional business-share learning series online, understanding that hunger for learning is valued in a life science environment
  • The organizations have implemented several initiatives designed to promote the need to connect on a purely human level. From team-building activities such as online bingo, everyone sharing a favorite pic from a beach vacation, or even an online dance party complete with DJ and employee families joining in, to simply being creative and fun to maintain the human spirit – teams are getting to know each other in a way that did not happen two months ago.
    • They have serendipitously discovered that not traveling has significantly enhanced the accessibility of leaders to join these moments of connection – what can you do to take advantage of this reality?
  • The patient advocacy function is also creating a patient video directed to employees about the impact of a particular medicine manufactured by the organization on their lives. You may not be able to do it in person now, but you can still do it virtually as a powerful reminder of the larger meaning in their work and how your employees are making a difference.

These companies are implementing decades-old, well-known guiding principles to move the needle on people being their most important asset. When employees feel the mantra is real, they go the extra mile for their company, and they want to stay.

Leadership: It starts at the top.

There has been an explosion of thoughtful advice designed to fight isolation and ensure managers stay connected, are checking in, and understand what their employees are thinking and feeling. Leaders are demonstrating that they care, they inquire about wellbeing, they do not presume to have all the answers, and they host an update meeting even if there’s no update, if only to reconnect with their employees and incorporate some face time into their week. They show empathy. They do not micromanage. This combination of providing greater autonomy with increased caring, so employees feel heard, is simply magic.

Employee engagement: Continuously develop employees.

There are several drivers of employee engagement; here are four that seem particularly relevant and realistic in COVID-19 workplace conditions:

  1. Decades of research clearly show that higher engagement of employees is achieved where they have opportunities to continuously learn and grow. Strong support for all types of online learning, skill-building, and virtual coaching is on the rise. Organizations are realizing employee development initiatives can still be encouraged and delivered in a pandemic.
  2. The most impressive examples are the organizations who have combined learning and development with empathy, another engagement factor where someone cares about the employee as a person rather than a statistic or ID number. Organizations who have listened and adapted well in the last couple of months invite employees to targeted tutorials, blogs, and webinars to demonstrate a simple fact: “we care about your challenges with work or in life at this moment.” Topics range from personal productivity at home, to dealing with anxiety, to the topic I need every day myself: navigating uncertainty.
  3. The third engagement factor is connection, or “the sense of belonging to something beyond yourself…a deep sense not only of social camaraderie but of kinship, shared culture, values, customers, and mission,” as defined by authors Maylett and Warner of Engagement Magic: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations.
  4. The final engagement driver that Maylett and Warner describe is meaning: “work has purpose beyond the work itself…knowing your work makes a difference in people’s lives.” Although I left Amgen over a decade ago myself, I cherish vivid memories of patients speaking at all-staff meetings, making all of us feel that we had a part in improving lives, regardless of our role in the organization.

We find ourselves confronted by a new burning priority: creating complex return-to-work policies and logistics. Let’s hope organizations navigate these necessary activities without missing the precious opportunity to create and maintain more effective leaders and greater engagement. Early indications are that these strategies are working, as the RMO strategies and leading industry analyst Josh Bersin’s data indicates. This focus will serve organizations well, both during and long after the pandemic.

I have had a card on my desk for many years with a quote from Carl Jung that sums it up too well: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Reinforced and reminded in crisis, we are genuinely striving to live the mantra about people being our most important asset. Let’s hold on to these painfully learned lessons.

Ilana Meskin

About the Author: Ilana Meskin, Managing Expert, YourEncore Clinical Center of Excellence, is an innovative Organization Development and Human Resources Executive with 30+ years of passion and experience in developing people strategies to drive organizational productivity. Ilana’s proven track record most notably includes 16 years at Amgen, leading HR support for Clinical and Commercial Operations, in addition to enterprise-wide responsibilities, and ultimately heading the Leadership Development function while career tracked organization’s hyper growth. She also has 12 years independent consulting and coaching practice, supporting clients seeking enhanced leadership and organization effectiveness.

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