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:
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:
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.