Last weekend, I caught up with some friends….in the very awkward social distancing way that we’ve grown to know in 2020. It’s a group that has known each other for years….some since childhood. Perhaps due to so much history, we rarely talk about work. This time though, much to my HR-geeky pleasure, everyone seemed to have something to say about how work has changed this year in light of COVID19. Nearly everyone, despite working in different industries, at different levels, and with varying levels of expertise, is now working remotely either some or all of the time. Few expect to ever return to an office full-time and are now realizing what it means to work 100% remote. Many are not happy about it. The annoying HR person in me wanted to shout, “I knew it!”. Fortunately though I know to keep that annoying HR voice in check in social settings. She’s a buzzkill!
What are we missing about our workplaces?
What we miss about collocated work depends on role. For managers – it’s seeing and knowing employees are working. For employees – it’s the interactions with coworkers. Ultimately though, these are two sides of the same coin, because whether managers are unsure employees are working, or employees miss interacting with peers, it comes down to our dependency on visual communication. According to a recent survey of more than 2,300 US workers, 74% say “people” are what they miss most about the office. As much as 93% of communication is thought to be nonverbal (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967), with body language and tone of voice having a much larger impact on our understanding of messages. Although there is some debate on the extent to which we depend on tone and body language in communication with others – anyone who has worked in a remote capacity would likely agree with this information. Emails, texts, slack messages without tone or body language, are often misinterpreted. When stress enters the scene, communication becomes even more fragmented. High levels of stress actually impairs brain function. The part of the brain responsible for planning, communication, and logical reasoning suffers – leading to more frequent mistakes, frustration, ultimately leading to feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Feeling stressed, left without the nonverbal cues on which we depend to connect with others, not only our work suffers, we also suffer personally. So while very few of us miss the commute or inconvenience of sitting in an actual office, we do miss interacting with others. We are after all social creatures. Yes, introverts, even you.
What challenges lie ahead?
A closely watched industry during the pandemic has been call centers. Historically resistant to the work-from-home model, call centers were part of the 88% of companies to seemingly overnight switch to remote work, encouraging and in some cases requiring employees to work from home and socially distance. Last month, J.D. Power published findings from a survey of 124 customer service organizations where 86% of companies say they plan to implement permanent work-from-home models even after the pandemic – clearly happy with how their teams are performing. Call centers, notorious for their workforce analytics, recognized an unexpected phenomenon, increased Average Handle Time. Average Handle Time (AHT) is a common call center key performance indicator (KPI) reflecting the average amount of time that a call center employee spends on the phone with customers/callers. During the pandemic, 55% of companies saw an increase in AHT, despite lower call volumes. Why? Employees and customers alike, are lonely, more eager than normal to chat with someone on the phone – even a stranger. Perhaps one of the few positive effects to life in quarantine, it’s not something to be ignored or monetized. This finding serves as warning of how significant yet subtle we are to our need for social interaction and connection.
Exit, employee engagement. Enter wellbeing.
For years we have been consumed with the concept of keeping our employees engaged, certain that better engagement means happier and more productive employees. Historically, employee engagement was a term used to identify an employee’s involvement, enthusiasm, and commitment to their workplace. Although methods of calculating engagement vary, most consist of qualitative data reflecting a combination of two things: 1) the extent to which an employee understands his role as it relates to the company’s success, and 2) behaviors in how an employee approaches her work. With the pandemic however, we’ve seen this definition change, both rapidly and drastically. Today’s definition of employee engagement has shifted toward a definition of wellbeing. For many of us, our workplaces during the pandemic have validated what research has revealed for years, a culture of wellbeing is a high-performing culture. A 1997 study illustrates the positive correlation between employee mood and quality service interactions with customers. A 2005 study confirms the importance wellbeing has on creativity. More recently, a 2019 meta-analysis of 339 independent research studies related to wellbeing and either employee, team, or company performance, found positive correlations between employee wellbeing and customer loyalty (0.30) and employee productivity (0.20). It turns out, we humans are a bit more complex than previously predicted by the traditional concept of employee engagement. Even if we care deeply about our professional success, the success of our company, and understand and are committed to the importance of our work, the quality and output of our work can still be jeopardized by how we think and feel – even when thoughts and feelings are unrelated to work. Health concerns, fearing for the safety and health of our loved ones, caring for our children unable to attend school or daycare, concerns about the economy, racial tensions….basically the entire 2020 human experience is taxing to both our emotional and psychological state. And because our modern world is primarily made up of knowledge-based jobs, dependent on our cognitive ability to solve complex problems, our thoughts and emotions have a significant impact on how we work. In times of stress, cognitive function is impaired. Research and the pandemic serve as evidence that good work is not simply a choice as an extension of our work ethic. Good work is a byproduct of our wellbeing.
Implications for the Future of Work
Stop obsessing on the physical and look to the psychological.
Several new terms and phrases have surfaced so far in 2020 such as social distancing, maskne, and a new normal. Another term to surface recently is bossware – software apps that allow companies to monitor the computer and online activity of its workers that functions a lot like spyware. While some software is more invasive, covertly capturing employee private social media passwords, others are much more overt, tracking an employee’s key strokes and opening and closing of work-related applications to then calculate and report productivity scores back to the employee, his/her boss, and his/her boss’ boss, and even coworkers. A recent article reported two such software applications have seen a 500% and 600% increase in prospective or actual users since the pandemic! These tools are growing in popularity serving as a reminder of Albert Einstein’s quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. A micromanager pre-COVID will likely be a micromanager post-COVID unless she decides to develop into an actual leader. True leaders understand leading people effectively when it comes to work, means first understanding the value of the work. Unless a company’s success somehow depends on how many keystrokes are made by an employee in a sitting or how many websites and software applications she opens and closes in her shift, the data collected is useless. Without a qualitative measurement, these metrics mean very little. Something understood by most modern workplace HR professionals, if you want to identify holes and gaps in any people-facing system or structure, put down incentives and consequences. People will naturally seek out ways to game systems to avoid pain (consequences) and achieve pleasure (incentives). Rarely do they drive the behaviors you hoped to elicit. Instead, today’s leaders and workplaces are best to invest in creating a high-performing culture. Generally high-performing teams, remote or onsite, are made up of more self-aware workers and have a higher level of psychological safety within teams. A study on high-performing and average leaders showed high-performing leaders were significantly more self-aware than average leaders. A 2017 report identifies employee self-awareness and emotional intelligence as having a significant impact on employee performance in two different areas, contextual performance – interpersonal behaviors or actions that benefit the organization, and task performance – using skills, knowledge, or accomplishing specialized tasks to support core functions of a business. So, while some managers choose to focus on driving the physical tasks associated with knowledge-based work, such as typing, opening and closing programs, etc,. others are choosing to focus on an employee’s psychological approach to work like self-awareness, emotional intelligence, psychological safety. Research shows us that those workplaces investing in employee mindfulness and wellbeing see a much bigger return on their investment compared to those allocating dollars to bossware-type technology.
It’s a team effort
For years we have stressed the importance of leadership, making statements like “people don’t quit companies, they quit managers”. But, in many cases the manager is simply the embodiment of the company. Who hired and trained the manager? Who holds the manager accountable? And when employees don’t quit – is it only because of a good manager? Most companies attribute their high employee retention in part to managers, but not entirely. So, if the saying is true, how would any of this make sense? Managers are an important part of the employee experience, but less as a standalone component, and more as a byproduct. How individuals and teams feel and perform today has much more to do with their connection to the team, as a whole. High-performing teams, as mentioned previously, have a higher level of psychological safety. To measure psychological safety, individuals indicate how much they agree or disagree with statements like, members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues, and it is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. While a manager can clearly impact whether a person feels comfortable speaking candidly or asking for help, peers within the team also have influence. Psychological safety isn’t just about how individuals perceive the leader. Psychological safety is about how individuals perceive the team. It’s a team measurement highly reflective of a team’s potential to be high-performing. Research on social relationships and business performance further demonstrates the importance of trust and connection within teams. A report by Gallup shows 20% of employees say they have a best friend at work. Based on their findings, they predict companies where 60% of employees have a best friend at work see 36% fewer safety incidents, 7% more engaged customers, and 12% higher profits. In a separate study, 72% of workers indicate the most meaningful and memorable recognition they received came from someone other than their direct manager – placing a high value on other workplace relationships such as peers, customers, and indirect leaders. Looking toward the future, it’s critical we look to create an environment conducive to success – where employees look to peers and leaders for support and connection. Particularly for remote teams – even the best leaders do not have the bandwidth to serve as the sole thread linking employees together. People perform and feel better when they support one another, can collaborate on projects, and have a network within the workplace. Historically we have hired, developed, and rewarded leaders based largely on their ability to solve problems. In doing so, we’ve inadvertently stifled the creativity, innovation, and success achieved when we instead empower entire teams to solve problems. Leaders of the future will not be tactical problem solvers. Instead, leaders of the future will be coaches, understanding how to ignite and enable teams to collaborate.
How will you remember 2020? Spoiler alert, it turns out bad memories tend to stay with us more than the good ones. As 2020 has had its fair share of distress, to say the least, most of us will associated 2020 with health concerns, social and racial tensions, and economic woes, no doubt. But, how each of us changes from these events will likely differ, greatly. In 2007, days after my 27th birthday I caught a virus and was rushed into surgery after learning my body was shutting down and that I had only a few hours left to breathe. A month after recovering, heading home from picking up a coworker’s wedding gift, I lost control of my car and hit a concrete barricade at around 50mph head on. Months later in an attempt to reconnect with someone I was in a relationship with earlier that year, I learned he’d been killed in a tragic accident. It was not a fun year, but most certainly a memorable one. Today however, I reflect on 2007 as the year that saved my life. To that point, I’d been living a fairly shallow life. Most of my relationships revolved around parties and going out, not about connecting. I looked to food as comfort, not nourishment. I treated my body like a well-insured weekend rental car, not bothering to make maintenance a priority. 2007 presented me with the painful but valuable opportunity to reconsider my entire way of life. It’s been better each day because of it. So although 2020 has no doubt been painful for you personally as a parent, spouse, friend, and member of your community, and professionally as a leader, what will matter most is how you come out of it. How has 2020 changed your relationship with humanity? How will you choose to lead the future of work?