Virtual Engagement during Covid-19 – how can we redesign our ways of working to be better than before?

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By Sally McNamara, Asia Pacific Director

Companies have been grappling with declining employee engagement for several decades. Research has suggested that up to 85% of people are not engaged or actively disengaged at work[i]. The interesting point is that the same research also suggests that it might not be the actual work that is the problem, but rather the outdated management styles that are still very much at play. In particular, the industrial era ‘command and control’ approach is proving a difficult habit to break at every level of organisational design: strategy, structure, processes, rewards and people.[ii]

Humans rarely adapt at scale unless there is a forced trigger to do so. Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman has explored this idea deeply in his work, demonstrating that in most cases, we would much rather avoid a loss than achieve a gain, unless the circumstances are very bad.[iii]

What if this Pandemic is not just a test of survival and making do, but a greater call to much needed workplace adaptation? A chance to develop new principles that actually align with the challenges we face in this digital age? All too often we have been trying to implement new processes and practices without understanding the real issues, as anyone who has attempted to implement a new technology solution on top of an outdated structure and process will readily attest to.

As Professor Lynda Gratton reinforced in her recent webinar on “Working Virtually”[iv], one of the major blockers to the previous success of virtual working was due to the fact that leaders themselves were not working virtually. This promoted a lingering suspicion that people working virtually must surely be watching Netflix all day long, rather than working. Such an insidious lack of trust is a key factor in driving disengagement, and we know that organisations who are high-trust outperform those who are low-trust, with research suggesting by as much as 2.5 times.[v]

Now that the majority of our global population are synchronised in virtual working, it is an opportunity to build better ways of working that are based on trust, both for now and into the future. However, if we are not careful, we may simply replicate old principles and assumptions to bring our bad habits with us into the virtual world of work. Here are a few ideas for how we can avoid doing so:

1. Build a Narrative – A narrative provides a way to make sense of events and communicate experience, knowledge and emotions. Creating a strong narrative does not rely upon the leaders having all the answers (now more than ever – this is clearly impossible). However, it does rely on creating an ongoing thread of communication that recognises the deep uncertainty whilst also visioning the future, to help people connect with a sense of direction and purpose. This could be an opportunity to fundamentally shift some of the ways you work for the better. Why not involve your people in co-creating new ways of working? It could also be an opportunity to create new solutions for your clients and customers – as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

2. Be Outcomes Focused – What if we were to measure productivity by outcomes rather than hours or time online? As schools continue to shut down around the world and global teams need to shift their working patterns to fit current shifts in demand, we will need to think more creatively than ever about how well our concept of “standard days” actually work in practice, both now and into the future.

3. Examining Unwritten Rules – An example of an unwritten rule is that the official work start time is 09:00 but once you become part of the team, you realise your colleagues have all been there since 07:30 as standard. This is a chance to re-evaluate your unwritten rules and how they may be impacting wellbeing and engagement, rather than just replicating them in the virtual world. As Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan recently said in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to “create clarity for teams and trust them without micromanaging”[vi]. We may need to be even more careful of where the lines between our personal and work lives become ever more blurred, and that the pressure to be “online” may actually increase.

4. Extending Empathy – The one thing we need now, more than ever, is empathy. The definition of empathy is being able to sit beside someone and feel with them. We need to accept and welcome that everyone will be having good days and bad days. If a team member has been in isolation or unable to see their family, it is unlikely they will be able to perform at their usual level. I have had more than one friend share with me that they are pretending their video function does not work because their anxiety levels are high, and they feel more comfortable with voice calls. An unintended consequence of our desire to communicate may be that in some cases, we are creating more stress through enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach.

If you would like to discuss this topic in greater depth, please reach out to me on email or comment below.


[i] “What is employee engagement and how to you improve it?”, Gallup, accessed March 20, 2020, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.aspx

[ii] Jay Galbraith’s Star Model, https://www.jaygalbraith.com/services/star-model

[iii] “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahnemann, 2011

[iv] “Working Virtually”, London Business School, March 18 2020 – https://www.london.edu/campaigns/executive-education/pandemic-webinars#previouswebinars

[v] The Connection Between Employee Trust and Financial Performance, HBR, July 18 2016,  https://hbr.org/2016/07/the-connection-between-employee-trust-and-financial-performance

[vi] “Strong Leadership for Uncertain Times”, Financial Times,   March 22, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/e4aec0cc-6849-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

 

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