Virtual Engagement during Covid-19 – how can we redesign our ways of working to be better than before?
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point is that the same research also suggests that it might not be the actual work that is the problem, but rather the outdated management styles that are still very much at play.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without understanding the real issues, as anyone who has attempted to implement a new technology solution on top of an outdated structure and process will readily attest to.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 “Netflix and chilling” 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.asp
[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
Millions of men, women, and children took part in climate crisis protests in September this year. While much attention has been given to the rallying cry of Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish environmental activist, many companies would do better to focus their attention closer to home. Workers are increasingly demanding a commitment from their employers on social issues such as climate change, and those without a well-defined narrative for their future are set to suffer.
Amazon saw thousands of employees walk out to protest their company’s failure to tackle the climate crisis, despite their CEO Jeff Bezos announcing beforehand that the company is on course to be carbon neutral by 2040, and is aiming to be carbon neutral for 50% of their shipments by 2030. Workers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google left their offices and demanded more of their employers. They urged severance of business ties with oil and gas companies, reducing emissions to zero by 2030, and commitments to climate refugees, a term for people who are forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment.
It is no coincidence that tech companies known for their high-performing workforces have some of the most vocal employees on climate issues.
Job site Indeed found that high performers are 46% more likely than average performers to be attracted to a new job by a company’s purpose . Social purpose is a key component of this, and has resulted in previous Google walkouts over US military contracts . Modern workers are overwhelmingly likely to consider an employer’s corporate social values; they want to work for company’s that uphold their social values so that they can be proud of their work and feel it has a purpose. In Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial survey , the climate was ranked as the most concerning challenge facing society; 29% cited it as a worry, a whole 7% more than the next most concerning item, income inequality. A proactive environmental policy is thus a must for companies hoping to attract top talent.
Further, it is well established that people who believe their job has a broader purpose are more likely to work harder, take on challenging or unpopular tasks, and collaborate effectively .
A well-defined narrative on climate change, as well as other social issues such as automation, flexible working, and lengthening working lives, is thus crucial for businesses. Successfully doing this will attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive labour market, where there are even shortages in blue-collar roles .
The Google worker’s climate petition said, “As individuals, we may feel alone in facing climate change, but if we act together – if we act now – we can build a better future.” If you are interested in finding out more about how you can build a better future for your company and its workers, I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Indeed, 2016 Talent Attraction Study: How Top Performers Search for Jobs (2016)
 ‘Google Should Not Be In Business of War, Say Employees’, BBC News (2018), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43656378
 The Deloitte Global Millenial Survey 2019 – https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html
 Dan Cable and Freek Vermeulen, ‘Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide’ McKinsey Quarterly (October 2018)
 ‘Feeling blue about the future? Blue-collar labour shortages in the USA and beyond’, Tom Goulding (2019), https://medium.com/swlh/feeling-blue-about-the-future-8a1f79e2fbea
By Graham Oxley, Digital Project Manager.
A few months ago, on my first day at Hot Spots Movement, I had one specific question on my mind that was particularly important to me: are they going to listen to my new ideas? Lots of smaller companies have a challenge innovating due to decision-making being driven by a select few, usually the founders, who can sometimes fail to embrace change. Research shows that start-ups are 9.4% less productive on average when the founder is also CEO. So, starting a new job at a 10-person company with a single founder, you can see where my apprehension stemmed from.
Luckily for me and given what we do here, Hot Spots Movement recognises these challenges and in my first few weeks I have been set to work looking at existing processes, documents and marketing with the goal of thinking of ways to improve them. Why a brand-new person with no experience of the product or research? The answer is that I brought different advantages:
1. I had more time than anyone else. With projects already underway, aside from training and shadowing, I had spare time on my hands. I could take the burden of creative thinking off those who were in client meetings and delivering projects. I could set aside dedicated time for new ideas.
2. I had no biases or preconceptions: I had a blank slate in terms of how I thought we should represent ourselves, meaning I could be totally honest about my thoughts and think without restriction. I had no existing investment in current processes.
As I delved more into our research and read more about innovation, I began to discover that the challenges of innovating in an SME are not that different to those in a multi-national FTSE 100 company. There are a couple of key similarities:
1. Employees don’t have time to incubate. Everyone is busy these days and this is impacting the time we can spend simply thinking creatively about innovative ideas. Distracting technology and open-plan workspaces mean that we are dedicating less and less time to creative thinking.
2. Innovation inbreeding. This is the concept that the same group of people keep thinking of ideas and don’t, or can’t, look elsewhere for new ideas. In a small company this is unavoidable; if you only have 10 employees, you only have 10 brains thinking of new ideas and they quickly come to think in sync about certain things. In a larger company, this is usually by design as innovation is left to a specific ‘innovation team’ who themselves have the same challenges a small company of fewer brains and convergent thinking.
Whether you’re an organisation of 10 people or 110,000 people, the argument is definitely there to be made that your newest employees may be the best equipped to help with innovation. They arrive with new experiences, different perspectives and often have the most ‘free-time’ that they will have in their entire career at the business as they have yet to take on projects. In small companies, one person can have more impact – when I arrived into a team of 12 employees, the brain capacity increased by almost 10% overnight – and if you think about the number of new employees arriving into larger businesses, the aggregate effect is likely to be the same.
Finally, back to my earlier question, did they listen to my new ideas? Well, I have made some suggestions that have been taken well and you may see the outcomes in the near future.
Last month I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, talking about a concept called Learned Helplessness and how it is affecting performance at work. Learned Helplessness is a psychological theory initially developed by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s and can be seen in many different aspects of our daily lives. The theory states that in the face of aversive stimuli, which an organism is unable to escape from, the organism will eventually accept the loss of control and give up trying to avoid the pain.
We see this in real life, more so than we are potentially aware of. Weight loss programmes are a great example. Working as an ex-swimming coach I’ve seen dozens of people decide to lose weight and pick up a new exercise regime or diet expecting instant results. When these results don’t come immediately they give up and try a different one, and another and another, eventually reaching a point of learned helplessness where they accept that they can never lose weight and give up trying.
Another example occurred at the World Cup with the Spanish football team. Spain, a footballing giant and a favourite for many to lift the trophy, sacked their manager just two days before the beginning of the tournament. What resulted from this was an embarrassment for a proud footballing nation, Spain were knocked out, in the Round of 16, by minnows Russia. Now there are many factors at play, but one suggested was that many footballers (not just Spanish ones) are so dependent on their managers direction that they’re unable to think for themselves. The Spanish team had five world cup winners in their midst, almost 60 top-tier domestic titles between them all and combined almost 950 international caps. These professionals had the experience to play with any manager, no matter who they were, yet they felt helpless to think for themselves.
So, as a professional, why is this important for you? Well there’s evidence to suggest that many employers are inadvertently creating an environment of Learned Helplessness. Employees are put to task doing mundane repetitive jobs and they lose the ability to engage their brain’s “seeking system” which we use to explore our environment and most importantly experiment and learn new things. And it’s not just repetitive tasks that can foster Learned Helplessness. Many organisations have a culture of “zero-tolerance” to failure. It’s long been known that when workers feel anxious or afraid they no longer receive the physiological reward for being creative or curious, meaning organisations are missing out on those innovative ideas that could make all the difference.
But what can you do about it? How can you ensure your employees are constantly looking to innovate, be creative and learn new things and not in a state of Learned Helplessness? Well through our work here at Hot Spots Movement, there are a couple of ways which we find to be extremely effective in encouraging innovation:
- Ensure Psychological Safety
A common cause of Learned Helplessness in the workplace is a fear of the repercussions of failure and a perception that it is unwise to challenge the status quo. People must feel able to try new things and potentially fail. Google’s approach to this is well documented, with 10% of their people’s time dedicated to working on high risk, potential high reward projects, where failure is seen as a perfectly acceptable outcome for pushing the boundary. Further to this, employees should be comfortable challenging the norm and challenging leaders (within reason) as well. Just because “we’ve always done it that way”, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and you should be encouraging your people to ask “why?”
- Encourage an Appetite for Learning
We’ve been banging the drum on this point here at Hot Spots for a little while now. “Good Work” is work that allows you to learn new things. As Dan Cable says, you must ensure your employees’ “Seeking Systems” are engaged to ensure they don’t just go through the motions at work, feeling powerless to change course or experiment. Instead, organisations must create an environment in which people seek to learn new things and where you aid them in developing skills and requirements for the future, not just the now.
- Demonstrate results
Finally, Learned Helplessness can easily result if people speak up about a new idea only to have it fall on deaf ears. If you really want your employees to be proactive, take on new challenges and elevate performance, then you need to visibly act on their suggestions or, at the very least, acknowledge the idea and explain what will happen next. It only takes a couple of instances of an employee’s idea being disregarded before Learned Helplessness sets in.
So, what’s the key message for you and your team? Consider the dynamic in your organisation: are people proactive in tackling challenges and crafting a way forward? Or is there a sense of inertia, suggesting a culture of Learned Helplessness? Spot this early and start making the small changes that enable your people to feel back in control.
If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent Learned Helplessness and how you can create a culture of learning and innovation within your organisation, then please don’t hesitate to reach out at email@example.com
One of the most interesting articles I’ve read recently was a well thought out piece in The Economist on the retreat of the global company, which explores the idea that multinationals are decreasing in importance, with falling profits and ROEs causing sales to grow at a slower rate than domestic companies.
The article also points out that multinationals are now seen as agents of inequality, with the rise of protectionism providing one reason why the global operating model is under pressure. Also, the data show that nearly one in two of the general population agree that free trade agreements hurt a country’s workers, while 72 percent favour government protection of jobs and local industries, even if it means a slower-growth economy.
It’s clear that over the past few years, some, even high-profile, multinationals have contributed to the deteriorating image of globalisation. In fact, they have tended to let it down due to the market-driven and short term arbitrage of procuring resources where they are cheapest here and now and due to their aggressive approach to tax minimisation.
Other than the obvious and hugely worrying protectionist trend, the current retreat towards a more regional or even local approach seems to me to have a lot to do with people seeking trustworthy institutions to believe in and identify with. As neither countries and their governments nor regional supranational institutions such as the EU are fulfilling this role, there is scope for businesses to fill this void: an opportunity – and a responsibility. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, those who are uncertain about whether the system is working for them tend to trust business more than government.
Further good news is that three out of four general population respondents from Edelman’s Trust Barometer agree that ‘a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates’. Thanks to their size, reach and financial might, multinational companies have the potential to play a major, positive role, provided they appreciate what it is that makes people trust them.
One way in which multinational companies can build trust is in easing people’s anxiety about their future, particularly in terms of job losses and employability. Anxiety is mounting, and according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, these are the five key fears pertaining to job loss:
- 60% Lack of training/skills
- 60% Foreign competitors
- 58% Immigrants who work for less
- 55% Jobs moving to cheaper markets
- 54% Automation
These are all fears that companies can address, and my guess is that if companies decided it is a strategic priority to help their people maintain or improve their employability, the rest of the fears would largely dissipate. What might this look like? It could be to build learning platforms that cater for a broad range of skills and a variety of learning preferences. This is is doable for huge companies – and a lot less for smaller, local companies. Being proactive in helping staff reskill in the light of automation including when that means helping them become employable somewhere else is another example of what foresighted companies are already doing.
So let’s not write off global companies just yet – they can still decide to become a ‘business force for good’. As long as they make a conscious decision to do so.