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point is that the same research also suggests that it might not be the actual work that is the problem, but rather the outdated management styles that are still very much at play.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without understanding the real issues, as anyone who has attempted to implement a new technology solution on top of an outdated structure and process will readily attest to.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
The advancements in technology, paired with globalisation have promoted a trend towards agile working, with workers free to work at a time and location which suits them. In the changing world of work, there is a growing trend for employees to work flexibly and not be required to be tied to their desks in traditional working patterns, with 70% of people globally working remotely at least once a week . There are multiple organisational benefits to agile working, including increased productivity, autonomy and the promotion of work-life balance for employees.
Recently, Microsoft Japan implemented a 4 day working week to much success. Offering its 2,300 employees a variety of agile working styles, Microsoft Japan launched a pilot programme aiming to increase productivity and morale, with a goal to realise the same results with 20% fewer weekly hours. The results appeared to be highly positive: a 40% rise in productivity, happier workers and a decline in days taken off. However, there are often unintended consequences of agile working which organisations should consider in their approach. The introduction of the shorter week came with the introduction of ‘strict new rules’, with managers being ‘heavy handed’ in their implementation, including employees being fined for taking too long on work-related matters.
Taking these dynamics into consideration, the pressure to output the same amount, or the resulting 40% rise in productivity in Microsoft’s case, in a shorter amount of time could have a detrimental effect upon employees wellbeing and long term efficiency.
Organisations such as Tiggertrap and the Los Angeles Times have also suffered unintended consequences when introducing an unlimited vacation policy. On the face of it, this seems like a positive idea which promotes high levels of rejuvenation, empowerment and autonomy. However, in practice often these policies push people to always be ‘on’ and connected, with a Glassdoor survey showing that 61% of workers admit to working despite being on vacation.
In many cases, one of the main disadvantages associated with unlimited vacation policies is that often employees end up taking less time off. Tiggertrap scrapped their unlimited vacation policy after results found that employees had reduced their average number of holiday taken from 28 days to 15. Factors such as unspoken expectations and nobody wanting to be the person who takes the most time off, contribute to spiralling behaviour in which employees take even less holiday than before. Adding to this, the advancement in technology has enabled new ways of working, but has also promoted the growth of an ‘always on’ culture, in which there are potential stresses of constantly being connected to work and never truly switching off.
So, after this reflection of the disadvantages of a more agile approach to working arrangements, why should organisations still consider this strategy as their most future-proofed option?
In the changing world of work, organisations need to adapt their traditional approaches to ways of working in order to attract and retain the best talent. By offering a wider menu of options of working hours, organisations should be able to attract a broader range of people and maintain a stronger talent pipeline. In confronting the unintended consequences, it is crucial that organisations develop policies that will not just allow employees to work flexibly or have time off, but encourage them to do so. If the aim of the policy is to enhance a less frenzied working environment, with reduced burnout and higher productivity, organisations need to tackle the culture in which these policies sit and support individual behaviour that does not promote employees to be ‘always on’ and constantly connected. To approach this, organisations could benefit from considering a more tailored approach, aiming to promote a culture which empowers their employees ‘to communicate when they need time to disconnect’, rather than rolling out a one-size-fits-all policy.
2 Kelly, J. (2019). Microsoft Japan Launched A Four-Day Workweek To Much Success: Is This The Key To Attracting Talent In The Tight U.S. Job Market?. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2019/11/05/microsoft-japan-launched-a-four-day-week-work-to-much-success-is-this-the-answer-to-attract-talent-in-the-tight-us-job-market/#4863cf6759ff [Accessed 21 Nov. 2019].
3 Unlimited Vacation Time Policy (2016), Hot Spots Movement. Available at: http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1247/unlimited-vacation-time-case-study-160915.pdf [Accessed 21st. Nov. 2019]
4 Future of HR Report (2016), Hot Spots Movement, Available at http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1267/future-of-hr-report-final.pdf
On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Day, 10th October, I thought it prudent to shed light on one of the key contributors to mental health: the workplace.
On average, we spend at least a quarter of our weekly hours at work. Our work environment, irrespective of whether we enjoy it or not, inevitably becomes a second home that, at times, demands more responsibilities from us than our first home. Unfortunately, seldom do we actually discuss mental health in general, let alone in the workplace.
To address organisational wellbeing, I’m sharing my own approach to ensuring that I remain mentally healthy. If you have any additional points, do feel free to share in the comments.
- Am I treated the way I want to be treated?
More often than not, organisational bullying is not discussed. In many ways, organisational bullying is similar to our general definition of bullying, which includes being harassed, being talked down to, and being laughed at. However, organisational bullying also manifests in other forms that are often disregarded. Being left out intentionally, being yelled at or called a name, or being embarrassed through sexual humour, is workplace bullying. We seem to often let go of whatever upsets us at work because of lesser expectations towards how we should be treated, perhaps because of the financial reliance on our jobs that prevents us from setting the bar any higher.
If you feel uncomfortable in your place of work, tell someone. It could be your manager, your co-workers, HR, or any authority that could play a role in resolving your problem. If you don’t feel safe speaking to anyone in the office, reach out to your network for support. Bottling up your problems means neglecting your mental wellbeing. Just talking about it – having a conversation with someone you trust – could make a significant difference in how you feel.
- Are my expectations realistic?
We all want to be healthy, wealthy, successful and loved. It’s the human condition. But you should also ask yourself: is everything that I’m doing making me happy? Which parts of my day bring me the most joy, and which parts don’t? How can I rearrange my priorities so that I can achieve my goals without affecting my mental state?
Give yourself time to rest, to breathe. We stress ourselves out with constant replies to emails and calls in what has become a seemingly 24/7 workweek because of how well-connected we are. Find a time to stop using your phone and allow yourself to indulge in a chocolate bar or the newest Netflix special if that makes you happy. Essentially, allow yourself those simple joys that we often lose sight of as we progress in our careers and neglect our wellbeing. And remember, in some way, a considerable portion of the stress we suffer from is caused by our own expectations.
- What’s the perspective I choose for myself today?
Have you ever had a terrible week? I’m not talking about a bad morning, but a bad week overall. By Friday, you walk into work and you’re so tired and done that you just want to go back home and crawl back into bed. I think most of us have been there at least once. What is the perspective from which you choose to see your day? I walked into the office this morning having gone through a tough series of unfortunate events within a few hours. As I described my morning to my manager, she smiled and said, “At least it can only get better from this point!” Create a constant mental, or physical, reminder that it can only get better from your worst workplace experiences and watch your day get better. You messed up a presentation? Your next presentation will be better because you learned at least one thing from this one. You said the wrong thing in a meeting? You will be careful with your words in the next meeting. This approach to restructuring our perception of our experiences needs practice, but we have to start somewhere.
This blog in no way attempts to overshadow serious mental health issues that affect more people in the population than we even recognise. It merely aims to give some perspective to those whose workplace experience may be bringing them down, which inevitably affects their performance and job satisfaction. I hope that reading this gave you a slightly new perspective in the very least, and I hope you utilise that perspective in achieving the shift towards mental serenity.
If you’d like to learn more about organisational health and wellbeing, stay tuned for Hot Spots Movement’s Masterclass in February 2020.
 Beheshti, Naz. (2019). Stigma About Mental Health Issues in the Workplace Exists: Here’s What Companies Can Do About It. Forbes.
 Myers, Chris (2017). How to Avoid Self-Induced Stress and Decision Fatigue in Business. Forbes.
By Graham Oxley, Project Manager – Digital Engagement
Whether at work or at home, we often hear about unwritten rules. These are the norms, behaviours or actions that people are expected to follow or do even though they are not written down anywhere in a formal rule book or culture document. We encounter these unwritten rules every day and get annoyed when people don’t follow them – think of every time you have muttered under your breath when the person in front of you doesn’t hold the door for you. But beyond merely being frustrating, in certain contexts, such as corporate culture and sports, unwritten rules have the power to create a vastly different reality to the intended rhetoric of written rules. Often, we see that once a written rule is created, various factors go to work to change, reinforce or undermine it, until the unwritten rules that have been created hold more power than the written rule that they have emerged around.
One place where unwritten rules are in abundance is sports, and this has been making the news recently. Firstly, there has been fierce debate in cricket this week around Ravi Ashwin, the Indian all-rounder playing for Kings XI Punjab, who performed a ‘Mankad’ dismissal on England batsman Jos Buttler in an Indian Premier League match against the Rajasthan Royals. This is allowed in the official rulebook, but a large number of ex-players and pundits have condemned him for contravening ‘the Spirit of Cricket’, which is a set of unwritten rules that many cricketers subscribe to. On the same day, on the other side of the world in Miami, Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player, served underhand in beating Dusan Lajovic. The reaction towards this has been more balanced; Judy Murray labelled him a genius afterwards, but during the game a spectator ran onto the court to remonstrate with him for the tactics. These are two examples in just the last week, which show that unwritten rules are rife across the sports world; footballers put the ball out of play when the opposition has an injured player, rugby league players do not contest scrums and baseball has so many unwritten rules that people lose track.
The question that follows here is: how do unwritten rules relate to my business? Organisations operate as complex systems of (1) formal, interdependent processes – such as pay, performance and training; and (2) informal practices and behaviours operating under the radar, such as ad hoc flexibility in work schedules, or the prioritisation of presence over performance. The latter are the ‘unwritten rules of the game’ and they exert a strong influence over employee behaviours and have a significant impact on the success or failure of any new intervention implemented. Here is an example: your organisation may have set up a generous parental leave policy aimed at improving engagement amongst families. However, if the culture and leadership of your organisation signals, through non-verbal or verbal cues, that anyone who takes up their full parental leave will face a delay in getting a promotion or pay rise, the reality of that decision looks very different to what the written rhetoric intended.
Clarity on the unwritten rules of the game that are shaping behaviour is therefore key before launching any new initiative. This exercise allows businesses to understand how any intervention will influence and be influenced by other factors at play, giving an early indication of any unintended consequences that you need to consider and plan for.
So how do we find out the unwritten rules of the game? The answer lies in engaging your employees in an open dialogue. Taking the time to truly listen to your employees to understand their diverse motivators, enablers and triggers will pave the way forward. We have worked with a number of clients on this challenge; you can see a snapshot of who we have worked with here.
I would be happy to have a further discussion about how you can go about uncovering the unwritten rules of the game and ensuring that your organisations’ reality is truly representative of the rhetoric. Just drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we meet people, we often think that we can tell a lot about them by the occupation they have. “So, what do you do?” is probably the most common icebreaker I hear, as our work is often regarded as shorthand for explaining to people who we are.[i] But our work identity is not our only identity.
No one person has a single identity; we all have talents, interests, relationships with others, causes we’re passionate about and worldviews that help to make us who we are. In order to embrace our authentic selves throughout our careers, the question researchers are now asking is how to balance the multiple identities that we have. But, after exploring agile people strategies here at Hot Spots Movement, what I think we should be asking is how to integrate them.[ii]
We are increasingly moving away from the 9-5, from which people can clock off and assume their out-of-office identity. With technology enabling a 24/7 culture and people demanding flexible, agile ways of working, our work and our personal lives are becoming more and more interwoven. Instead of allowing our work to monopolise our time and become the core part of our identity (something psychologists call “work-role centrality”) or viewing our work as something that begins and ends and is entirely separate from other aspects of our lives, integrating our identities enables us to be our authentic selves at all times, living and working according to our values and passions.[iii]
The rise in thinking about work-life integration focuses on scheduling time to disconnect and break away from our desks at multiple points throughout the day to ensure that we are maintaining our vitality and sustaining our productivity. Perhaps this can be as easy as using our lunch breaks more effectively, for example, to go to the gym, attend a lecture or catch up on that tv episode you missed. It might be leaving work early to make sure you have dinner with your family or friends and making up that time at home later on.
To fully integrate our work-life identities, we should consider how to reignite or reinforce our connection with work. Instead of perceiving work as something we have to switch off from, how can we make work more meaningful and more aligned with our other identities?
Firstly, we can seek out new projects. When current work isn’t stimulating, we should find new ways to feed our intellectual curiosity. Seeking new challenges and a greater variety within our working day may help us to gain a whole new perspective on what work means to us and what really holds our interest. Similarly, pursuing new skills that we’re passionate about mastering or gain new knowledge on a topic we’ve always been interested in can raise both our engagement and sense of purpose at work.[iv]
Expanding our networks and meeting diverse people can introduce us not only to potential new friends but to potential new futures for ourselves, as these connections may be able to offer advice and guidance as we forge new career paths. Attending external conferences, lectures and events, or reaching out to colleagues from different internal functions are simple ways to integrate our work with our other interests.
To stop your work identity from becoming your only identity, find ways to integrate and align your work with your passions, interests and talents. To talk more about our identities at work, drop me an email at email@example.com
[i] Al Gini, ‘Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do’ (1998).
by Anna Gurun, Research Manager.
How many times have you wished that there were more hours in the day? At our recent Masterclass, we explored how organisations can work with their employees to build a narrative on the future of work, and discussions on time as a resource particularly resonated with our members. Time is both a construct that contextualises our lives, and a resource that impacts the decisions we make for how to spend or save it, and therefore our happiness and well-being. So how can organisations rethink time to help improve the happiness and productivity of their employees? Here are two questions that will help you think about this in the context of your company:
- Do we really know how we spend our time?
For many professionals working in high-pressure jobs, time is status. The busier you are the more important you are. In fact, people often overestimate the number of hours they work, remembering their busiest week as typical. One study found that people estimating 75 plus hour work weeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours. To enable people to accurately assess how they are investing their time, organisations can consider new tools such as time-tracking apps that run in the background of computer operating systems. This replaces perceptions with data and could enable people to cut out activities that are taking time but adding little value. Better still, assessing an organisation’s culture to ensure that presenteeism is not an indicator of status will help people make effective decisions about when to work and for how long. This starts with leaders and line managers role modelling healthy work hours.
- Are we balancing our time horizons?
In addition to misunderstanding how we spend our time, we also make rigid divisions between the present/short-term and the future/long-term, with significant implications for decision making. A focus on the short-term can be constricting, with employees much less likely to invest in activities with delayed payoffs, such as learning. When people think short-term, they tend to view time as a scare resource and are more likely to make trade-offs, thinking about whether they should do something. Viewing the future as abstract, they put off decisions that could be beneficial in the longer term, like saving or learning. This is a problem for organisations, particularly those going through change and therefore requiring people to learn new skills and adapt behaviours. Research from the University of Stanford proposes that organisations take an elevated view of time. This involves viewing all units of time as equal. In this mosaic view of time, a day is like any other day, not more important because of its proximity to your present. This zoomed out perspective forces people to consider now and later, making the future less abstract and pulling potential opportunities into the present. 
Time is a key organisational resource, and to support employees in investing in their future learning and saving, companies must rethink time, starting with taking an elevated view.
Perhaps begin by asking yourself the questions above: ‘How accurately do I understand how I use my time? And, what is my default time orientation – short term or longer term?’ Then consider this in the context of your team. It may be the key to freeing up the most precious resource we have as individuals and organisations.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
 Yanofsky, D. (Oct 18, 2012), ‘Study: People claiming to work more than 70 hours a Week are totally lying, probably’, The Atlantic
 Mogilner, C. Hershfiel, H.E and Aaker, J. (2018) ‘Rethinking Time – Implications for well-being’ Consumer Pscyhology Review 1-41, 53
Blog by Emma Birchall for the Huffington Post and Hot Spots Movement
In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor labored away in dirty, dangerous and dull work.
Today, in developed countries the situation is quite the opposite. For the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?
It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.
The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached “the dignity of labor [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.” The dignity of labor “kept adults from drink and children from mischief,” by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today?
According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organizations and our “busyness” has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?
A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries “cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.”
Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when “studies are organized […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,” making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.
While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of “no required output”? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their “20 percent time to play” rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas.
In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, “pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.”
Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of “a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.” We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment.
Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: “there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”