We’re Productive, But Are We ‘Okay?’

Your company may appear to be functioning heroically in the midst of a pandemic, but it pays to look under the surface to make sure all is truly well.

Leaders across industries have done a miraculous job in shifting to a virtual work model, while keeping productivity high, IT functioning and customers served.

Yet this leads me to ask: are we spending enough time understanding the deeper psychological needs of our human capital, who now find themselves in a fully remote working environment? Are we, as leaders, too focused on keeping the engine running and therefore failing to ensure the emotional needs of our employees are being met during this strange and difficult time?

From what I have seen over the past year, the following themes have risen to the forefront:

• A “Them vs. Us” phenomenon. Some people who must continue to work from a physical location, such as construction, manufacturing or healthcare workers, hold concerns about safety. These employees might even envy those who can work from home. Yet the employees who are working from home may long for the kind of structure and social interaction that a physical work venue might provide. This has the potential to create a “them vs. us” division within the workforce—a rather odd cultural issue that leadership needs to address, to ensure they aren’t unknowingly creating two competing cultures within the same organization, with each group of employees thinking the grass is greener on the other side.

• Your valuable female employees may be “flight risks.” A startling result of the impact of Covid-19 is that women are leaving the workforce at a significantly higher rate than men. Recent data released by the U.S. Department of Labor indicates the rate could be as much as four times that of men. The burden of parenting, running a household, schooling and caring for elderly relatives has taken a disproportionate toll on women. Many women are finding that this burden, coupled with career demands, is simply too great and are making the difficult decision to withdraw from the workplace. If unaddressed, this talent drain could have a devastating impact on organizations and set back decades of achievements in diversity efforts across corporate America.

• The interplay between isolation & low morale. That palpable sense of team spirit we once felt while hanging out around the water cooler is harder to cultivate when connecting through a screen. Regardless of the business you are in, physical distance makes it more difficult for human beings to foster a true collaborative spirit. We can no longer feed off each other’s energy in the room, and meetings have become more transactional in nature. With video as our primary mode of communication, we see each other only in little boxes. We spend less time wandering off the agenda and checking in with one another on a personal level. But—at what cost? Are employees feeling increasingly isolated? How is their morale?

• Blurring of work & personal lives—Rather than packing up one’s bags and commuting to work, most now start their day by turning on the computer at the crack of dawn. What’s more, workdays often stretch longer into the evening than they did pre-Covid-19. The fact that work and personal lives are being experienced by many in the same physical setting can make it hard to create that much-needed separation between career and personal life. Commuting time, which many of us used to complain about, has, in many cases, become an “extension” of the workday. Yet that time we once spent listening to music while driving or reading a book on the train provided a psychological barrier between life inside and outside of the office which has now dissipated.

So, how can leaders chip away at these issues, all while being constrained by a relatively inflexible set of pandemic-related factors which fall outside of their control?

• Pull down the veil.

Many leaders may shy away from having open conversations with their employees about their feelings and needs, for fear that they will be unrealistic in their requests and, if not properly addressed, employees will grow even more unhappy. But this pattern of thinking and behavior creates a vicious cycle of leaders not listening to employees, and employees, in turn, not approaching leaders with their questions and concerns. Yet, at the end of the day, everyone knows what we are going through—everyone knows this is hard. Rather than seeking to get every problem solved, what employees might be looking for from their leaders is simply a listening ear, to feel heard. They want someone to share in their experience and perhaps brainstorm potential solutions for incremental improvement. Now more than ever, employees are longing for that sense of community and to see the human side of those leading them through this crisis.

• Show how the grass is green (and a little brown) on both sides.

To me, the “us vs. them” culture issue can be addressed by making sure people understand that whatever their needs are, based on their work situation, those needs are actively being addressed. For example, if safety arises as a key concern among on-site workers, taking steps to create a safer work environment will add comfort to those employees’ lives. Similarly, taken steps to address isolation of flexibility can be comforting to remote worker. Rather than talking to each group in isolation, transparency across the entire organization can work in leaders’ favor. If one group of employees understands what the other group’s needs are, and how they are being met, leaders can subliminally communicate that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side—that no situation is perfect—and that there’s reason on all sides to be grateful.

• Address the burden Covid-19 has placed on parents.

At Kotter, we recognize the disproportionate burden Covid-19 is placing on our employees who are parents of younger children or caring for elderly parents. As a result, we have offered any employee in this situation the ability to take off up to 20% of time with full pay and benefits. We are hoping this additional flexibility will be sufficient to allow these valuable employees the ability manage the increased demand of family and career and remain a critical component of our workforce. We fully recognize the perception of treating one employee group more favorably than another, but we see it is treating people “differently” as opposed to “favorably,” based on their needs and circumstances. This may also result in the need to hire additional resources. But, in the end, we believe we are doing what is best for the entire organization and employees.

• Create small opportunities for change.

The more leaders truly understand what challenges their employees are dealing with, the more likely they will be able to imagine relatively easy-to-implement, but impactful, changes that could improve the lives of their employees. At Kotter, our consultants were complaining about their workdays being filled with back-to-back calls, with every moment scheduled. As leaders, we raised the idea to consolidate calls where possible, making 30-minute calls 20 minutes and hour-long calls 45 minutes, to intentionally create moments of space when people could catch their breath, get a snack, use the restroom or walk outside. Yet we wouldn’t have identified this obstacle or implemented a solution if we didn’t have an open conversation with our employees to begin with.

• Take advantage of the flexibility.

We have encouraged people at Kotter to take advantage of the flexibility of working from home by blocking out personal time—time which would otherwise fall within the “normal” workday—to run an errand, go for a walk, or take an uninterrupted lunch break. If it’s true that we are signing on earlier and powering down later, why couldn’t we take advantage of this more flexible schedule to take some time for ourselves in the middle of the day for self-care, cleaning, cooking, or walking the dog? If leaders merely give employees permission for these types of mid-day breaks, and if workers give permission to their fellow workers to step away from their computers, we could collectively shift those “unwritten rules” that were followed in a pre-Covid-19 setting to take advantage of the more flexible, virtual environment.

Ultimately, by addressing these issues, leaders can differentiate themselves in a time of crisis, showing compassion for their employees’ emotional wellbeing, which could result not only in higher productivity, but also, more importantly, in greater loyalty, collaboration and retention in the long-term. When the Covid-19 crisis is finally behind us, workers will long remember, and much will be written about how organizations responded on their behalf.

Leaders, begin writing your legacy today.

Rick Western, CEO at Kotter, is an expert in transformational change in complex global organizations and has spent more than 35 years assisting Fortune 100 companies with strategic initiatives, leading development activities and managing business units. He can be reached at rick.western@kotterinc.com.