With the relaxation of restrictions by the governments to stimulate economic growth; businesses slowly crawling back to normalcy and recovery. While business activity seems to be gathering speed, there is little sense of relief amongst the corporate leadership as the scars left by the pandemic will take a long time to heal. Post covid-19 scenario is posing some serious challenges for the business leaders to manage not just business recovery but also emotional recovery of their employees.
I do believe that the business story will go to script, the people side of the story can have a lot going on below the surface. All might not be hunky-dory after all. Let’s look at some of the possible challenges which leaders might face while navigating the post covid-19 scenario.
Mental / emotional wellness
This fact cannot be denied that the lockdown, work-from-home, recalibration of work relationships, fear of losing jobs, lowered income, uncertainty, loss of someone dear and fear of continuous monitoring and scrutiny not just of work but in personal life has taken a toll on the mental and emotional well-being of employees. Though it could possibly be a stretch to imagine that people may exhibit signs similar to PTSD, it could be closer to that. Its like the soldiers or the doctors who find the normal life to be so inconsequential compared to the combat like situations they have seen on the field. Many would have encountered life changing moments which would have made them significantly redraw and recalibrate the way they would like to lead their life going forward. Now, with normalcy returning the fear that things would go back to old ways and drudgery, will be weighing heavily in the minds of the employees.
One of the positive fallouts of the pandemic was that the social wellness quotient seems to have significantly improved. The upheaval had caused the society at large to collaborate and support each other to face the challenges posed by covid-19. People demonstrated more empathy and care for others as they handled the crisis as a team. They reconnected all those relationships which they had long forgotten. Discussions moved away from just work and productivity to the well-being of self and others. Increased use of digital platforms and social media networks during the pandemic helped increase the level and frequency of communication. Keeping people connected 24X7. There was a level of honesty and transparency and people felt comfortable being vulnerable with each other as they knew that all of humanity was going through this emotional upheaval.
So, what then is the challenge for leaders? Employees are wary that they will no longer be able to spend that much time in self-care once they get back to the routine working patterns of the past. They are wary that they would not have enough time with their family and relations and the balance they were able to achieve working from home will be lost. More like an opportunity cost. There is a danger of people now getting back to their competitive ways and away from looking at the larger good. In the light of renewing face-to-face contact, people would again start drawing up their defensive walls in order to protect themselves. Fear of being vulnerable at workplace will reappear in the minds of employees. That would mean that leaders may find that people are suddenly withdrawn and cagy.
Informal networks, quick decision making, effective and efficient meetings, clear and concise communication and high level of collaborative work, absence of subjective judgments, were some significant outcomes, thanks to the pandemic. Getting back to work team members would fear all that would vanish and the conflicts which were rested or forgotten because of the crisis would resurface once they join regular work. Team members during the pandemic could act independently and were given the freedom to decide and act on their own as long as they delivered results. With the return to work the fear is of the hovering boss, the competitive colleague and limited freedom to operate. The team and its members will be anxious about their future. Businesses would possibly try to cut down expenses or would have planned for recalibrating teams that could impact negatively. The uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity would add to the woes of the team members and negatively impact the overall mental wellness of the team.
The leaders themselves would have gone through great emotional upheaval due to the pandemic. They would have seen several senior leadership positions being done away with already in order to cut costs. Some positions were also made redundant thanks to the digital driven monitoring and control of performance. Leaders themselves would be highly anxious about their jobs and their future. This could significantly impact the way they would receive their teams when they return to work. Leaders would also be susceptible to significant trust deficit with their team members as they would have unfortunately been tasked with relieving a lot of people from their jobs. Team members would be tentative in all their interactions with such leaders. Leaders would also have in their own anxiety been possibly insensitive while dealing with team members during the covid-19 period. They would have become intrusive and overbearing towards their team members, thereby negatively impacting the relationship. Rebuilding trust will be a significant challenge for leadership while navigating the post covid-19 recovery.
How can a leader navigate the post covid-19 recovery phase?
Leadership needs to realize that it is not going to be as easy as it looks – getting back to work and start doing what they were doing before. They may have to take a long hard look at the old habits of leading businesses and teams. They have to re-prioritize, re-plan, adjust and redirect their resources for managing the recovery process. Leaders need to focus once again on the four key dimensions of high-performance teams – the S.T.A.R™
In order for leaders to address the emotional and mental wellness of their employees, there will be a need to stimulate a communication climate which will be based on feedback, listening and more importantly sensitivity. Teams would have to again go through with the forming, storming, norming and performing stages of development which comes with its unique set of challenges post covid-19. They will be tasked with the need to hold ‘the critical dialogue’ or difficult conversation with their team members which would involve communicating new roles and responsibilities, work processes, performance goals and metrics.
There should be regular and extensive use of feedback in order to create the much-needed buy-in for the renewed work process. The social distancing norms of a physical workspace would mean that people might not be as comfortable in each other’s company as they continue to grapple with the anxiety of the “what if”. During the pandemic because of the remote working environment, there was a forced need for regular feedback, as that was the only way you could keep up to speed with what your colleague was doing. The interdependencies were visible and clear. That will get blurred as when leaders return to work, they may withdraw to old ways of working where ‘feedback’ would have often been minimal. Seeking feedback from ‘Employee Mental Wellness’ surveys will be an important step to take before getting the wheels of office work in motion.
Leaders must encourage employees to speak up as often and as frequently as was the case while working remotely. They must ‘actively listen’ to their concerns and seek to address them before they snowball into another crisis, this time driven by employee anxiety and emotional wellness issues. They will have to put in the extra effort to have their eyes and ears to the ground and pick up even the slightest sign of distress amongst co-workers and deal with them immediately. Remote working had helped employees to put their thoughts in digital form without any fear as they didn’t have to come face to face in meeting rooms with their leadership. The small group side-conversations to discuss each other’s problems online was what helped many deal with their emotional issues in the safety of their home. Leaders must provide the space and time for people to engage in similar conversations in the office to reduce stress.
Back to physical workspace would demand a high level of sensitivity from the leadership in dealing with employee emotions and understanding their mental state. People would have redrawn their family roles and responsibilities and were just about getting into the comfort zone of collaborating on chores on a daily basis. Help was ready any time any family member wanted; right from helping with the dishes, children’s study, tidying up the rooms – all pitched in. Leaders must understand that when you call the employees back to work, they not only have to deal with the renewed work process but also with the emotional pain of redrawing their familial responsibilities. People cannot simply switch on and off from work and family as you would tend to expect. Heightened level of sensitivity will be the key. There is a need to not just communicate, but overcommunicate at this point.
The pandemic also brought about in employees the trauma of losing jobs, reduced incomes, blurred lines of roles and responsibilities. As businesses were trying to cut losses by reducing their physical office infrastructure, the casualty was also jobs. Though it was the demand of the situation and a hard decision for many businesses, they had no choice but to relieve many of their jobs. The problem was that those leaders who were tasked to communicate this difficult message have to face the remainder of employees. They would always be suspicious about their leader’s intention and every conversation, each move, will be closely scrutinized. The leadership themselves may be going through the anxiety as they must once again prove that they have and will manage the transition. The stress of exposure and increased vulnerability impacts ‘trust’ greatly.
What can leaders do to rebuild the potential loss of ‘trust’ in teams?
‘Openness and transparency’ in all transactions will be the key. Leaders must keep the employees engaged through dialogue. They must enhance the level of transparency in decision making and keep the employees informed and involved. Any closed-door meeting will be viewed with suspicion and should not be overlooked. Agendas need to be shared and spelt out to team members and feedback must be sought regularly to increase the level of openness.
‘Integrity’ of leadership will be put to test. Leaders need to walk-the-talk. All the promises and commitments made in the last one year just to keep the team in good spirits need to now be followed through with visible action. As the teams would have digital records of such conversations.
This would bring in the dimension of ‘data privacy and security’. Increased activity online during covid-19 pandemic also raised the concerns regarding cyber security. As people moved completely to the digital world, they exposed themselves to potential cyber-attacks on their personal data. As they heard how cyber criminals were taking advantage of the increase in online activity, now employees would carry forward such fears about privacy of official conversations as well. Employees will be concerned that the ‘spoken words’ which could during pre-covid times be denied are possibly recorded on online communication mediums. For example, a conversation regarding the boss in a chat room would now be vulnerable to exposure by any vested party. Leaders must take any negative conversation / gossip emerging from such sources with a pinch of salt and put to rest the fears that employees would have regarding misuse of their personal data.
Leaders must ease their teams into post covid-19 routines by continuing the informal networks, collaborative digital spaces, social media use and other informal activities they would got onto during the lockdown. An example could be celebrating the birthday or anniversary of a family member of the employee. During the pandemic, lot of companies found that team members were able to participate in social events of co-workers, getting to know them more personally, which contributed to increased bonding. The same in some form must continue once the teams return to physical workspaces. There will be increased pressure on leaders to enhance the level of ‘Trust’ in teams and openness, transparency, collaboration and integrity will be the key to achieve that at workplace.
When teams are faced with a crisis, the boundaries of work get blurred as everyone gets involved to ensure team success. People may take up additional responsibilities and roles which otherwise they would be reluctant to do or may not be tasked to do. This could also mean that they would have got a hands-on experience of working in a fluidic way. Decisions were made without much fuss, agreements arrived at quickly, meetings became very efficient and effective and there was a visible increase in ‘commitment’ of employees towards the larger goal. Discussions were no longer about “who will do what?” but “what can we do?” and “how to we get this done?”
With gradual return to physical workspaces, leaders will have to now relook and rewire the roles and responsibilities keeping in mind that they do not disturb the fallout benefits derived from the pandemic. They shouldn’t suddenly start drawing boundaries around roles such that people get back to their silos. The competency frameworks which existed pre-covid must be relooked at and employees must be coached to take on revised set of competencies which will help them in their way forward. Independence and delegation with not just responsibility but authority should be the way forward. Following through with employees on a regular basis must continue. Leaders must get out and ‘manage by walking and talking about’. Employees must be involved while redefining and redrawing roles and responsibilities. This will ensure ‘team wellness’ and increased level of accountability, leading to higher and sustained level of performance.
Surveys done with business leaders indicated that there was an increase in productivity of employees during the lockdown and remotely working from home. Employees were committed to deliver what was asked of them and did that by willingly stretching the working hours. As long as the work was getting done, people unlike in the past, were not complaining about not getting back home in time to be with family. The fact that they were with their family all of the time helped them to achieve the much needed ‘work-life balance’ or at least they could get a sense of the same.
In order for leaders to sustain the productivity levels of employees, they must be focused on providing the same level of balance to their people and create an environment where the focus is more on deliverables than on how many working hours is the employee putting in. Organizations who were otherwise giving flexible working hours only to the few privileged senior employees must rethink and see how they can integrate the same for all employees. Flexibility was one of the key factors contributing to employee productivity and that cannot and should not be taken away from them when they return to physical workspaces. Processes need to be put in place which will ensure that employees don’t feel the pressure of close monitoring and have the fear of the ‘hovering boss’ once again. Employees must be involved in re-defining goals and objectives to enhance “ownership”.