A memo from the future:
I mean seriously… Did he actually suggest that productivity was up because people were spending longer online? Next they’ll be reporting on Zoom call hours like they’re an indicator of business success. If colleagues catch on to the fact that tech are monitoring their screen activity and reporting it to leadership, that’ll completely decimate everything we’ve done to support the trust and culture piece through lockdown.
And isn’t productivity really still the thing? I thought we’d nailed this one last year. It’s not how many hours of coding or lines of code we get from a dev that matters. It’s the quality of the code that counts!
I’m also struggling to understand how five months into lockdown people are still saying productivity is high when our event series is cancelled, the sales leads are grounded, mission creep is reported from every corner and content output is down 25%. An employee reporting that their home workplace enables them to work productively is imperatively important in making sure we’re looking after their ability to contribute, but it is not a reliable measure of corporate productivity—it is simply an indicator of whether their home setting supports them in their role. I’ll try and get the CFO on side on this tomorrow.
I want us to try and shift the perspective. We really have very little understanding, apart from some anecdotal evidence and our assumptions, as to how colleagues are coping both emotionally and physically. Some could be home-based well into winter (at least four more Bay Area companies have come out and said December is their revised earliest timeframe before ‘normality’ returns). The headline grabbing statistics tell us anxiety levels are high, but I need to unpack the causes further. If colleague sentiment is drifting, we have to know where the tide is taking them.
And although we’ve been able to ‘save’ the vast majority of jobs, January bonus season is going to be grim as teams realise quite how bad things have gotten. New Year pay cuts will replace the usual incremental increases for many, I think. A great deal of employees have family members in industries that are really going to struggle to rebound, and with kids on this new four-day school week, we still have months of juggling ahead of us.
The key issues as I see it are:
- We do have a duty of care. Though perhaps not a legal requirement, we have a moral obligation to our people—for them to be, and feel, safe, where possible, we need to try and minimise emotional stressors. We all know employees are happier and more productive when they feel a sense of belonging, but how do we recreate this when we’re still scattered across thousands of homes, and some rotate back to the office every three weeks? I hear various departments have pulled back on Slack channels, and I know the regular company updates over Zoom have become very ‘sanitised’. The number dialling in last week was significantly lower again.
- And then how do we filter the Slack conversations and Zoom stand-ups from some of the stuff being posted by those who lack empathy or EQ?
- We need to further engage with CRE/FM to explain the areas of super-sensitivity. I think they’ve done an awesome job on most fronts, technically speaking, but those spaces where it’s just not possible to distance yourself from others (like washroom lobbies) are causing concerns. Do you remember all that stuff years back on hand-dryers vs paper towels? The stuff from the workers councils and the German university about jet-propelled airborne bugs? Well, it’s back.
- Can we get some fresh data on home work settings? I Zoomed one of my team members yesterday and he had got out of the city again, this time back to his parents, and he took the call in his parent’s spare bedroom from the dressing table on a wooden chair stolen from the kitchen, while I’m sat here on my Aeron in my attic with a view of the forest and local wildlife, and I suddenly realised I’m literally sat in my workplace ivory tower. We may have sent laptop stands and the odd monitor out, and doing so certainly helped create a sense of calm, but there’s no way he can stay committed and engaged indefinitely working at his sister’s old pine dressing table!
- This brings me to the engagement survey results. I still think you were right to get it out and back the week before the shutdown, but having questioned the year-on-year value of a survey where year-to-year the only thing that changes is the consultant’s fee (for every team down there’s one that’s up), this is surely now our biggest risk. Because we know employee experience is the foundation of engagement, and the experience they are having at home is all over the place. And what happens when they come back? The work FM has done is great, but everything employees are desperate to come back to are the very things FM will try and stop them from doing!
- We know a lot of managers reported concerns around trust: either a perceived lack of trust from one party or an actual issue with performance. We can deal with underperformance using our usual procedures, but how do we re-build trust in the face of an economic downturn? We have disengaged, anxious and worried people, yet now more than ever we need them to dial up the discretionary effort.
Technologists made the crisis management phase of the COVID lockdown response look pretty easy logistically. Although we’ll perhaps look back and remind them that the pre-COVID resistance to the mass arming of employees with mobile tech alongside their spuriously reasoned historic resistance to user experience centred applications like Zoom or Teams now look pretty meaningless. But the next stage is wholly different.
Business continuity plans rarely, if ever, have forecasted the implications of the mass scattering of every single employee to their homes, where they would then work for months.
It might have planned for the loss of one building in your estate, but not every building in your estate, your suppliers’ estates and your competitor’s estates. The impact on employees of such disruption has never been considered, because it hasn’t had to be.
As we move past the crisis management phase to managing a new version of business as usual, the conversation must turn toward engagement and connection, as employers start to realise the risk of employees falling prey to a sentiment drift. Eight short weeks ago, organisations placed immense significance on the role of workplaces as beacons of an organisation’s unique culture, values and reason for being. They gave employees a daily dose of that organisational secret sauce and were integral in a sense of common purpose. Almost overnight they were ripped out of that equation, and so the spotlight moves from IT to HR.
The situational response being taken by many businesses is to ignore the immediate risk and focus instead on the promise of reoccupation. For many, this is starting to take the form of a phased or rotational part reoccupation which, on the surface, appears to work. It limits loads and densities, lowers the number of daily interactions, allows for increased cleaning regimes and generally provides a level of comfort to employees knowing they are less at risk, while giving as many as possible a little bit of that secret sauce.
But how do organisations know they are getting the mix right? Who returns when and for how long in each rotation, the lucky few or unlucky few?
Our early findings, based on data from c. 7,000 employees, suggests that particular groups and functions are already struggling more than others: Legal and Marketing teams specifically. We can speculate this is due to their roles having a heavy knowledge share (Legal) and creative (Marketing) focus. In comparison, roles which appear to be more digital and less collaborative are faring well from home.
Additionally, some demographics are coping better than others. The forecast “death of the office” might help the CFO manage the gale-force economic storm brewing round the headland, but the request to consider a 50% cut in real estate footprint was doubtless mailed from a ‘spare’ bedroom long since converted to home office / man cave / home gym. Assume at your peril that your younger cohort will love the flexibility and freedom of home working, as it is not supported by the data. They contend with smaller shared spaces or confine themselves to bedrooms because the housemate grabbed the two-seater breakfast table that day.
If we return to the immediate risk of disengagement, this younger cohort needs particular focus. Our research has long since identified that ‘learning from others’, ‘informal social interaction’ and ‘relaxing / taking a break’ are more important to them than their older peers.
HR teams need to mobilise processes to understand the here and now. They need to understand their sentiment baseline and then chart which way it is drifting and for whom.
COVID has no respect for geographic boundaries, and its impact on your organisation will equally have little respect for how employees previously connected with the organisation.
Monitoring employee sentiment is a vital part of informing both short-term and long-term decisions around policies, portfolio and practices. By understanding how effective we are now compared to how effective we have been, we are able to look at how effective we can be.
It is highly likely our mid-term recovery plans will need to be extremely adaptive and agile, so organisations will need to upskill their leadership and management in topics like flexibility and choice. Choice to work from the location that suits you best. Flexibility to select when that is. To further integrate work and life, juggling family and personal commitments in a way that suits. And that might change again next week.
All of this has been a huge focus of HR functions for some time but perhaps, if managed well, will become one of the very few but welcome positives of the current crisis. The remainder of 2020 could be the perfect time to re-launch a campaign on this—to clarify policies and empower employees to feel ownership over what they do, where they do it from and when they do it while also arming managers with the appropriate tools and understanding to not just allow but encourage flexibility in all its forms.
Leesman has a decade’s worth of compelling data on both employee experience and the competitive advantage of choice and flexibility. We know the factors that encourage connectivity, productivity and knowledge sharing, and we also know what prevents them. Our global research tells us that if you get these factors right, employees display immense pride. Pride interacts closely with talent retention and discretionary effort metrics, so it is also a valuable indicator in anxious and uncertain times. It is proof of connection—a sense of loyalty between employer and employee. In the post-COVID economic recovery phase, this will play a huge role, and it positions workplace as a critical strategic asset in organisational re-growth.
COVID is an unseen enemy, threatening our personal safety, curtailing our freedoms and risks derailing countless numbers of employees from roles they thought were good for them. Managing the emotional response to these challenges needs more empathy and active listening than ever before, and it needs real estate strategies that are sympathetic to those. It needs CRE and FM teams to be at one with HR leaders. Perhaps it’s time to accept that we are ultimately talking about employee experience, where experience is everything from where you work, to the technology you are provided, to the colleagues you work alongside. Perhaps it’s time for multiple functions to come together under one commander in chief – a head of employee experience.