2020 has undoubtedly been the year of change for companies everywhere. What has the impact been on your organizational values and employee motivation? How about the culture that the company worked so hard to influence and maintain?
There is an urgency to this topic as companies have tried hard to pivot business strategy, product development, how they sell, customer service, and every other necessary function to stay in business. However, they may have forgotten to address the biggest concern of all the people aspect. Or perhaps they want to address it, but it has been pushed down as a priority – and “keeping the business moving” has become the critical element for now.
Begin the Discussions
March 2020 started many businesses down a road of urgent changes to business plans, including lay-offs or altering terms of employment for staff. Remote workforces were formed almost simultaneously to changes in operations, budgets, product designs, selling practices, and generally everything related to ensuring business continuity and success. Many businesses had to take necessary actions to survive, but it came with the cost of employees feeling disposable. One friend said, “I feel less valuable than toilet paper right now!” What a thought! It quite graphically illustrates how employees have felt since COVID-19 hit the workforce. So, the discussion today is geared toward the employee. How can companies start the conversations to pivot quickly enough not to lose their hardest-working employees?
COVID-19 has left a wake of deep scars on so many levels. Companies, and their people, will be recuperating long after they have recovered financially.
A Bruised Culture
Take a look at the culture your organization worked hard to influence and maintain. You hired right, and you were following your Employee Lifecycle Plan. Then it came time to reduce the workforce. You tried hard to retain the top talent, and those that best fit your culture. Still, through the RIF process and position eliminations, you lost many good people that were initially hired carefully. Look back at that time in your business and consider; what happened to your culture after any COVID-19-related RIFs? What you had left was a badly bruised culture that needed some nurturing.
Employees were feeling uncertain and had lost their confidence and motivation. Yes, it is true; businesses were all facing uncertainty. Well, so were the employees. From their perspective, it wasn’t just about the company surviving. It was about their survival too. It was about their families, shifts to working from a different environment, lockdown mandates, fear of the unknown, children who were home in new learning routines, and loss of extra-curricular activities. All the while, they had to worry about the health and jobs of their families, friends, work associates, and their communities. Many were placed in alternate jobs than what they were hired for. Reducing staff means “wearing more hats” for employees. Suppose they didn’t have the experience to do the new tasks. In that case, it could significantly impair their confidence and motivation, especially if the time for sufficient training and development didn’t come with the change to their job.
The culture, as it once was, suffered a very distinct and intrinsic change. While businesses were focused on survival, so were their employees. What happens when you suffer a significant change without good communication or outlet? What happens to any relationship when there is a lack of communication? There is a definite shift in attitude, motivation, empathy, investment in the relationship, and much more. So, while the business was focused on survival, there was a distinct “cooling off” within the culture and the emotional investment from employees.
Okay, we have identified some things that went wrong in keeping the employees motivated, engaged, and connected. As the nation faces another possible lockdown and impact on their business, the employees are preparing for another scary rollercoaster ride. Have we learned anything about the first go-around? What are the key learnings?
Urgent Action Needed
How many employees did your organization lose, outside of a reduction in force or the expected that comes with significant organizational change? The answer is essential. It makes the difference in determining how well your company has handled crisis leadership and communication. Here are a few things to consider and to start the right discussions with your leadership team as part of an urgent set of actions.
Readdress what you want your culture to be as an organization. Look back at when you had the “perfect operationalized plan” for the culture and values you tried to instill as an organization. It is time to readdress those. Do you know if the needs have changed? You don’t have to scrap everything and start over, but it will be important to assess what has changed and what has to happen to get back on track.
Look at the Employee Lifecycle Plan that your organization has in place. If you are like many organizations, you may need to refocus on hitting all the stages. For instance, recognition, performance management, engagement, communication, and retention. Also, how has your company ensured that the “first interaction” remains positive? Mainly with hiring freezes and start/stops to job position advertisements? Has your company provided that no candidate goes unanswered? On the other end of the cycle, has your company ensured that the employee leaves with dignity? The employee should feel respected even during the most challenging exit conversations. Remember, this is the company they gave some- or much- of their life to.
Assess and address your Company Communication Plan. How have you kept the conversations as open and transparent as possible throughout the changes that COVID-19 has imposed on your business? Who is delivering the communication? Why is that important? Every manager and team leader should be involved in delivering the message from the top down. Does your company invest in a proper communication strategy? Perhaps, enlisting a team that sits on an “internal communication advisory board,” with the mission to consistently review and suggest an appropriate communication forum?
Seek answers from your employees. What is impacting their teams the most right now? What do they see as the priorities to fix that hurt their daily routine and work projects? How do you ask without chaos in the return of responses? Consider a “priority matrix” assignment to all teams to help them start discussions on what their challenges are. Employees will likely find that the difficulties they feel hold commonality with other team members. Push them further to set team goals and solve those problems together. For issues that need “next level assistance,” they will have the team’s thoughts organized already- due to the priority matrix. To dig even deeper, have your top management review the team priority matrixes to note commonalities with other teams within the organization. You will quickly find what the employees are feeling and dealing with as a whole.
Address how your company can offer real help through COVID-19. Want an excellent social responsibility project? Employees love to help communities. Let them! How can your company support employees to help out the community? Some companies support this through volunteer work allowances. In the world of COVID, where employees are shut-in their homes, they may do volunteer work remotely. I have heard of companies allowing employees 1-2 hours of work time per week to engage in virtual volunteer work. For instance, in the HR community, I have seen recruitment and resume help provided by professionals who do this normally. Does it have to be based on work skills only? Be creative! Perhaps the employee feels value in helping through a mental health or suicide hotline. Or, maybe your employee wants to lend some of their skills to the youth in the community for an hour a week. How about other virtual training for the youth or elderly for entry or re-entry into the workforce? There are so many ideas, and likely, your employees have them.
What do you think your company can do – or what have they already done – to ensure their employees stay active and engaged during COVID-19? COVID-19 will eventually end; the question is, will you still have the best employees on your team?
Special recognition and thanks: In the spirit of helping my teenager, as a new artist during the pandemic, I used her artwork in this article.