COVID-19 and the Workplace: Exploring the Power of “e” Within Our Organizations
How a global pandemic is making the workplace more humane
In advanced mathematics, the constant “e” (yes, that tiny little lower-case vowel) is a pretty big deal. Frequently used in complex equations, it holds eminent importance – allowing one to explore the most complicated problems with elegant simplicity.
In the English language, tacking an “e” onto the end of a word can also be quite powerful, leading to grande variations in meaning, intent and purpose.
And in the midst of a global pandemic, “e” is transforming how we see and engage with one another – taking us from human to humane.
Will this shift remain once normalcy sets in? Let’s explore.
People Are Our Greatest Asset
As business leaders, we say it often. “People are our greatest asset.” While we once measured workplace effectiveness with an eye on first costs, we now understand that 90% of an organization’s expenditures are related to people. Today, success is measured in terms of a company’s ability to attract, engage, inspire and retain talent. And “employee impact” is a top priority when evaluating business decisions.
So, when COVID-19 challenged SmithGroup and corporations worldwide to change their operations seemingly overnight, it wasn’t a surprise to see norms that generally define “business and usual” become a bit more relaxed. Now, Work-From-Home set-ups are largely proving successful, and teams (including SmithGroup’s 1,300 employees) are demonstrating that they can effectively work and collaborate remotely. What is, perhaps, more compelling are the unexpected, humanizing shifts in outlook, attitude and understanding that are emerging as a result of this crisis.
Interpersonal Dynamics & the Workplace
The scope, intensity and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly caused seismic shifts in organizational operations. While there has been much discussion regarding physical transformations and policy changes that will likely take place as employees return to the workplace, I find myself pondering a more ethereal question: “Has our experience with COVID-19 fundamentally changed our perspective of human capital?” Now that we have seen colleagues (and they have seen us) in home settings. And glimpsed plants, artwork, furnishings, photographs. And shown off pets. And met children. And shared the fears, struggles, triumphs and failures that come from being quarantined #TogetherApart for months…“Will this unique, shared experience lead to richer, more authentic interpersonal dynamics within our workplaces?”
Which brings us back to the power of “e”. As we prepare to restart our economy and return to the physical workplace, let us explore five factors that have shaped interpersonal dynamics during the COVID-19 quarantine and will likely impact the value we place on human capital long after the pandemic subsides.
Historically, displaying personal sentiment within the workplace has been considered a faux pas. But as rising sick tolls, closing of offices, government mandated stay-at-home orders, school closures, diminishing access to healthcare services and personal supplies, and economic uncertainties rolled in, employees were hit with tidal waves of emotion. Business leaders found themselves in uncharted territories. Previously accustomed to maintaining professional distance, supervisors and teammates of all tenures have stepped in (some asked, some on their own accord) to help colleagues address emotions, relieve stress, overcome challenges and defuse fears. As a result, we are seeing “typical” workplace boundaries fade as new personal connections and greater levels of trust emerge within teams.
If up-ending day-to-day work routines wasn’t challenging enough, add to that the heartache and disappointment that comes from mounting personal loss: holidays, graduations, class trips, sporting events, weddings, vacations, celebrations and social gatherings of all varieties postponed or cancelled. Recognizing the impact that such loss has had on colleagues, leaders and teammates have rallied to organize virtual birthday parties, baby showers, cocktail hours, coffee breaks, luncheons, and other activities to mitigate disappointment and boost morale. Additionally, many have allocated time at the beginning of meetings to allow participants to “check in” and share how they are coping with work and personal concerns. Even leaders known for maintaining personal distance have opened up to share concerns weighing on their minds. Once deemed taboo, connecting on this personal level is not only helping employees reduce stress; it is also fostering trust, personal growth and collaboration in unexpected ways.
Guiding an organization through a global crisis is not a test that most leaders anticipate having to deal with. Nonetheless, employees will remember how their company and its leaders reacted to the challenges levied by COVID-19 long after we return to the office. Did leaders demonstrate concern for the health and well-being of employees and their families? What steps did leadership take to help employees adjust to remote work practices? How frequently did leaders communicate with employees during the crisis? Were messages honest, transparent and authentic? Leaders that acted swiftly, decisively, and placed employees’ well-being central to their companies’ response plans will be respected and appreciated for their actions. Where does your organization fall on that spectrum? More importantly, what kind of example you have set for future leaders within your company?
Studies indicate that engaged employees are happier, both at work and in their personal lives. So, the importance of keeping employees engaged while quarantined and working remotely during a crisis—when business and personal concerns can’t easily be untwined—has been vital during these unprecedented times. Traditionally, engagement strategies focus on enhancing corporate culture within a physical workplace to improve productivity and efficiency, reduce turnover and enhance an organization’s bottom line. During this pandemic, organizations have been challenged to maintain meaningful interaction with clients and employees alike. As a result, adaptability and innovation have flourished. New technologies have enabled critical operations such as client meetings, workshops, interviews and the like to continue to move forward. And our oh-so-creative employees have found new applications to stay connected with colleagues while working apart. As we prepare to reignite the country’s economic engine, building upon these innovations will help to advance our collective mission – to get back to where we were before COVID-19 paralyzed our world.
This experience has illuminated much about the resiliency of the human spirit. Our teammates have gone above and beyond to help clients, colleagues and our communities find a silver lining in each phase of this crisis. While many are anxious to get back to business as usual, let us return enlightened with the lessons learned during this experience and replicate them as we move forward.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, which moved exponentially faster with every business cycle, many employees reported experiencing isolation and burnout. This crisis has afforded us the unique opportunity to adopt healthier modes of interacting with colleagues, family and friends. I, personally, am hopeful that the humanizing “side effects” that we are seeing emerge within our workplaces during the pandemic will become embedded in our corporate culture just as much as social distancing no doubt will. Though there are many conversations to be had regarding health, safety, preparedness, recovery and the implications to physical workspace, I hope that our renewed focus on creating more humane connections in the workplace will propel us all to design a better future for our clients, our communities and ourselves.