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COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment

During the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, leaders have had to make sweeping changes to address their employees’ most pressing needs such as safety, stability and security. However, as those basic needs are evolving calling for a more sophisticated approach, leaders are urged to build on the trust and affiliation they have earned by continuing to be present, action oriented, empathetic and fully transparent.

Dionysis Skandalos on October 16, 2020 Average reading time: 3 min
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COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment

In this insightful research, conducted by McKinsey, more than 800 US-based employees were surveyed on a wide variety of topics related to employee experience during the COVID-19 crisis.  Although more than 80% of the respondents say the crisis is materially affecting their daily work lives, however those statistics fail to confirm a more fundamental truth about employee experience which is that even when faced with similar circumstances, people have widely varied experiences, perspectives and outcomes.

Leaders can now segment their employees like they would their customers and tailor interventions to support them in personalised, targeted and meaningful ways.

In the return phase, companies will have to rethink the employee experience in ways that respect individual differences – home lives, skills and capabilities, mindsets, personal characteristics and other factors. The good news is that with advances in listening techniques, behavioral science, advanced analytics, two-way communication channels and other technologies, leaders can now segment their employees like they would their customers and tailor interventions to support them in personalised, targeted and meaningful ways.

Build trust: Keep listening to your workforce

By being readily available and helping employees give meaning to a crisis, (“sense making”) leaders can build employee resilience and social capital with their people. Moreover, they can help connect employees to the organization and to one another and can help enhance social connection and affiliation – not just formally but also by allowing informal and organic conversations to emerge.

Return stronger: Focus on workforce effectiveness and well being.

Mckinsey’s research found a strong correspondence between employees’ stated needs and the underlying drivers of their engagement, wellbeing and work effectiveness. Organisations should seek the most critical, prominent needs of the broader workforce, while taking stock of unique needs of different segments and individuals. The four areas that organisations should focus on during the return phase are: safety and security, relationships, culture and purpose.

Continue to meet the need for safety and security

To mitigate further effects of COVID-19, McKinsey’s Organization Practice recently published a series of articles providing leaders with the research-backed set of best practices. Potential actions to secure safety and security include the following:

Demonstrate compassionate leadership.

Leaders should focus on making a positive difference in people’s lives by demonstrating awareness, vulnerability, and empathy.

Exhibit deliberate calm and bounded optimism.

In communications, leaders need to strike the right balance between realism about the challenges ahead and confidence that the organization will find its way through the crisis.

Invest in relationships

The survey results show that sustaining trust and acknowledging employee efforts are critical to employee engagement, well-being and effectiveness.

Potential actions to ensure strong employee relationships include the following:

Coach managers on the ‘trust quotient.

Managers will need to develop the mindset and capabilities to deliver on attributes such as high credibility, reliability, intimacy and low self-orientation, in order to be better able to support employees today and to earn their followership going forward.

 — Invest in the development of employee-to-employee relationships

If leaders wish the camaraderie which sustained many employees early in the crisis to endure during the return phase, they will need to take active steps (such as virtual talent shows and peer-recognition session) to ensure continued relationship building, particularly for remote workers

Create and maintain a culture that values inclusion, individuality and social harmony.

McKinsey’s research shows that for businesses, having a foundation of involvement, fairness, respect and equality, can help employees transition smoothly to new work duties, processes, and models of communication and collaboration.

Potential actions to ensure a positive culture include the following:

— Create a network of teams.

Leaders can set up a network of teams to promote cross-functional collaboration and transparency for quick problem solving and also for enhancing the strength of random connections across the network for effective team building.

— Cultivate inclusion and psychological safety

Leaders and managers can help create inclusive and psychologically safe team environments by modeling behaviors that value the contributions of all members, encourage individuality, and allow members to experiment without fear of negative consequences.

Connect people to something bigger than themselves and help them contribute.

Although purpose has a positive overarching impact on all aspect of work and business, yet researchers discovered that this experience element showed the greatest potential for improvement, as only one-third of respondents believe their organisations strongly connect actions to purpose.

Potential actions to ensure a strong sense of purpose include the following:

 — Embed purpose in how you talk to employees.

Organisations can move from the “why” to the “how” in establishing and linking employees to a clear purpose. As they make changes in how the business operates, they must consistently link the changes back to their purpose.

— Bring purpose to life.

 Leaders must share stories (through video or town halls) of colleagues who are embodying purpose through the period of crisis. They should also celebrate and create role models of those who are living their purpose.

— Start a longer-term conversation about purpose.

Organisations must begin the hard work of defining or revisiting their organisation’s purpose now and explain how employees will play a critical role.

Tailor your approach: Employees’ needs and experience vary

Although the employees surveyed in this search, men or women, working remotely or in positions with little workplace flexibility, with or without dependents, are all experiencing some degree of disruption, the range of experiences is wide from the very positive to the very negative. Those results may be a small slice of the insights that effective segmentation can provide, however they provide a strong enough lesson for the leaders that a one-size-fits-all approach to experience management simply won’t work. Instead, they must begin to address individuals in the same manner they do their customers.

To tailor employee-support approaches, McKinsey recommends two key actions:

Use segmentation to identify who is struggling and what they need.

Leaders must use internal tools, such as open- listening channels, pulse surveys, and advanced analytics together with available data, to understand the diverse set of challenges that individuals and teams are facing and identify the best ways of supporting them where they are struggling the most

Take a personalized approach to fostering culture and enabling change in this new world.

For the leaders, in driving new mindsets and behaviors (such as adapting to a new virtual- working model) at scale, it is important to engage employees in a continual two-way dialog that recognizes their specific needs, delivers personalized coaching and enables them to share best practices with others who may share similar challenges.

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