Andrew Duncan at Infosys Consulting advises that, while we are still in the pandemic, collaboration, empowerment and re-skilling are among the techniques for maintaining employee engagement
2020 was, in many ways, marked by action. The global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis and widespread social unrest led to an adrenaline-fueled response on a personal and business level. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, teams pulled together with a fighting spirit to adapt and survive in the new normal.
However, as we entered 2021 and a new lockdown, the high-energy spirit has faded, and pandemic fatigue has set in. Employment remains virtual and the boundaries between work and homelife continue to blur. We are seeing stress-levels rise and disillusionment grow as we rely on personal resilience to survive the isolation. For business leaders, this is a difficult time to be at the helm. How can we ensure our teams are physically and emotionally supported through the extended vacuum of COVID-19, while maintaining productivity levels in a still unstable climate?
“Videoconferencing fatigue” is sweeping businesses almost as quickly as pandemic fatigue. Many well-intentioned employee wellness initiatives are based around video calls; unfortunately, research has shown that their traditional “box grid” layout tires our brains and drains energy. Leaders are looking for alternative ways to encourage collaboration across teams that take a different format, and innovative technology companies are already developing solutions to meet this need.
New videoconferencing platforms based on VR and AR create simulated environments for users to meet, communicate and interact in a more natural setting. Similarly, virtual connection-building tools (or internal talent marketplaces) can encourage contacts between individuals and teams, make personalised recommendations to link employees with like-minded colleagues or mentors, and support onboarding processes by connecting new hires with their team.
Team empowerment is in many ways more critical than ever. Research has demonstrated that psychological empowerment is in turn positively associated with a broad range of employee outcomes. This includes job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and task and contextual performance, and is negatively associated with employee strain and turnover intentions.
By stripping out unnecessary bureaucracy and encouraging people to make faster decisions amid uncertainty, leaders can provide this purpose and help to prevent long-term stagnation. The agile methodology, with its focus on empowered frontline teams and clear outputs, lends itself perfectly to this. We are seeing many of our clients implement some of the core agile principles, defining outcomes, then letting teams chart their own path toward them, thereby instilling autonomy and the intrinsic motivation that goes with it.
New AI-driven technologies based on workplace data offer employers the ability to identify employees who are struggling with pandemic fatigue. Without regular face to face meetings and the spontaneous interactions that take place in an office setting, managers may find it harder to spot employees who are at risk for low productivity or thinking of looking elsewhere.
By understanding data and behaviours that most closely correlate with workplace success and failure, managers can identify team members suffering from emotional stress and fatigue and proactively intervene to address issues like poor engagement and feelings of low inclusivity. At the same time, they stand to improve work processes and create personalised employee experiences that create better engagement and outcomes.
As we witness the economic aftermath of the pandemic, and investments in automation and AI continue to grow, employees’ own market value moves front of mind. Reskilling employees is more than a strategic decision in order to maintain a competitive edge. Employees increasingly expect investment in their marketability as part of their reward scheme.
The ability to grow and develop, especially during times of change and stress, should be a high-priority business initiative, and leaders can seize this opportunity to cultivate a learning mindset in their people and organisations. Now is the time to offer more training courses, skills development initiatives, and other ways to engage staff through learning opportunities. When done effectively, it creates enduring value for employers and employees alike, providing increases in productivity, commitment and diversity, and cost savings over external hires.
Look ahead to the next shift
Right now, businesses are operating in a prolonged climate of stagnation, suffering ongoing lockdowns with no definitive end in sight. However, once the vaccine rollout is established, we will see further technological innovation and business-model disruption. Consumer spend is likely to bounce back to an all-time high, and companies will scramble to win back business and reclaim customers.
Leaders who accept the ever-changing nature of the pandemic are able to better manage the energy of their organisations. In order to regain the momentum of their initial rapid pandemic response back in March 2020, businesses can look to the vaccine rollout as a fresh opportunity to mobilise their teams for action. Are our people ready for the next stage, and how can they be energised to deal with the pandemic aftermath?
Andrew Duncan is Partner and UK CEO at Infosys Consulting.
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