OK is the new normal (and that’s not OK)

Where once the average response to “How have you felt at work this week?” was happy, the new normal is now OK. The cost of a workforce becoming just “OK” about work can be high but connecting with your team in better ways may be a feasible solution.

May 29, 2020 4 mins read

Work and life aren’t easy at the moment. As I highlighted earlier this month, the average employee experience is down across all our clients at Friday Pulse. While there has been some bounce back from the shock of the lockdown in the UK and the US, the average score is still down at 65 points (on our 0-100 Happiness KPI scale). Before COVID-19, scores hovered around the 70-point range.

Averages, especially the arithmetic mean, hide a lot of variances. This week, I thought it would be helpful to look at the data on people’s median response — the most popular response. On the Friday Pulse platform, we ask people every week, “How have you felt at work this week?” They then respond with one of the following options:

  • Very unhappy
  • Unhappy
  • OK
  • Happy
  • Very happy

In the pre-pandemic world, the most popular response has consistently been happy. From my experience with working with subjective data over the last 25 years, this is a very typical response — especially in developed economies. People are generally content with their lot. However, over the last 10 weeks, the median has flipped from happy to OK (at 38%). This is a concerning trend as this marks a 9% increase in the last few weeks. The number of happy responses has decreased to 37% from 43% and there are 14% reporting being very happy.

If we applied this OK shift to the workforce of the UK and the US, then almost 20 million people who were previously happy at work are now only OK. This OK picture comes from percentages based on our clients’ responses — and they are atypical businesses. They had already focused on employee wellbeing before the crisis and regularly act on their employee’s work experience data.

What is OK and why are we here?

In reality, 20 million people is an underestimation. It doesn’t account for the millions who have been furloughed (9 million in the UK) or unemployed (2.1 million in the UK, 35 million in the US). People with employment are undoubtedly feeling grateful to have a job (there but for the grace of God go I), which likely surprises the number of people responding unhappy or very unhappy right now. It’s for this reason that I have always insisted on having a response code labelled “OK” in my research. OK is a soft “not great”. Not everything is good or bad. Some experiences are just OK — not terrible, but not great either.

The consequences of OK are financial. I’ve mentioned before how a half-point shift on our five-point scale can result in a $1 million loss because of a loss of creativity and productivity.

And while people are grateful for work, it’s not a cure-all for the malaise of OK. In some of our clients we’ve found the extra cognitive strain in people’s lives has led to employees acting out in meetings. HR departments are now treading the fine line between empathy and drawing boundaries around what is acceptable behaviour — pandemic or not.

The initial solutions of face-to-face video conferencing are no longer effective as the novelty of it has worn off. People now jump in and out of virtual meetings as fast as they can, and the light small talk that once populated team interactions have disappeared. We’ve arrived at a new normal of sub-par human interaction.

There is no returning to the “normal” of our past. Every week, firms like McKinsey publish pieces on what the next normal may be. But with that acceptance, comes a price — our current state of OK.

How to help people move back to happy

In December, before COVID-19, Harvard Business Review conducted a survey into the logistics of teamwork. The professionals that responded reported they found working across virtual teams challenging. Nearly 76% found it difficult to feel connected with their teams due to distance or time zones. These problems have only been exacerbated with the pandemic.

It might feel harsh to say this right now, but businesses that want to come out of this crisis will need to start thinking about how to get employee experience to at least their pre-COVID levels.

Here are some thoughts on how you can do that.

How do you really feel?

I’m a big advocate of having real discussions. To go beyond OK, ask people how they feel. Following up with open-ended questions will deepen conversations. If you leave space for people to answer, you’ll be amazed at how people open up.

Reflect as a team

Taking half an hour a week as a team to reflect on how the week has gone is a great way to build on what is going well and to tackle what isn’t. When a team reflects together, they are more collaborative and creative. These discussions are then reflected in improved innovation, productivity, and profitability.

Consistently be consistent

Any kind of lasting positive change requires consistent effort. It can’t be done with one-off surveys or asking how someone is doing once a quarter. It may be difficult at first, especially with Zoom fatigue setting in, but your efforts do pay off in more resilient teams and higher trust levels.

Here to help

During this pandemic period, my team and I are committed to helping businesses build better work cultures and improve employee morale — assisting teams to go from OK to happy. That’s why Friday Pulse are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employeesfree access to our people platform for 12 weeks.

For more information on how we can help your organization weather the crisis, please contact my colleague Clive Steer at [email protected]