The next normal requires employee empowerment

Workplaces are now very different places. Businesses have to be sensitive to the way their employees frame risk as they make decisions on how quickly they open. By looking at your employees through The Five Ways to Happiness at Work, you can empower your people during this time of increased and continued anxiety.

June 19, 2020 4 mins read

We’re beginning to see an easing of lockdown restrictions. As people are looking for their lost normalcy, some businesses are thinking about going back into the office. However, the truth is normalcy has changed a lot. A recent McKinsey & Co survey found that 80% of people enjoyed working from home, while 41% said they are more productive than before. Without lengthy commutes, people have had more time to spend with their families. This has led many people to question the “why” of an office.

Where the next normal will take us

The next normal is one of reduced occupancy, enforced social distances and increased anxiety about contact with co-workers. Elevators, once a necessity for offices, are a social distancing nightmare.  Companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter recently announced policies allowing employees to work from home indefinitely while things settle. This past week Slack joined their ranks after realizing their software, which has made working remotely a possibility for many others, could help them as well.

Yet for companies looking to straddle working from home and the office, there’s a reputational risk too. No one wants to be known as the company that caused a coronavirus spike. One of the greatest thinkers about decision making and risk is Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann. He recognized that people tend to fear losses more than appreciate gains — the core insight of prospect theory.

In other words, people focus on the risk rather than any gain. This fear affects how we frame risks. When a doctor states that there is a 5% mortality rate for a certain procedure, we fixate on the risk rather than the 95% survival rate.

Businesses have to watch out for these biases as they start to make decisions on how and when they open up. Public-facing industries, such as hospitality and retail, will face very different challenges than office-based ones. For the latter, the new status quo has flipped from office environments to the kitchen table. In the last three months, businesses have learned that their employees can successfully work from home. It is no longer seen as a perk but rather as a viable, productive way of working.

The pandemic has left its mark on everyone, and the fear of it is still fresh. Therefore, returning to the office will require sensitivity to the broad range of emotional states felt by employees and employers everywhere. Some people may be more anxious about returning for fear of falling ill, while those that might have already had the virus may feel invincible.

In a recent (virtual) HBR roundtable, Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems, stated that this was the moment for business leaders to show up. “Employees and society want to see who you are as a company. What do you stand for? The answers will have lasting impact as we move beyond this.

Helping your employees’ transition

To prepare for the next normal, we need to adopt an approach that is empathetic, grounded and holistic. The Five Ways to Happiness at Work framework identifies five behaviors that are the key drivers of positive, productive workplace cultures and can help you think through the policies you create. They are:

  • Connect
  • Be Fair
  • Empower
  • Challenge
  • Inspire

Taking the Five Ways seriously will help ensure that unhappiness and resentment won’t set in.

Here’s what you can do to help.

CONNECT: Reach out

I’ve talked about how checking in with team members is important, and that has not changed. It may be even more important now with different groups of people going in and out of the office. There’s some proof that remote success is built on the relationships established from “water cooler” interactions. Don’t be afraid to engage in small talk and make an effort to build relationships and friendships. Even if you’re not at the office, meet up with a colleague and go for a walk. It’s more of a time investment than it used to be, but it’s worth it.

BE FAIR: Power dynamics and giving your people a voice

With different groups entering the office at different times, employers need to be aware of the bias of face time. For example, if a CEO spends their day at the office, it sets up a situation where the handful of people in the office that day will have access to them. Because of any naturally occurring conversations, there’s a risk of a biased opinion forming.

To counter this, be sure to give your employees an equal opportunity to voice their opinions. A platform like Friday Pulse gives an unbiased view of what’s going on across all levels of your company.

EMPOWER: Give your people a choice

Let your employees choose a level of risk they are comfortable with — it’s the best way to alleviate anxieties about entering the workplace. For some people, this may mean coming into the office once or twice a week, while for others this could be every day. Work with your team and give them the space they need to feel comfortable.

CHALLENGE: Keep adjusting

Agility and the ability to adapt have never been more critical. This is just as true for how we interact together as it is to the products and services we produce and sell. No one knows what the best way is going forward. But keep checking in and reflecting on what is going well and what isn’t. Adjust appropriately, and you’ll get there.

INSPIRE: Plan for the future

Dealing with the challenges from the last few months has, naturally, been everyone’s priority. It has been difficult to imagine what the future might look like. However, it is critical and inspiring to actively shape our futures, even when the whole world has changed. The companies that can lift their heads and see the opportunities, and not fixate on the dangers, will be the ones that will not only survive but thrive.

Planning for the future of your organisation

Friday Pulse tracks the wellbeing of teams. It gives employees a platform to share how they feel, and space for them to share what’s going well and air concerns, while enabling teams to adjust quickly.

During the pandemic, my Friday Pulse colleagues and I are committed to helping businesses bounce back and improve team morale. That’s why we are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to our people platform for 12 weeks.

Undoubtedly, the road forward is bumpy for employers and employees alike. It will require serious consideration of your organisational priorities. Still, as we make an effort to be flexible, to show kindness and empathy for everyone’s working situations, we will be able to create better wellbeing for everyone.