Your Team Stepped Up Amid the Pandemic. What Now?

It is time to invest in people’s mental wellbeing

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Since COVID-19 hit, organizations have been scrambling to pandemic-proof operations. The focus has, understandably, been on crisis management and ensuring business continuity. Profits, the global economy, and the livelihoods of billions of people were at stake.

If the stock market is any indication to go by, and the initial shock at the end of Q1 notwithstanding, the corporate sector has done remarkably well.

S&P 500 Index Performance in 2020 - Source: Yahoo Finance
S&P 500 Index Performance in 2020 – Source: Yahoo Finance

No doubt some business models are better adapted to the new, socially-distanced reality than others, but by and large, businesses have their workforces to be thankful for. Workers everywhere have stepped up to the challenge.

The question is now: What next?

For organizations that have managed to stabilize, perhaps even thrive amid the pandemic, there is a strong argument for starting to focus on the mental wellbeing of employees.

According to remote leadership expert and author, Laura Goodrich, teams go through five stages as they confront a crisis, such as that presented by the pandemic.

  • The hero stage,
  • honeymoon,
  • dissension,
  • reconstruction,
  • and renaissance.

So, your team stepped-up, going above and beyond not to let customers down, and ensured business continuity. In short, they were the heroes. And now the organization is at a well-deserved self-congratulatory, honeymoon stage. This is no time to rest on your laurels, though. According to Goodrich’s model, the strains of the new, perhaps hastily implemented operative model, will become more apparent once this honeymoon period passes. Forward-looking managers would do well to start investing in reconstruction.

In our interactions with partners and clients that have successfully switched to remote-work operations, we have already started to see signs of the strain borne by employees.

Let’s review three facets of the problem we have witnessed:

  • Loss of work-life balance,
  • Decreasing creativity, and
  • Loneliness

Work-Life Balance

Working from home used to be a perk.

Now, Zoom fatigue has become the salaryman’s complaint du jour, displacing that erstwhile perennial #1, the dreaded commute, which has somehow rehabilitated its image from that of a time-drain into a welcome, work-life balance-enhancing boundary between company time and personal time. Thinkers as early as Confucius taught: Rituals are important. Commutes and other start or end-of-business activities used to be part of the ritual that helped employees switch on and off.

Creativity

As social distancing rules came into effect, we have observed how these have affected individuals differently. There has been a chorus of opinion pieces from introverts boasting about how they are thriving as their productivity soars, while extroverts moan about how they are languishing in involuntary self-confinement.

But introverts need also beware. Solitude may be a productivity enhancer in the short term, but working remotely can sap your creativity by depriving you of the often serendipitous confluence of different ideas and viewpoints necessary for innovative problem-solving. Even for introverts, the pendulum may have swung to a level solitude that lulls you into a misleading sense of comfort, but also has, perhaps unbeknown to the employee, an adverse effect on his or her creativity.

Loneliness

Another variable that is significantly correlated with how social distancing rules affect individual employees: Whether they live in a one-person household.

Traditionally, people’s social connections with friends and family are important contributors to their mental health. As GDP per capita grows, so does the proportion of one-person households, and the proportion of waking hours they spend at work. There are, therefore, good reasons to think that the workplace provided much of the social connections many people needed.

In normal times, there is little data to suggest that one-person households are problematic, as people can get their required dose of social interaction outside the home. However, the social distancing measures required to slow the virus’ spread has changed the calculus.

One-person householders have been hit by a double whammy. As their support networks outside work, built on interactions at bars, restaurants, and gyms, are dwindling with the closure of these locales, their remaining socially significant interactions at work have moved to less fulfilling digital channels, if not disappeared.

Anecdotal evidence from our partners and clients suggests that people living in one-person households are hit harder by social isolation.

What Next?

How may we help enhance the mental wellbeing of our employees as we roll out or consolidate some of the most ambitious remote-work programs seen in decades? More rigorous studies are still needed, but meanwhile, some recommendations come to mind:

  • Design brief rituals at the start and end of the remote working day, or encourage employees to come up with their own, to aid them in transitioning in and out of the workday.
  • Mitigate loss or creativity by ensuring the balance and diversity of teams, and allocate time for specific digital meetings, or build slack into the agenda of existing ones, so that there is time for spontaneous insights not previously contemplated by the agenda setter.
  • Facilitate (or just do not forbid) non-work related interactions among employees using company communications infrastructure to increase the chances of creativity-enhancing serendipitous interactions. We recommend that this done in specially allocated parts of this infrastructure, not to overwhelm or obfuscate business-related information flow.
  • Monitor and communicate with employees. As ever, people are different. When providing one-size-fits-all measures such as the above, one can only hope they work for most, or mostly work, so that they free up time, and you can then spend it on people as individuals.
  • Prioritize and respect the time and budget allocated to the above.

You may think people’s social lives, and how they manage their own mental health are their own responsibility. Technically, you may be right. After all, those were traditionally facets of human needs that employees’ family and social circles outside of work used to cover.

But ultimately, that’s a technicality that won’t help you much when more enlightened competitors, and their more mentally fit workforces, start outperforming you.


Article first published in Medium.

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