For the next 6 to 12 months, working from home (WFH) will continue to be the norm for most “office workers.” And even once COVID-19 is behind us, experts agree that hybrid WFH models will be more prevalent. Yet, most employees were not hired under that expectation, and this fundamental change to the work environment creates new challenges in managing your people and culture.
To better understand how today’s organizations can maximize employee performance in this new environment, we sat down with Filip Olechowski, COO of Organization Analysis & Design (OAD). With COVID-19, OAD has seen a spike in client requests to help understand and support the health of their current workforce now at home. The core of this work is “employee disengagement assessments,” and if you have a remote team, you are likely facing similar challenges.
The challenge many of OAD’s clients are facing is an urgent one. Normally, a struggling economy leads employees to place a heightened value on job security to “weather the storm,” but over the past several months, a growing number of workers have resigned without even having their next opportunity in place. This is a signal of the challenges and stresses of the current environment, and while resignations are the most extreme indicator, OAD is also seeing more disengagement and discontent under the surface which is affecting employee performance today and retention over time. Clearly, some of the skills and characteristics aligned with success have shifted, and organizations need better mechanisms to watch for stress on their teams, help support current employees, and think about how different skill sets might be a part of future hiring and training in this new environment.
“At Risk” Profiles
Most of today’s workforce was hired into an office environment, which is dramatically different than working from home. Traits that once made an employee successful, may no longer be as valuable, and certain qualities that were once inconsequential may now impede their performance and productivity.
Elaborating on these characteristics, Olechowski flagged several “risk profiles”:
- Extroverts – It’s not surprising that extroverts find remote work more challenging. Extroverts are at a much higher risk for experiencing a loss of social connectedness and loneliness when removed from the office environment, and this can negatively affect performance and commitment to organizational goals.
- Big Picture Thinkers – Big picture thinkers tend to be more creative, strategic, and visionary; however, they can also be disorganized and spontaneous. With virtual meetings scheduled in advance (versus drop-in, impromptu conversations in the office) and video meetings that are more linear, where only one person can talk at once, this type of person can end up feeling stifled or constrained.
- Impatient Types – Even with Slack, email and Zoom as great communications tools, it often takes more calendar time for disparate, remote teams to accomplish what they could if they were all in the same building. This presents a conflict for impatient types who are often the ones moving projects forward and advancing new ideas. Impatient individuals are more likely to become frustrated by delays, especially delays that are driven by distance or logistics and feel especially unnecessary to them.
- Versatile and Flexible Types – versatile workers, who are comfortable in different environments and able to assume additional responsibilities, should adjust well. But, they also present a risk. Since they are the best candidates for additional work, managers must take care that they are not given too much to do, or take on too much. This could frustrate, de-motivate or lead to mentally checked-out employees.
Possessing any of these characteristics doesn’t doom an employee to failure in the remote context, but they may need additional support. By understanding the types of employees who may be experiencing greater stress, you can address potential issues before it’s too late. Of course, there are also profiles that function better in this kind of environment (we’ll cover those in a subsequent article).
Take Full Advantage of Video Calls
There are a number of tactics managers can use to help their employees address the above stresses. While hours on Zoom have become an almost iconic stress point of this COVID era, video actually has some nuanced benefits for engaging with employees. Beyond the obvious benefit of video in supporting connectedness in a virtual setting, it can also provide managers with important information on their team. Video magnifies a wide range of cues – what you say, how you say it, the way you maintain your appearance, and even your timeliness (or tardiness). Managers can keep an eye out for these signals that an employee is frustrated, stressed, overworked or disengaged.
An easy step is to have a company norm that the team have their cameras on for all meetings. (We’ve done this at RevelOne since we founded the firm 6 years ago as a 100% distributed and remote company, and it’s one of the keys to making remote meetings and collaboration work well.) Video makes for better meetings, and in this context, will help managers discern if team members are disengaging. OAD emphasizes the importance of paying close attention to new or remote-transitioned employees during their first 90 days. It is during this time period that employees are most vulnerable, and the signs of disengagement will be most pronounced.
Go Beyond Anecdotal Evidence and Embrace a More Thorough Approach
When evaluating underperformance and disengagement, it’s critical to identify the root cause. While video meetings can reveal potential warning signs, it’s best not to “swap anecdotes in for science” explains Olechowski. On-screen behavior is an insufficient method for diagnosing underlying causes, and is often too late to inform remedial action.
For large companies with the ability to invest in an organizational assessment, working with a partner like OAD may be a great solution, but it is not the only option. Regardless of size and resources – organizations can adopt a more structured approach to evaluating employee engagement.
For companies that have previously completed an employee pulse survey, a “refresh” can provide valuable insight on who is struggling due to the recent changes in work setting and workload. You may consider adding several questions specifically directed at how employees are faring in the new WFH environment.
For companies who have never deployed an engagement survey, there’s never been a better time to start. While you won’t have a baseline for comparison, you will still be able to detect who is stressed or struggling, and establish a place from which to improve. OAD suggests a “perceived job behaviors” survey, one version of which first asks employees to select the words that best describe them, then to select the words that best describe what is expected of them. This reveals potential points of friction or conflict so that an organization can respond accordingly. This, along with additional employee satisfaction survey questions, will go a long way to identifying team members who might need assistance or some changes.
Those silently struggling and disengaging due to dramatic changes in 2020 can be identified, supported and saved as productive employees before it’s too late. It’s very likely that a good portion of your team or organization are in one of the 4 at-risk profiles: extroverts, big picture thinkers, impatient types and versatile/flexible types. Knowing this, along with any other signals of disengagement, think through for each employee how the shift to working from home and any changes in their responsibilities since the start of the pandemic might be impacting their attitudes, behavior and performance. Then you can meet with each individual to discuss their specific situation.
If you’d like to explore having OAD conduct an organizational assessment, Filip Olechowski can be reached at email@example.com.