2020: What Did We Learn & What Is Here to Stay?

by Karen Stafford, MHRM, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Remote Work Is Here to Stay!

While a small number of workplaces offered working from home at least one day a week before the pandemic hit in March (36%, according to a Price Water House survey), when COVID hit that number spiked to 77%. During this time, we learned that remote work can and really does work!

Yes, job roles are important, as many “essential worker” positions cannot be done remotely. However, as workplaces evaluated the nature of the work to be done, a majority of those that could make the switch to remote work did. Here is a quick look at a few specific learnings:

  • Employees working from home showed higher levels of engagement on the job, especially when communication and feedback are provided on a regular basis. Engagement is a key indicator of performance and willingness to give one’s best effort in support of individual, team and organizational goals.
  • Communication and feedback are crucial for the success for all employees and especially so when remote work is involved. The “no news is good news” approach misses the mark for most employees as 47% say they are getting feedback only “a few times/year (according to a Qualtrics survey) or, worse, 19% (according to Gallup) state that they get feedback only one time per year, and that is definitely not enough!
  • Those who don’t check in with their teams and employees regularly are missing out! This was highlighted by the finding that 72% reported regular check-ins by their manager was one of the most important aspects of support they have appreciated throughout COVID (Qualtrics).
  • Experimenting with hybrid and alternative work schedules and arrangements can also work. Why not let your top performer work from their RV for a few days? As long as the work is being done according to performance standards, allowing such flexibility can be the key to retaining your top talent.

Remote work also highlighted the need for employees to create healthy boundaries balancing both work and home life. Parents of school-aged children having to balance school work, work life and overall home life in general, highlighted the business of learning to create healthy boundaries was one of the most important skill development opportunities of 2020!

Even as we emerge from our remote workspaces, working from home in some form is likely here to stay for those who like and/or flourish in this setting. The challenge for leaders will be in balancing these hybrid workplaces where some of the team work from home while others come into the office every day. This balancing act will be imperative to the success of the team. Paying attention to ensuring an inclusive working environment where all employees feel included, informed and supported equally will be key for leaders going forward.

Digital Strategies: Just “Zoom” It?

In support of the skyrocketing interest in working remotely, a majority of workplaces got a crash course on participating in and leading virtual meetings. Whether your team uses Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or other video-calling technologies, these tools became required for daily meeting, team meetings and staying connected. Instant messaging, texts and Slack-like channels became the new “water cooler” mechanism for keeping up with both work and personal connections.

With many of us working remotely, we embraced (or at least tried) virtual events in place of team meetings in conference rooms, banquet hall conferences and other in-person meetings. From holiday parties to team-building activities and workplace happy hours, most events that took place in the office pre-pandemic became virtual experiences. Nonprofit leaders who relied on major fundraising galas, concerts and walks turned to online donation campaigns in hopes of collecting enough to cover crucial programs.

Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Are Here to Stay! While there was a lot of talk in 2020 about these efforts across workplaces in response to the social justice issues that captivated our attention and hearts, 78% reported in a recent study that they had yet to see any real differences at the workplace.

Consider how you and your organization will approach efforts to increase the sense of inclusion and equity in your workplace such that all employees feel acknowledged and valued for their contributions, while also supported in their development throughout this New Year and beyond. It is even through incremental steps that you can establish a foundation on which to build a workplace that is inclusive, ensures equity and celebrates diversity.

A Focus on Mental and Physical Health: In light of the pandemic and its toll on us, our families and friends, and our businesses, we saw an emphasis on supporting employee physical and mental health. As leaders, those who focused on building a culture of care for their employees strengthened organizational commitment and it showed:

  • Workplaces that prioritized “safety first” in unparalleled ways did so by establishing safety-inspired protocols; they trained and ensured that all supervisors, employees and customers were informed of safe practices and expectations and were provided sufficient supplies to be a part of maintaining a safe place for all involved.
  • The best leaders tuned in and monitored their teams for employee burnout. As leaders, we have 70% of the “vibe” of the team on us. How we show up in those virtual team meetings matters and is reflected by our employees in how they act, interact and react to each other, our customers and us.
  • Anxiety, stress and burnout became prevalent across many industries, leading many companies to provide increased mental health resources and benefits to their employees.
  • In a related study, SHRM found that 84% of employees reported that poorly trained managers had created unnecessary work and stress. For us as leaders, this can serve as a timely opportunity to reflect on our policies, practices and expectations. Confirming we are holding employees accountable but also doing so in meaningful ways will go a long way to ensure we aren’t unnecessarily adding to the stress of the workplace. (Hint: While nothing new, one practice I was reminded of was setting a delay on my overnight emails to staff. This way, my email appeared to be sent just before the regular start of the workday vs. having the actual timestamp of 2:30AM. While some employees completely check out of this level of detail, to those who notice, seeing that their manager is working nonstop may signal that they have that expectation of them as well.)

With all of this said and in light of the increase in working from home, many teams developed deeper connections. After all, we got a peek into our coworker’s home life as family members and pets popped into our video calls and we took these calls in our kitchens, living rooms and backyard patios. Now more than ever, our connections have become more personal and, thankfully, that is likely to remain with us in 2021 and beyond.

In short, 2020 was a form of “master class” for leaders as captured in this quote: “There is no relationship in the workplace more powerful than the one between managers and employees.” —SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP).

As leaders, we need to live up to this commitment if we expect to optimize performance results while also attracting, retaining, and motivating our exceptional workforce talent.

Karen Stafford joined Employers Council in 2004 and is currently the regional training manager. A graduate of the University of Hawaii, Stafford holds a master’s degree in Human Resource Management and currently serves on the faculty of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. She also regularly presents at local, statewide and national conferences. Employers Council, member-based association focused on guiding members through their toughest employment law, human resources and workplace challenges, has an office located in Scottsdale that supports Arizona businesses.

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