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Why employees’ needs should shape the workplaces of the future

As organizations eagerly reopen their doors more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, many will be surprised to watch their employees walk out—for good

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, September 7, 2021

"Following the outbreak of COVID-19, significant numbers of people are moving on from their current organizations because their needs have changed."
"Following the outbreak of COVID-19, significant numbers of people are moving on from their current organizations because their needs have changed."

by Hise O. Gibson and MaShon Wilson*

As organizations eagerly reopen their doors more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, many will be surprised to watch their employees walk out—for good.

Companies have been quick to set blanket policies that range from a full return to offices to fully remote models, often to their employees’ dismay. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us that one-size-fits-all approaches can be extremely counterproductive.

In fact, numerous surveys and news articles suggest that employees have been just as productive working remotely, even enabling their organizations to reach record profitability in many instances. So why are so many employers pushing so forcefully for all employees to return to the office, even as employee turnover across industries is increasing?

It’s a pattern not isolated to the corporate world. In the United States Army, in which we both served for many years, flag officers—some of the military’s most senior leaders—sometimes assume that great officers leave the military for the private sector because they want to make more money. In reality, some of those officers move on because their needs have changed, and perhaps they don’t feel heard by their managers and leaders.

First step, TAKE control

Even though military units face many of the same struggles as corporate teams, the approaches officers use to connect with their chains of command offer lessons for companies now. The military’s ethos of rules and process not only provides order and security during chaos, but it reinforces trust.

Applying this mindset, we recommend a strong and simple approach to leaders and organizations trying to steady their workforces after a year of twin pandemics—COVID-19 and racial injustice. We call it “TAKE.” It stands for:

T = Take a strong stance—employees don’t want corporate platitudes and passive social activism after living in pandemic limbo for so long.

A = Align your post-COVID employee policies, resources, and timelines, like you would with any other business priority or client project.

K = Keep your word and follow through on your commitments. This point is the most crucial—employee trust is hard to regain once it’s lost.

E = Execute your organization’s post-COVID workforce plan in a timely fashion and evaluate your progress constantly.

Ultimately, the TAKE framework is about confronting disengagement head on. Too many managers put other business priorities ahead of addressing employee dissatisfaction. While this approach may be business as usual for many organizations, it can erode employee trust, hurt productivity, dampen creativity and innovation, and increase turnover.

Managing employees with more agency

This is a prime inflection point for organizations figuring out their “new normal” in the two-sided market of employee and employer relations. It’s no secret that pandemic stress has inspired many people to prioritize work-life flexibility and wellness. Employees searching for balance are looking for organizations and industries agile enough to meet their professional and personal needs.

Employees also have greater agency to demand the working conditions they want. In the past, employers have had the upper hand during times of economic uncertainty, but that is not the case now.

Proactive leaders are accepting—even embracing—this shift. Many are using systematic approaches to gather employee insights and turn them into tailored workplace cultures and policies. These efforts usually culminate in a strong talent management strategy, with a deliberate timeline and action plan, that boosts employee morale, retention, and productivity.

Diagnostic tools, such as surveys and small group discussions, are critical to developing a more holistic view of the employee experience. In the Army, officers use “command climate surveys” to take the pulse of the people they oversee. Command climate surveys help direct reports and junior-level team members give honest, anonymized upward feedback to the organization and its leadership. Most importantly, the surveys assess overall workplace toxicity.

Whether a company seeks input through surveys or discussions, execution is paramount. Surveys should be short and focus on a few key points to encourage employee engagement. To promote the most candid dialogues, an organization should segment members by seniority and leadership levels.

Leaders may also want to seek guidance from an objective, third-party adviser. A comprehensive approach can help reinforce the impartiality of feedback and the resulting action.

As a starting point in developing effective tools and systems, we recommend that leaders ask themselves:

1. What kind of employees work in my organization (professional, skilled, unskilled, semiskilled)?

2. How do my actions in areas of concern to my employees compare to the actions undertaken for specific business metrics that tie in to my own promotions and bonuses? Why is there a disparity?

3. Why are people leaving my organization? How willing are those exiting to share in the reason for their departure?

Embrace SMART thinking

This next component is particularly challenging for leaders: compiling the data, making a SMART action plan, and setting a timeline. At this juncture, there are a few paths that organizations tend to take, depending on their industry, size, and maturity:

-Some will devote a lot of time to compiling and processing the information.
-Some will focus on the easy external factors first.
-And some will buckle in for the hard task of organizational transformation.

Typically, larger and more mature organizations struggle with these changes more so than their smaller, more agile counterparts. Organizations might also pursue multiple paths simultaneously, varying the amount of time and effort on each stage.

To be clear, moving too slowly is a major risk now. Spending a year or more developing a plan without concrete outcomes, and developing plans that run counter to popular sentiment could prove disastrous for employers trying to retain professional and highly skilled talent.

And while speed is required, leaders also need a long-term view. They need to envision the practices that will be common practice 30-40 years down the road. The decisions they make could reshape business for decades to come. They must ask themselves: How will your progeny judge your stances as a leader and an organization?

*Senior lecturer, Technology& Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School and Technology operations leader and former management consultant
**first published in: www.weforum.org

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