Organizational success and the impact of social distance
The pandemic has wreaked havoc, as it were, on the world of business and outside it. Employee psychology in response to COVID-19 is a key determinant of business success.
It took a seemingly nondescript virus to change the world of work in a way no one could have imagined. COVID-19 has shaken up the workplace – jobs we thought could not be done from home are done from home, those done from office are discharged by employees donning face masks and sometimes PPE kits, and we do more sanitization in a day than we might have done in a whole month before the virus hit.
The top concern at work remains to limit the transmission of the virus, and normal protocols cut no ice. And managers who till that time would just walk across to the workstations of team members must now manage their teams virtually. Interestingly, workers in office are spending more time working by themselves – single-person events in April and May 2020 went up from 83 percent of all activities to 88%!
Clearly, this is to be a sustained period of hardship, requiring not just a change in how workers work but how they think and behave i.e. in their psychology and behavior – at least temporarily, and possibly forever. Many now working remotely will return to office at some time in the future, bringing along new expectations, reactions, and concerns to seemingly regular work situations. Employers need to reshape the workplace as per not just what employees do but what they feel and believe.
Bear in mind that behaviors can change rapidly during the initial, acute phase of a crisis, but sustaining such necessary change is a tough ask. Compliance and enforcement are effective in early stages, but leaders who address the underlying beliefs, feelings, and thoughts are likely to affect more change in their people.
Behavioral science provides some interesting insights. The occurrence of a desired behavior is predicated on ensuring that people:
- Are capable of making the change: the physical or psychological ability
- Have the opportunity to make the change: automatic and reflective mechanisms activating or inhibiting behavior
- Feel motivated to make the change: physical and social environment enabling desired behavior
Employers looking to resume pre-pandemic operations must consider the above factors to determine the most effective actions to take. These could suggest critical barriers to safe behavior and the procedures to surmount them. Remember there is high pressure, a lot of uncertainty, and employees are dislocated from their normal ways of work and life. Their mindsets are limited by their belief, permission, or desire to get work done. There is not just anxiety and fear about health and the virus, but also new attitudes and behaviors evolving through the crisis. These complicate and magnify the role of a leader hugely, and expectations on how work is done, and management styles must adapt to the new normal.
Why are procedures and policies not enough? Simply because not everyone follows them, which affects how collaboration happens. Certain team members may not follow safety protocols, calling it a violation of their autonomy. And snitching on unsafe behavior could have a hugely negative effect on workplace morale. Clearly, culture and policies affect each other, and policies must account for the uniqueness of the culture of each workplace – no one-size-fits-all measures will work.
There are a variety of actions employers must take. The last decade has seen employers recognizing how productivity of employees is dependent on their happiness, which is why they are prioritizing mental health and other aspects of employee wellness. Workplace assessments are helping determine physical changes required to minimize infection spreads, and looking into people's attitudes could propel a powerful shift to boost business continuity along with employee health and morale.
Consider, for instance, the nature of work. Process orientation makes it easy to get employees to adapt to new measures, while result orientation requires extra effort toward behavioral change. Motivating factors for different people affect the effectiveness and hence targeting of messaging, with better outcomes as a result. Skeptics will need more work than enthusiasts, with strong education efforts and transparent goals and measures.
On the other hand, culture too is affected by policies. Some people will feel lucky to have a job in this scenario, but the effect might not last long. Physical proximity in pre-pandemic workspaces was helpful for many, and its absence could drag down their motivation. And the policies themselves could call for so much cognition that people are not able to discharge their work responsibilities effectively.
Here are the important changes in attitude and behavior of employees, and how the organization must address them:
- More mental health and wellbeing requirements: Psychological responses have varied greatly, as have their impacts. Design strategies must account for wellness, with work-free zones, for instance, and other properly designed private spaces for work or relaxation.
- Constant worry about personal safety: The virus occupies more mind space than possibly any other infection, leading to more anxiety along with heightened awareness. Consistent, clear communication is imperative, and more personal controls at workplaces are helpful.
- Higher concern around proximity, surfaces, and space: People are skittish when it comes to coming too close or touching common surfaces. Spacing desks may not be enough. Clearly marked step-aside spaces, well-designed floor, and wall graphics and signage, improved cleaning protocols, and even touchless technology are useful measures.
- Flexibility is a must: Flexible workspaces are no longer a perk but a necessity, with work from home not helping only employees but trimming employer occupancy costs. These costs could also be cut down by flexibility at the workplace and using a space for different requirements.
- Greater need for connection: Virtual means have kept human connection going, and workplaces must provide such centralized spaces to encourage interaction on work matters as well as personal anecdotes.
There is no silver bullet to fell the devil. What is clear is that the human experience must be front and center of the workplace and other organizational endeavors. Bearing in mind the current psychology of people could be the biggest boost to organizational resilience and future success.