The Road Back from Lockdown

7 min read

2020, wow, what a year. I feel like this is one we’ll look back on for a long time. But not just in the obvious regretful or remorseful capacity. I feel like 2020 will have taught us a lot of lessons and we’ll study this period, what’s happened and hopefully be stronger for it.

COVID blindsided us this year and how we’ve handled this crisis is worth reflecting on. Which businesses and which industries have fared the best and worst and why? Could we have done anything differently, what specifically could that have been and most importantly what are we going to do next to ensure if and when this happens again our businesses are more agile, more adaptable and more resilient to be able to cope with these curve balls?

Looking around we can see not only a mixed response to how companies have reacted to COVID, and locking down, but also varying levels of capability and preparedness. Some were ready to fight on the terrain they knew, with strategies existing to facilitate victory on a familiar field, but once the battleground changed the question is, were they ready? And if not, should they have been? We’re in wartime now, peacetime was the ideal time for testing, trialling, innovating – did we do that when we could? Or have we watched the world around us change and stood firm to resist the unfamiliar and the new? If so, are we paying for that now?

The debate about whether we should allow our employees to work remotely and flexibly is not a new one. Generalisations like “snowflake Millennials just don’t like getting out of bed, expecting to work in their PJs…” and in retaliation “Boomers just don’t trust us, what does it matter where we work if we get the job done?” don’t really help the matter. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but perhaps more worthy of our attention right now is a fact not often enough paid attention to as we quarrel over our opinions on the topic. That is, remote working is good for business.

Remote working is good for business because it makes us agile. It’s good for business because it makes us adaptable. It’s good for business because it makes us resilient. It’s good for business because it prepares us for a crisis. That doesn’t mean we should do it or allow it all the time, but certainly those organisations who trust their people to deliver when out from under their watchful eye aren’t suffering just as badly right now. This situation, while still presenting challenges, isn’t just as unfamiliar to them.

It doesn’t really serve anything to debate whether Millennials place greater demands on their employer than previous generations or whether that’s a myth. To quote Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, an effective manager will “start with the outcome in mind” and that’s what we should be focusing on.

Let’s apply that to the debate on remote working. What is the outcome we’re ultimately looking for in our business? It has to be our vision; otherwise why does it exist? We want to have a team of high performers united behind that common goal to help it become a reality. Results, not time served or where or when, but getting the job done (in line with our values) are what should matter to us right now. In fact, should it ever be any different?

We have this obsession with knowing where everyone is, what they’re doing and what progress they’re making on targets at all times. Power and total control remains too important to too many managers. Stringently timed breaks, blocking websites, banning phones, stifling conversation and micro-managing does little to dispel that idea; particularly when the research shows people who take a few moments to clear their head are much more likely to refocus, solve problems and achieve goals than those who sit there banging their head on a computer screen. How do we maintain our sense of control when managing a remote team? Perhaps that conundrum highlights where the fear and reluctance to embrace remote working has come from. But at what cost?

Trust is earned not given freely, and I get that. But if you hired someone and believe in the effectiveness of your recruitment campaign, then you trust you’ve hired someone capable of doing the job and doing it well. So why would you not trust the person themselves?

“Great leaders hire outstanding people, train them well, inspire them, and then get out of their way” 

Frank Sonnenberg

If you feel the need to control and micro-manage that would suggest to me you might need to revisit your hiring strategy because you don’t trust those around you to get the job done. If your hiring strategy is solid, then perhaps what happens next is not equipping them with the tools and knowledge to succeed. Or worse, it could be disengaging them, so it might be worth assessing the quality of the career experience of working in your company.

If none of the above, and people are usually doing a pretty good job, then you might need to look deeper at yourself to try and determine why you find it difficult to trust people. Because for the most part, if you have a solid talent acquisition and development strategy, and you engage people by cultivating a career experience that’s good for them, then you’ve got good people who are trying the best they can and being there to watch over their shoulder isn’t going to make any difference. In fact, it might just make things worse. Check out Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive’ in which he talks about the role of intrinsic motivation for further reading.

“But they’re paid to come to work and do a job, back in the day these Millennials wouldn’t have survived…” I can almost hear ringing in my ears.

What if they could and would do the job much, much better if they wanted to rather than because they had to? What if you hired great people and they stayed? What if you hired great people and they were committed to helping your company be successful? What if they took less days off sick because they actually quite liked being there, doing the work they do, and weren’t so stressed and burnt out? What if when they were there they were prepared to walk through walls for their manager because of the strength of the bond and trust they had with them? That trust doesn’t come from a micromanager.

“People work for people, not companies” 

Nan S. Russell

It doesn’t really matter what we think of today’s workers, their wants and needs and whether they’re misplaced. The fact is the world of work has changed. People want more from their employer. We either adapt, or we die. But how we adapt is important – and to their credit, many organisations are trying.

Many organisations now recognise that employee engagement is crucial to their ambitions. Many organisations recognise that their people are their number one competitive advantage. And right now, at a time like this, we need every competitive advantage we can get as we strive to make our way back from the damage done from lockdown and COVID-19. Right now, employee engagement is more crucial than ever. We need our teams to be on board, fighting alongside us as we try to recover; not taking up space on the lifeboat and watching on as others try to paddle it to safety. But the crucial question remains, how do we engage our teams so they’ll fight the good fight with us and not against us?

Many organisations are frustrated, even exasperated, and can’t understand the demands of today’s workforce. But many organisations misunderstand what people really want and need to feel engaged. They’ve spent the last few years investing in arcade machines, pool tables, fancy coffee machines, fresh fruit baskets, ice-cream on sunny days, office yoga, some even offering the services of a masseuse. These are all great perks, but I refer to them as hygiene factors. Like that day when you sit down beside your ripe coworker who woke up late and didn’t have time to shower, hygiene isn’t noticed until it’s missing. You’ve introduced these and now they’re an expectation, so when you take them away it’ll cause a problem. But I’ve never heard of anyone who said I can’t wait to go to work on Monday and give it everything because we’ve got a free canteen.

You know what really makes people tick? Of course you don’t, and neither do I. Because people refers to 7.5 billion individuals all from different places, having grown up in different ways, experienced different things and each with their own quirks and sense of motivation. That also changes throughout their lives depending on the circumstances in which they’re living and what’s happening in the world. But you know what you can do to find out and to use those insights to get or keep them onside? To learn how you can engage them so you can be successful together? You can listen. You can have authentic conversations. And then maybe, when you’ve built a strong enough connection, you can trust. Because the road back from COVID-19 is going to be difficult enough without us fighting amongst ourselves in our companies.

While I’m hearing lots of managers and companies at the moment talk of closing down and controlling communication channels, perhaps for fear of what might be said, maybe the right thing to do is open them up. There’s wisdom in the crowd, as Matthew Syed (Rebel Ideas) would say, and while managers typically feel like they have to and burden themselves with solving every problem and finding every solution on their own, many brains are better than one. The evidence shows, groups make better decisions than individuals. So why make things even more difficult than they have to be?

It’s not when the sun is shining or when the seas are calm that people assess the authenticity of our employer brand. It’s right now in these moments of crises when our words, our actions and our strategy for recovery will be remembered. If we commit to caring for our employees and making their safety and well-being a priority, that will be remembered and we will reap the benefits when this time passes. If we don’t, this may leave a legacy that is difficult to recover from.

We built our cultural evaluation platform, mooqi, as a way to facilitate better engagement within our clients’ companies. It provides employees with a safe way to share their thoughts and feelings about work while helping employers learn from the insights to shape a better performing business through a better business culture. Perhaps now is the time more than ever to be listening to your employees, taking into account their thoughts and feelings, then using the insights to inform your strategy.

What do you think is going to be important on the road back from lockdown? Share your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading.