In March 2020, a Gartner HR survey revealed that 88% of organizations have shifted their employees to a remote working model. Overnight, the pandemic had forced most organizations in both, public and private sectors, to adopt ‘work from home’ as the new norm. So far, remote working model has provided a solution to the business continuity conundrum during the pandemic. And, companies have done an admirable job bracing the impact of the shift and adapting to this new normal.
But it’s not just organizations that are affected by the shift. Employees are also equally affected by the change in the working environment. Some would argue that this new model has had a greater impact on employees than on organizational operations.
The Impacts and Challenges of Working from Home
The steep drop in the global economy in March 2020, had caused a ripple effect on the socio-economic status quo that left a large fraction of the workforce facing unemployment and furloughs. Most of the remaining workforce has shifted to working from home. In the US alone, more than 60% of the employed workforce is working from home, contributing more than two-thirds of the US economic activity. However, this has come at a cost.
A recent study, I came across, revealed that about 29% of employees think their productivity had taken a hit due to this new working arrangement. This is not a large number. But it does contradict the reports, essays, and articles that talk at length about the heightened morale and productivity of employees working remotely. In fact, the same report revealed that only senior executives reported a rise in productivity. And this is not an isolated finding. According to a Deloitte survey in China, 46% executives expect reduction in their 2020 performance targets.
To me, this points to a gap between expectations and reality when it comes to determining the employee experience management in a WFH model. Which is why it is important, now more than ever, to understand the challenges and the evolving needs of employees, in wake of the pandemic.
One of the key challenges that employees face in a remote working environment is that of a fragmented communication ecosystem. Over the years, we have come to exclusively rely on physical communications channels. Be it the impromptu lunch meetings or the desk side brainstorming sessions, remote working has eliminated the possibility of face-to-face interactions. While there is no supporting evidence, it is not difficult to associate this with an apparent drop in productivity.
Cutting back on commute time has also posed an unlikely challenge. With employees being always available, it has become difficult to draw the line for a healthy work-life balance. The stress of being confined to their homes, the creeping anxiety of isolation, and a lack of visibility further exacerbate the problem.
The Time for an Evolved Employee Experience is Now
During the first phase of the pandemic, most employers had done a commendable job of addressing their employees’ basic needs of safety, stability, and security. But as we tread deeper into the new normal, businesses need to first understand that those necessities are evolving. In a way, the return phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted organizations to reimagine employee experience by considering individual attributes, such as skills and personal characteristics, among others. According to a recent survey, 50% employees expect a greater focus on employee experience, in 2020.
One of the primary aspects that need to be addressed is about communication channels. Organizations need to ensure effective, real-time, and uninterrupted communications, amongst employees as well as other stakeholders. As part of a larger picture encompassing employee engagement and experience, communications affects the overall effectiveness of working in a remote environment. In the end, the biggest impact is on building trusted relationships across the board and with clients.
Company leaders have a natural tendency to focus inward to improve business outcomes. But in the new normal, organizations that build a certain sense of social belonging will be in a better position to deliver enhanced employee experience and drive subsequent business growth. Nurturing an atmosphere of trust involves many smaller and essential components. Communications is an important one. Inclusion is another. Creating and maintaining a culture of inclusion that celebrates individuality is imperative for a healthy employee experience. For this, businesses can create cross-functional teams, and cultivate a feeling of inclusion and psychological closure.
I say ‘celebrate individuality’ because, above all, firms need to understand that each employee is a person—their needs and experience will vary. This means businesses need to adopt a more proactive approach to listening and responding to their employees’ concerns and requests. In fact, employees who experience quick and effective response from their organizations are six times more likely to report a positive impact on well-being.
As businesses venture into the new normal, technology will play an important role in delivering employee experiences of the future. Leveraging technology to improve employee well-being is not a new concept. However, equipped with the latest cognitive capabilities, organizations will find it easier to help employees adapt better to the new working environment.
Automation and the Future of Employee Experiences
Economists studying the past economic downturns have noted that recessions tend to catalyze automation. Take the example of a cosmetics company, that has about 70% of their workforce working from home. They recently launched a branded learning initiative that catered to the distinct needs of the organization and its stakeholders.
Businesses can take a page out of such initiatives to introduce a learning spark into their own processes. With the pandemic threatening to push global economy into a deep recession, we could be looking at yet another wave of automation adoption. This time with a renewed focus on automation in employee experiences.
In my previous blogs, I have spoken about how the marriage of automation with inter-disciplinary AI gave rise to intelligent automation (IA) and the future of digitalCOLLEAGUES. Businesses, therefore need to introduce perpetual learning models into the existing workflow to prepare employee for the new interface of work. After all, the way we work is changing. It’s time the workforce is provided with the necessary experience to ensure improved work quality alongside mental health in the new normal.