How to create a great place to work during COVID-19

This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review
By Amantha Imber

August 20, 2020

There has been a dramatic drop in employee engagement, according to Gallup’s latest poll. It found only 31 per cent of employees are feeling engaged at work while 14 per cent are “actively disengaged”, meaning they have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues.While many things are outside your control, here are several strategies you can adopt to make your workplace a great one in which to work, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reframe how you view your staff

In conversations with leaders, I have found many are asking the question: “How can I get my staff working harder/better/faster to help my organisation survive the pandemic?”

While productivity is critical for business survival, so too is recognising that your staff are human. A far more productive way to frame your thinking is to ask: “What can I do to serve my staff better during this really challenging time?”

By treating people with respect and kindness, productivity will improve. When having one-on-one catch-ups with your team, resist the temptation to jump straight into work; instead, ask how they are feeling. If a member of your team is having to juggle work with home schooling, adjust your expectations of what they can realistically deliver.

Remember the building blocks of human motivation

COVID-19 has had a big impact on the collective mental health of workers. Soon after the second lockdown in Victoria, calls to Lifeline increased by 22 per cent and Beyond Blue saw a doubling of demand for its services.

When mental health declines, so does motivation. Coming back to the three building blocks of motivation – autonomy, mastery and connection – is essential. Leaders need to focus on helping team members increase at least one of these three aspects at work.

To boost autonomy, ensure you are giving your team freedom in what they do and how they choose to do it. Instead of micromanaging, trust your team members to decide how best to complete projects they are assigned.

For mastery, encourage staff to consider learning and development opportunities that could help them with the new challenges COVID-19 has presented in the workplace, and make sure they have challenging projects to work on.

Finally, ensure that you and your team prioritise human connection, even if it is only through phone or video calls now. Virtual happy hour is getting a bit stale for many teams, so experiment with different structures such as running “conversation salons”.

Clean up your meetings

In the remote world, the way we do meetings has changed. According to research from Microsoft, time spent in meetings has increased by 10 per cent. On the upside, the number of shorter meetings of 30 minutes or less has increased by 22 per cent.

It is easy to treat meetings as a necessary evil of office life, but to make your workplace a great one, leaders need to obsess over how they run their meetings – and if they are all even necessary. Doing so can dramatically improve people’s experience at work, as more than 15 per cent of a person’s job satisfaction is based on how happy they are with the meetings they attend, according to research led by Professor Steven Rogelberg from the University of North Carolina.

Scott Anthony, senior partner at growth strategy consultancy Innosight, said on my How I Work podcast that he was able to remove 70 per cent of recurring meetings from his diary with no negative consequences.

When cleaning up meetings, team updates are a great place to start. According to research by Harris Poll, 17 per cent of people would prefer to watch paint dry than attend these often lengthy meetings. Ask yourself: Is there a more efficient or more enjoyable way for this information to be shared? Could a Google Sheet do the same job and win your team back an hour or two every week?

Try to cap virtual meetings at 30 minutes. Research from Microsoft concluded that our brain becomes fatigued around the 30- to 40-minute mark.

Stop worrying about change fatigue and provide certainty instead

Atlassian’s co-founders recently announced to all staff they could work from home for forever. The power of this announcement lies in its creation of certainty for people, which in turn reduces anxiety.

“I think humans are very good at change,” Dominic Price, Atlassian’s head of research and development and resident work futurist, recently told me. “I actually think what we’re struggling with right now is uncertainty. It’s just not knowing what’s going to happen next, and that uncertainty causes anxiety.”

While you may not be able to provide certainty on a lot of things, erring on the side of over-communication and transparency will help reduce anxiety. For example, rather than just delivering information, share the thinking process that led to your decision.

If your organisation is pioneering new ways of working and pushing the boundaries when it comes to workplace policies and practices, be recognised on the prestigious Financial Review BOSS Best Places to Work list. It is free to nominate and takes only a few minutes. Nominate your organisation today. Nominations close on October 7.

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.