The past 12 months have been a year like no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our lives, disrupted the way we work and trapped many of us in our homes for months. No wonder burnout is up and productivity is down in so many workplaces.
While data is still rolling in about the full impact, the UK Office for National Statistics reports that the number of adults experiencing psychological distress jumped from 24.3% in 2019 to 37.8% in April 2020. According to recent CMI research, 62% of managers believe the wellbeing/mental health of their team had been or would be impacted by a return to the workplace.
The impacts are clear. Research by consultancy Bain & Company has revealed that while a tiny sliver of high-performing organisations actually saw their productivity climb over the past year, the majority have seen a steep drop-off.
This is probably not a surprise to most managers. The harder question is what to do to keep your team going. Here is where the experts have better news. While Covid-19 might be an unprecedented challenge, the best tools to help your employees get through it are familiar. The tools and techniques that you used to help your team shake off stress and remain productive before are much the same as those that will get you through this last stage of the pandemic. Keeping productivity up simply requires turning up the dial on these behaviours.
1. Keep your eyes on the horizon
“It is absolutely vital for the top of the shop to have the vision of where they’re trying to get to now,” insists Julian Free CMgr CCMI, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln who previously spent decades in the military. Having served in places such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he has frontline understanding of what drives people during crisis situations.
Like many other leaders, Free spent the early months of the Covid-19 crisis putting out fires and scrambling to move his team to a remote setup. Quickly, though, he and other leaders at the university realised that they’d have to offer their people more than remote work tools and immediate survival plans. A long-term vision of how the university will emerge from the crisis and “build back better” was necessary.
Clearly communicated longer-term goals are essential for beating back the toll of a very tough year, other experts agree. “Instead of lowering the temperature completely and feeling the effect of exhaustion and boredom, it might be a good idea to turn up the heat and go into fight mode,” says business psychologist Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg. “Take a good look at the battles that will meet you. How can you stay ahead of the curve? How can you prepare for the next stages?”
If you feel your team is slowly drowning in the dreary details of day-today survival during the pandemic, now is the time to lift your vision towards the horizon. Setting out your goals for the longer journey can provide a shot of additional energy and motivation.
2. R&R is less fun but more important during a pandemic
Many of us are daydreaming about sunny beaches and far-flung holidays, but taking leave right now is less appealing than normal. With so many restrictions in place, there aren’t many ways to enjoy your time off, so why not save it for later? If this is the thinking of either you or your team, you need to reconsider.
“An engaged employee is about 45% more productive than a satisfied employee, but an inspired employee is 55% more productive than a merely engaged employee,” points out Bain & Company’s Michael Mankins, who co-authored its recent research. Keeping employees in the inspired column has been the biggest challenge during the pandemic, he feels, and doing so requires ensuring your people get enough rest and recuperation (R&R).
Mankins offers the example of Adobe, which has closed its offices one Friday each month during the pandemic to give employees additional time to rest and recharge away from pinging notifications and colleagues with “quick requests”. But simple vigilance from managers can be helpful too.
Free, with his military background, learned long ago how essential R&R is during times of stress. “In a crisis like this, you notice your key people aren’t taking leave. That’s a really, really bad idea. You need people to walk away, de-stress, reset, think about what they’re doing, recover.”
He has carefully monitored whether his employees are taking leave over the past few months and is having sometimes uncomfortable conversations to urge individuals out the door. Forcing people to take a holiday might not be the first idea that springs to mind when you’re casting around for ways to increase productivity, but it could be as effective as it is counter-intuitive.
3. Take control of meetings and technology protocols
The culture of meetings has changed, and this could drag down your productivity. Bain & Company’s research shows that the number of meetings has gone up during the pandemic, while meeting length has gone down. Freed from the constraints of physical location, managers are inviting many more attendees to meetings. Together, this adds up to vastly more time lost to unnecessary meetings.
Happily, fixing this is an easy win for productivity. The research also shows that, thanks to reduced commuting and more time spent online, the average employee is working around 45 minutes more per week during the pandemic. Much of that time, however, is wasted in a flurry of unnecessary emails, Slack messages and Zoom calls. If you can be disciplined with your communications, the efficiencies of remote work may more than balance out any exhaustion-related fall in productivity.
And, says Mankins, “the best have not allowed the number of attendees per meeting to go up. All of the meeting disciplines you had before Covid-19 basically need to be put on steroids.”
As a manager, you are also responsible for setting limits on your availability. Julian Free, for example, does not touch his computer or phone on Saturdays.
“If anyone wants to get me on a Saturday, they’re going to have to ring my landline, and the barrier for someone to ring someone’s landline now is massive, so they’ll only do that if the wheels have come off. I think you have to put some barriers in,” he says. Free’s approach may not work for your team, but you may want to consider something similar to avoid burnout.
4. Protect your top performers
The famous 80:20 rule applies to individual contributions in the office, too: “80% of the most important interactions in a company are made by just 20% of the people, so 20% of a company are being asked to do everything,” explains Mankins, summing up the research on the subject.
That’s true in good times and bad, but once again the pandemic has amplified an existing trend with both positive and negative consequences. Thanks to remote work, many top performers can now make an impact on more projects. They can also be bombarded with requests for help and collaboration at a time when most face additional stresses at home. Unchecked, that leads straight to burnout or even a decision to step back from the workforce entirely.
If managers are aware of this issue and carefully monitor the workload of their top people, they can reap the productivity benefits of more flexible ways of working without the danger of driving their best talent to quit. “You have to be more vigilant in seeking input from your employees in terms of what their workload is. If you had pulse checks before and you did them quarterly, you better start doing them monthly. You may even need to do them weekly,” Mankins urges.
His advice is typical of that being doled out to managers struggling to keep their heads above water after 12 months of lockdowns and uncertainty. It’s neither new-fangled nor complicated. In fact, it mostly boils down to doing more of what worked before. Great management hasn’t changed dramatically. It’s just more important now than ever.
This article and others about dialling up performance in a crisis were originally featured in CMI’s Magazine – members can access it here!
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