How to put people at the heart of your company’s COVID-19 response

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Dan Schawbel, Managing Partner, Workplace Intelligence


Not enough workers feel their employers have prioritized human needs during the pandemic.

• The reduction in commute time has been balanced out by an increase in hours worked.

• Technology could be further leveraged to increase flexibility for individual workers.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most companies weren’t able to meet the needs of their workforces because they were unprepared. I don’t blame them, because no leader has experienced a disruptive force like this in their lifetime; based on LinkedIn data, over two-thirds of C-level executives are finding it the most challenging experience of their career.

As evidence of how unprepared leaders were for this moment, The Workforce Institute at UKG and Workplace Intelligence surveyed about 4,000 people globally and found that only 20% of workers felt their organization met their needs during the initial months of the pandemic. These “human needs”, like psychological security and physical safety, illustrate that an individual worker’s health should be a priority over metrics like higher productivity and engagement levels. When leaders plan for the basic human needs of their workforce, they in turn solve their workplace needs and as a result, drive higher performance and a better culture.

Workers’ overall health and well-being have suffered in numerous ways since the start of the pandemic. This is attributed to overwork; while commute times have declined substantially with remote work, the number of hours of work has increased, replacing that commute time entirely. The study found that half of workers say they’ve been working either the same or more hours regularly, which is why 43% hope their leaders can help them balance their workloads to prevent fatigue and burnout. Both remote and office workers are equally affected by burnout, which was deemed an “occupational phenomenon” back in 2019 by the World Health Organization. While workers may be more productive during COVID out of fear of job security and with less commuting, burnout ends up resulting in poor health, which ultimately lowers productivity and employee retention.

One of the most important qualities of a leader during a crisis like this is empathy. Every worker has a different set of circumstances, so leaders have to realize that they need to cater to individuals, not just teams, and try to put themselves in their workers’ shoes. For instance, one employee may have multiple children who are being homeschooled, while another is living alone and feeling isolated and lonely. Our study found that 29% of employees wish their organizations would act with more empathy; acknowledging someone’s human needs creates a stronger connection between leader and worker.

While technology has powered the remote workplace for many years now, it hasn’t been leveraged to its full extent, at least during the early part of the pandemic. Employees and business leaders (30% of them) wished their organization better leveraged technology to provide flexibility, especially those with families (34%). Leaders need to invest and support new collaborative and automation technologies to provide for more flexibility, while reducing employee time on administrative tasks.

Impact of working from home on the work-life balance of marketers during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK in 2020
Impact of working from home on the work-life balance of marketers during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK in 2020 Image: Statista.org

There’s also a generational gap when it comes to technology that was reiterated in our study, where we found that older workers are having trouble keeping up with the latest tools, which has impacted their ability to perform and increased their stress levels. Leaders who invest in technology during the pandemic will be in a much better position to deal with future COVID surges, keeping their workers safe, while also making them feel more secure.

As the recession continues, employees continue to be on edge when it comes to their own job security, feeling as though they could get laid off at any time because of the economic downturn caused by COVID. Many of us have colleagues, friends and family members who have experienced this. More than a third of employees and business leaders in our study are concerned about future lay-offs and furloughs due to economic instability, and this was constant across all age groups.

Aside from their own job security, workers are worried about how safe their office spaces are, and no one can blame them. As workplaces reopen, leaders need to make important decisions about the cleanliness of their spaces, from elevators to lobbies to conference rooms. The top priorities voiced by employees are cleanliness (45%) and passing through high traffic areas (35%). Employees are especially concerned with tight areas like conference rooms, where it is hard to socially distance from one another. Leaders need to be thoughtful about their offices because when employees don’t feel safe, their health suffers and performance declines. coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

As we continue through this pandemic, leaders need to act faster and communicate more often to support the human needs of their workers and build trust, which is the most valuable asset right now. A third of employees wished offices closed faster at the start of the pandemic and desired more transparent communication. Since much of the workforce is dependent on technology at the moment, leaders have to spend more time communicating with their teams if they want to ensure engagement and productivity is up, but also give reassurance to employees who are suffering emotionally, psychologically and even physically. By treating workers like humans first, leaders will be able to survive this pandemic – and then thrive in the aftermath.

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