The Post-COVID Era: What a Modern Manager Needs to Know
Back in February 2021, when the second COVID wave was about to hit, McKinsey published a study elaborating on the impact of the pandemic-induced disruptions on the workplace. In doing so, the consulting giant gave enormous airtime to trends like remote work, AI adoption, and employment changes. What stood out was the fact that around 20-25% of the workforce was expected to be working remotely in the future. Four months into the future and Gartner took that number to 51%.
Indeed, we've seen how that has turned out as we're approaching 2023. According to the latest numbers, around 55% of businesses are, in some way or the other, allowing their employees to work from home. However, considering that the pandemic-imposed restrictions have been lifted already, how is it that organisations are still not willing to welcome their employees back to their workstations? Or conversely, how is it that employees still prefer working remotely? Is it that remote work policies are more favourable in practice? Or is there a misconception about the viability of these working models?
Amid all this, how are managers supposed to fit into the new work environment and improve it?
To answer these questions, we have to granularly look at the changing workplace dynamics, their applicability for organisations and workers alike, and finally, the role managers can play in ensuring that all the bottlenecks and issues are addressed.
The Changing Workplace Dynamics (and the Accompanying Challenges)
As per the data released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 260 million workers worldwide were engaged in remote work in 2019 - i.e., prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, ILO's data indicates that there were about 560 million employees working remotely. Of course, the lockdowns, strict controls, and heightened surveillance of the pandemic days contributed to a huge increase in remote work volumes.
But now, even after the removal of the restrictions, there are still huge numbers of workers logging in from home. And this is causing a slew of organisational challenges. Here's why:
Employees Remain Less Engaged
As per a study, employees working remotely affirmed being 182% less engaged than their peers working in the office. This leads to a wide gamut of problems – from productivity loss to regressive work practices, to cultural and communication issues, to imbalanced team dynamics, etc.
For a business to thrive, it is extremely important for the employees to be engaged. If not, productivity and quality both suffer. And it's not just about the number of hours worked. The impact can be huge – especially if we consider the fact that remote work is an ongoing trend, which means that the business has to manage not just the current employee pool but also inform its future ones. So, it's important to get the engagement levels right.
Employees Remain Overwhelmingly Relaxed
Now, it's obviously important to nurture a mentally-healthy culture for employees to be engaged. However, in the current scenario, comfort levels are extremely high, and the need for a physical presence in the office is negligible. So, much like engaging employees, discipline has been an issue too. And this is exceptionally detrimental to organisations caught in volatile markets, especially when they're competing with newer, leaner, more agile competitors.
Talking of agile, the modern-day Agile, DevOps, and Lean working models require high-speed communication, seamless collaboration, and constant adaptability. At a point when employees are working from home and communication is limited, it's hardly surprising that these kinds of working styles are difficult to adopt. Being unable to communicate effectively with the team eats away at morale and reduces productivity levels too.
Moonlighting means working not just for one employer but for two or more employers at the same time. Now, this has existed before the pandemic. But with remote work policies gaining traction and traditional work formats shrinking, the number of employees moonlighting has been on a constant rise. The telecommuting employees have been breaking work terms, using remote work as an opportunity to freelance and earn more.
This is disadvantageous on multiple levels. On an individual level, it disrupts an employee's work-life balance, increases their stress levels, and, at minimum, makes their work quality suffer. But it also has bigger implications for the business. These moonlighting employees cost the business in the form of time and resources – both in terms of salaries paid and projects lost.
According to PwC, one in five workers are quitting their jobs in 2022. The ongoing trends like "Great Resignation", "Big Quit", etc., are testimony to this trend. As it stands, there are a lot of reasons for this – the remote working policies, flexible job structures and a greater focus on technology. Of course, there's this inclination towards impressive pay packages and a more relaxed work environment as well. However, not all is rosy in this trend.
A headline on Guardian, sums it up - "Turns out the Great Resignation may be followed by the Great Regret." The article cites a study by Muse that outlined how 72% of the workers that left their jobs are experiencing "surprise and regret" because the new job isn't what they were made to believe in. So, apparently, they're quitting to be miserable at their new jobs. Some are, as a matter of fact, quitting to "nowhere."
What Steps Can Managers Take to Boost Productivity in the Post-COVID Era?
So, we are left with a conundrum – employees can't work the way they used to without breaking the rules or falling out of sync with their peers. And even if they do, it's not ideal either. So, what next?
In the past few years, there have been a number of changes in workplace dynamics, and it is only going to get more complicated in the future. For businesses to survive these changes and thrive, it's important for an organisation's managers to step up their game too. Here are a few steps that the managers can take:
People perform better when they know they are being controlled — an ideology that has proven time and time again to be true. Now, this is not to say that you have to be controlling in a negative way. But you do have to set the rules, control what policies make the cut, and observe how everything is going on the ground.
According to the Hawthorne effect, workers perform better when they know they are being observed. And that's the basic premise of surveillance in organisations. They need to know that you're watching them. A viable solution to this is to have an employee monitoring solution in place, which can record idle time, app usage, social media usage, etc., to keep tabs on what employees are up to. This can help gauge their productivity levels and bring iffy ones to your notice.
Celebrate Success, Encourage the Staff
While it is important to be able to keep watch over employees, it's equally important that they feel appreciated. Managers can ensure this by celebrating the successes in the organisation, highlighting the contributions of the employees, and making them understand that they are a part of a larger system and that they are being taken care of. They can also pay attention to the process and system-level metrics and reward the employees in terms of recognition, bonuses and perks. Not only will the attrition levels drop, but it will also make them work harder.
Part Ways with Toxicity
A 2021 report by AllVoices revealed that 38% of employees, experienced harassment while they were working remotely. The report sheds light on how communication channels such as emails, chat apps, etc., and internal bias can lead to personal conflicts, which can negatively affect the workforce. Employees who are working in a team with an unhealthy environment are, most likely, going to gravitate towards toxicity too. So, managers have to pay attention to this and act quickly before it leads to negative repercussions.
Again, it calls for a monitoring solution that can keep an eye on the employee activity and highlight any incidences of toxicity or disruptive behaviour. Managers can use this software to enforce a zero-tolerance policy and take action accordingly. This data-driven action can come in the form of a verbal warning, or even a suspension with pay, if necessary.
With remote work models gaining ground, it can be a challenge to keep the workforce engaged and productive. Often employees abuse this new-found flexibility and shirk their responsibilities. And with no one to check them, it can lead to disastrous results on both an individual and organisational level.
But managers can put a stop to this with the help of remote employee monitoring software. It will help them maintain control, monitor employee activities and take disciplinary action against anyone who is abusing the system. With this data-driven approach, they can spot the toxicity in their midst before it gets out of hand.
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