COVID-19 poses a challenge like none other. The virus impacts not only physical wellbeing, but also the emotional wellbeing of people facing concerns over their financial and career wellbeing. Organizations of all types struggle as large swaths of the economy shut down or are substantially curtailed. In addition to coping with the demands the pandemic places on their day-to-day operations, organizations must cope with the demands on the physical, emotional, financial, and career wellbeing of employees.
This paper is designed to help organizational leaders understand and effectively cope with the demands of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of employees. We will address:
- The challenges of the rapid transition of many employees to remote work.
- Personality traits that foster resilience.
- Team and organizational characteristics that foster resilience.
- Drivers of employee engagement for on-site versus remote workers.
- Making and executing decisions with new segments of remote workers.
- Resolving conflict with remote workers.
- Managing performance of remote workers.
Remote Work Is Here to Stay
COVID-19 has changed the workplace in many, possibly lasting, ways. The increase in employees working remotely is likely one of the most significant permanent changes. Remote work was a growing trend before COVID-19; but as of mid-February 2020, 46 percent of US organizations had implemented remote work policies1. Likely many of these organizations will retain a segment of their employees as a remote workforce to support social distancing and to reduce real estate costs.
Some jobs are a better fit with remote work than other jobs2. For example, insurance claims adjuster and call center representative roles do not specifically require the employee to commute into an office space and work side-by-side with co-workers. As important, some individuals are a better fit for remote work than others.
The Challenges of Remote Work
Research reveals several challenges associated with remote work3. A main challenge is lack of face-to-face supervision. Many employees need in-person interaction to feel connected to their employer; for many, the supervisor is the “face” of the organization. Lack of in-person contact with their supervisor leaves many people feeling disconnected and disengaged from their work.
Reduced access to information presents another challenge to remote workers. In many organizations, hallway and lunchroom conversations serve as a critical source of information about such topics as organizational changes, leadership transitions, and future directions. Finally, distractions at home can challenge many remote workers. These distractions could range from childcare to home maintenance to television.
Organizations can anticipate and address challenges like these for remote workers like insurance claims adjusters and call center representatives. However, many newly remote workers became remote as a result of COVID-19, which allowed minimal time to anticipate or address these challenges. As a result, resilience becomes critical.
Resilience refers to an individual’s ability to adapt to change and recover from setbacks. Those individuals naturally who are high in resilience adapt easily to change and recover quickly from setbacks. Conversely, those individuals low in resilience adapt to change with difficulty and recover slowly from setbacks. Resilience is impacted by personality traits of employees; however, it is also impacted by characteristics of the job, the team, and the organization.
Personality Traits Associated with Resilience and the Remote Worker
We see a number of links to human personality, resilience and the distributed worker4. When we use the term personality, we are referring to how an individual tends to think, feel, and behave. Some personality traits are associated with resilience. One is emotional stability.5, 6, 7 Those high in emotional stability enjoy a positive attitude and are not prone to excessive worry. They tend to be calm and handle stress effectively. From the perspective of resilience, those high in emotional stability are likely to worry less frequently and intensely about external concerns like health and financial risks.
Employees high in conscientiousness are self-directed and driven to overcome obstacles and achieve goals.8, 9, 10 They tend to be well-organized and focused. From the perspective of resilience, conscientious individuals are likely to stay focused on work responsibilities, even while working from home. They are likely to prioritize and organize effectively despite the distractions of working from home.
Those high in ambition are action-oriented and driven to set and achieve high goals.11 They also tend to possess high energy. From the perspective of resilience, individuals high in ambition are likely driven to excel at work, even under challenging circumstances.
Individuals who have a growth mindset view skills as learnable as opposed to inherited or fixed.12 Because they view skills as learnable, they are not threatened by mistakes or setbacks and tend to recover quickly. From the perspective of resilience, those with a growth mindset re-engage after setbacks by trying new approaches.
Job, Team, & Organizational Characteristics Associated with Resilience
Resilience also can be influenced by characteristics of the work environment. We can categorize these characteristics based on the individual’s job, team, and organization.
Job Characteristics Associated with Resilience
Organizations can structure jobs to promote resilience, and many of these structural characteristics are associated with best practices of job design. Autonomy in decision-making relevant to work is one characteristic shown to promote resilience.13 We later discuss best practices related to making and executing decisions. These best practices offer guidelines regarding how to maximize autonomy in decision-making. Job resources (e.g., discretion in how to perform the job, supportive co-workers) also are shown to promote resilience.14 Job resources mitigate the impact of job demands and facilitate employee development. Job demands or task interdependence and job uncertainty or unpredictability both negatively impact resilience.15 The nature of work will continue to make task interdependence a permanent part of many jobs. However, in the later section of this paper regarding delivering value to customers, we offer best practices on equipping employees to make decisions in environments of unpredictability.
Team Characteristics Associated with Resilience
The team or group within which the individual works can promote or negatively impact resilience. Many of these team characteristics are associated with best practices. As noted earlier, coworkers can promote resilience at both the individual and team levels via supportive relationships and high-quality ideas for improvement and innovation.16 Supportive supervisors also can promote resilience through mechanisms to create an open environment for discussion, expressing confidence in employees’ ability to adapt to change, providing actionable performance feedback, and rewarding extra effort and strong performance.17, 18
A team learning climate also promotes resilience.19 We see a learning climate in the extent to which team norms support and reward members who learn from setbacks and apply this learning to the work of the team. While personality traits are important for resilience, supervisors can take steps to support resiliency of the individual and the team.
Organizational Characteristics Associated with Resilience
The larger organization also is capable of promoting resilience, and these characteristics are associated with best practices. For example, a clear vision and mission enables employees to apply a simple set of guidelines to address uncertainty and decisions.20 Such clarity tends to promote resilience because employees have clear direction to navigate the stress they do experience. Further, mission and vision become critical especially in light of changing customer needs due to COVID-19. Similar to the team level, organizations that embrace a learning climate and the experimentation and setbacks that innovation requires, will see more resilient employees.21
A final issue relates to interventions designed to promote resilience. Several types of programs target this objective, for example: Master Resilience Training, Psychological Capital Training, Hardiness Training. The evidence supporting their effectiveness is not completely consistent. That said, the evidence is generally positive that, when properly designed, delivered and supported by the organization, such interventions show meaningful results in promoting resilience.22
Remote Work & Employee Engagement
Employee engagement forms a critical part of an effective organization. At Gallagher, we define employee engagement using the following seven components:
- Proud to be part of the organization
- Feeling part of the mission
- Willing to go beyond the expected
- Able to see the big picture results of work efforts
- Leaving work with strong satisfaction
- Not actively planning to leave the organization
- Strongly recommending the organization as an employer
All things being equal, organizations enjoying higher levels of engagement among their employees also tend to demonstrate higher resilience among their employees. Our research shows that the drivers of employee engagement vary from organization to organization. Also we found that engagement drivers tend to be slightly different for remote workers. Two of these drivers show up frequently for both remote and on-site workers. These drivers include an affinity toward working for the organization and feeling challenged to do one’s best.
That said, there are three drivers that now show up as specifically important for remote worker engagement, but less frequently for on-site workers. They include:
- The need for one’s leader and the leader’s leader to display principles that guide behavior in the organization.
- Understanding how one’s work fits into that of the team, and into the overall delivery of an exceptional customer or patient experience.
- Communication of reasons for major changes that affects one’s work group.
Other Gallagher research suggests that remote workers need both clear structure and a more tangible connection than on-site workers. Particularly, remote workers need a clear sense of structure, boundaries, and expectations from their managers and from senior leaders in the organization. They also need to feel connected when organizational changes occur that impact their teams and their roles within their teams. Finally, remote workers need to see how their individual contribution creates a difference in the customer experience.
The manager wields an outsized role in supporting remote workers and promoting their resilience. This begins with managers supporting remote workers’ belief in their ability to perform. When remote workers question their own resilience and ability to handle new challenges, managers must convince them that a positive outcome is assured. Managers also need to provide the right technology and supporting tools to facilitate communication, connection, and engagement.
Conversations between managers and newly remote workers will need to reset the expectations of the psychological contract (i.e., what is expected of remote workers and what remote workers can expect from their managers and the organization). Finally, managers should conduct regular and frequent check-ins regarding both workload and well-being of newly remote workers.
Delivering Value to Customers
Since COVID-19, organizational leaders must address a few critical questions relevant to customers, including:
- How has the pandemic impacted our customers?
- Does it change the value they ascribe to our products and services?
- Should we alter products, services, prices, or delivery?
Having addressed these questions, organizational leaders should connect the roles and responsibilities of employees to delivering value to customers. They should provide employees with a line of sight between what they do and how it benefits customers. Organizational leaders also should be specific about changes in how customers view the organization’s products and services and/or how the organization’s products and services are evolving. Employees need clear communication regarding what should do differently. Finally, leaders must connect the rationale for work group changes to delivering value to customers. Remote workers are particularly attuned to wanting to understand the rationale behind changes.
Making & Executing Decisions
If an organization’s decision-making and execution disciplines were loose before moving to remote work, they are likely even less-defined after moving to remote work. Addressing three questions will tighten these disciplines.
Which decisions are most critical to strategy?
Two types of decisions shape strategy: macro and micro. Macro decisions literally define the organization’s strategy. Determined by small groups of senior leaders, macro decisions include those most people associate with strategy: capital allocation, geographic areas to serve, and customers to pursue. Macro decisions impact large numbers of people with long-term effect and implications. Organizations may wait for quarters or even years to realize whether the macro decisions were effective.
Micro decisions are not those that people typically consider strategic; but they define the execution of the strategy. These include decisions about how customer-facing employees resolve complaints, how delivery employees prioritize sequencing and timing of deliveries, and how nurses deliver routine care to patients. These micro decisions impact fewer people per single decision and they are short-term in effect. Leaders can determine within minutes or days whether a micro decisions was correct. Large groups of people on the front lines of an organization make micro decisions every day. When micro decisions are aggregated over many decision instances, they can become more impactful than macro decisions.
Are organizations making decisions effectively?
Best practices for making and executing decisions depend on whether the decision is macro or micro; however, there is some overlap. First, leaders should determine whether the decision is structured effectively. Appropriate structure is most applicable for macro decisions. The decision has to address the root problem, as opposed to a symptom of the root problem.23 All of the critical issues driving the root problem should be incorporated into the decision. Finally, participants will generate several high quality options, and the resources for each option. A solid approach to macro decisions involves one meeting to define the root problem and the issues driving it, followed by a team or teams creating the set of options and associated resources. In a second and final meeting, leaders select the best option.23
In addition to implementing effective decision structure, organizations must resolve a second issue concerning whether the right people are involved in the right way. Involving the right players applies both to macro and micro decisions. In a common misstep, many organizations involve too many people. Five to seven decision-makers are ideal for a macro decision, with support from a larger set of experts.24 For a micro decision, the ideal is one front-line employee armed with a clear understanding of how to execute the organization’s strategy.
Sometimes macro decisions benefit from a framework that assigns roles to the people involved. Two popular frameworks include RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) and RAPID (Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, Decide). As a general rule, one person should make the final decision; however, that person should gather and consider input from the right people.
A third issue involves information. Specifically, do decision-makers have the right information to inform the decision? Our guidelines here are simple, but require discipline.
- First, bring all of the relevant information to bear on the decision.
- Second, bring only the relevant information to bear on the decision.
The final issue involves pace. For macro decisions, we recommend a first meeting to formulate options and a second meeting to decide on the best option. The amount of time between the first and second meetings should be limited to the amount of time needed to formulate options and determine the resources needed for each option.
For micro decisions, assign decision-making and pacing to those best suited to make the decision. The biggest pacing-related problem for micro decisions involves unnecessary levels of approval, so appointing the right person to make the decision is critical.23
Are organizations executing decisions effectively?
This question applies more to macro decisions than to micro decisions. The first issue involves access to the right resources (i.e., money, people and time) to execute the decision. This points back to why each option considered for a macro decision must have resources assigned to it. Organizational leaders must be clear about how, why, and for how long, resources are diverted from other priorities. Far too many macro decisions are set up to under-perform because they lack adequate resources. That said, organizations must clarify accountabilities and next steps to support macro decisions, to include identifying each person’s role and responsibilities. Those determining accountabilities must set expectations for, and determine monitoring of, results.
If resolving conflict posed a challenge before moving to remote work, then resolving conflict likely represents an even bigger challenge after moving to remote work. Addressing sources and multipliers of conflict will help to resolve conflict. Sources of conflict are old and existed long before COVID-19. They involve unclear roles and responsibilities and communication misunderstandings. Multipliers of conflict are new and have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Examples include childcare and time zone issues, as well as lack of prior relationship and context.
In terms of adapting to these old sources and new multipliers, look to apply best practices. First, create connections and relationships. Use in-person introductions when feasible. Build connections between new team members and those with years of tenure. Additionally, ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear to everyone. Minimize overlap and assumptions.
Senior organizational leaders play a major role in how effectively employees resolve conflict. They must set the tone for mutual respect, trust, assumptions, and resolving conflict. Our research indicates that remote workers are sensitive to the example set by senior leaders in these areas, though on-site workers are certainly influenced as well. Finally, realize that different people will adapt to remote work at different speeds and with different levels of success.
If managing performance was difficult when working side-by-side with direct reports, likely it will likely become more difficult managing remote workers. Managers must address both the challenges of remote work and the objective indicators of remote work to effectively manage performance. The challenges of remote work include IT problem-solving, access to people and information, childcare, eldercare, and spouse job loss / income insecurity. At a general level, these challenges simply require a degree of adjustment from remote workers and the organizations that employ them. Investments in initiatives related to wellbeing will produce high returns in retention, engagement, and mental and physical health. At the individual level, managers must help their direct reports gain access to the people and/or information that would have occurred informally in the on-site work environment.
Objective indicators of remote work represent an important metric. As a first step, managers will identify the lagging metrics of a remote worker’s performance, such as net sales or patients discharged, that do not require direct observation. In the second step, managers determine the two to three most impactful activities for driving lagging metrics.25 These activities need to be converted into leading metrics and monitored as objective indicators. Project milestones and timelines may be useful for work that is, by nature, more long-term.
One final point about managing performance involves feedback. For employees who are meeting expectations, likely about 70% of the workforce, aspire to provide a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. A 4:1 ratio means that 80% of the feedback is positive. A 2:1 ratio tends to leave employees feeling unappreciated and thinking that the supervisor does not recognize enough of their positive accomplishments. A 9:1 ratio tends to leave employees feeling confused and unsure why their performance only meets and does not exceed expectations when so much of the feedback they receive is positive.
The current pandemic has created tremendous uncertainty for organizational leaders; however, a few things are certain. First, new challenges call for new solutions. Maintaining a productive remote workforce is imperative for many organizations; meaningful differences exist in how to lead, manage, and engage remote employees.
Second, complex new challenges require new solutions. Remote employees are dealing with childcare and IT issues while adapting to new customer-related demands and a spouse whose work and income circumstances are changing.
Finally, the way in which organizations address these challenges falls under more scrutiny than ever before. The financial crisis of 2008 could point to villains responsible for problems. The COVID-19 crisis, however, is portrayed widely as a tragedy unrelated to any person or group. Organizations that make thoughtful investments in how to handle this crisis will be rewarded for many years with more effective, engaged, and productive workforces.
Learn more about strategies to maximize employee engagement and organizational wellbeing. Let Gallagher assist you with pulse surveys, analysis and related tools to help your organization face the future with confidence.
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