Written by Jeremiah Martin
Published: 29 June 2020
Employee’s in a variety of workplaces and roles continue to participate in our FREE Covid-19 Organizational Wellbeing pulse survey series. With that data, we have also been able to extract a few patterns in responses. Even if a free pulse survey process is not the best fit for your company right now, some of what we have learned is likely impacting your employees and their performance as we speak. Take this information and be forearmed with an understanding of the challenges that are top of mind for employees when they are adapting to massive disruptions to their normal way of working.
Our last post covered the top 10 drivers most strongly related to Organizational Wellbeing. However, that analysis focused on the tried and true description of statistical relationships between structured questions. For this analysis, we had the excellent opportunity to use a form of machine learning called Topic Modeling, allowing us to take a look at the overall themes of the responses provided by participants. Standard statistical analyses often do a yeoman’s job of revealing the underlying issues at an organization, especially surveys that have gone through peer review and continual updates like ours. However, they are limited in that the survey designer must have an absolutely clear understanding of how these questions relate to the matter at hand, and then structure their questions strategically to tap into what they deem to be important. Once these high-level relationships are observed, open-ended content is often looked at as a follow-up to help clarify some of the quirks noticed in the overall analysis.
In the case of Covid-19 Organizational Wellbeing pulse surveys however, all of that initial structuring of the surveys is based on applying a best guess of what the circumstances will be, not only at the time of writing, but also as the situation has developed up to the time employee’s get the chance to respond. Also, our international team of behavioral scientists and OD professionals really does want to ensure that the BEST part of the best guess is heard loud and clear. That is why you are free to fully review any and all of the question’s that we ask to help get companies up and running at full speed. Further, although we cannot speculate on where companies who did not participate stood with regard to Organizational Wellbeing, we did find that the companies who went on to complete a greater number of the short pulses (15 questions or less), demonstrated increased Organizational Wellbeing relative to those that did not. This was not limited to surveys later in the series – rather, companies who demonstrated a consistent commitment to understanding the challenges their employees right away were already ahead of the competition in responding to the pandemic.
Topic Modeling supports our structured analysis in that it can give a bit clearer of an idea of what the employees were worried about that were not necessarily captured within the Agree/Disagree questions. Specifically, we asked thousands of employees the question:
“Are there any other issues or challenges that are making it difficult or impeding your work at this time?”
Based on our results, we see 5 areas that are interrelated, but speak to distinct forms of worries or setbacks experienced by employee’s right at the start of social distancing procedures. They were as follows.
Top 5 Area’s of Concern or Confidence During the Early Stage of Covid-19
- General Internet Connectivity & Hardware Issues
- Organizational & Managerial Support During Transition
- A Sense of Personal Pandemic Safety
- General Work Uncertainty
- Loved Ones and Work
General Internet Connectivity & Hardware Issues
One of the clearest areas of worry and frustration for employee’s responding to the “Challenges” question was attempting to maintain high performance when even your router seems like it has taken the day off. This manifested not only in dropped calls, but slow performance for many, as they attempted to access many of the functions available to them in their workplace, via a VPN or other remote access system. Even teams that reported everything largely going well brought this issue up. Now, as organizational actors, we might be tempted to conclude that this is simply the fault of the service providers or software used, and not something we can directly address. However, given the high degree of prevalence for this problem, not having a strategy in place for alternative approaches to communication simply leaves one in the position of hoping things turn out okay, rather than being ready should they happen again. Although this is a difficult one to work around, using less internet network reliant methods of communication, such as SMS or an old-fashioned phone call, could probably help. This WILL be an issue your organization faces again in the future and working with employees to solve these issues before they come around again may make all the difference.
Organizational & Managerial Support During Transition
Although losing confidence in their systems of communication was the clearest topic impacting our respondents, losing clarity in the overall direction and day-to-day efforts of one’s work was also a clear takeaway from these results. Actually, that is not quite accurate either. For those who did view their company as providing clear direction and support, often other issues were seen as non-threatening or surmountable. However, when employees reported a breakdown in their trust in the organization as a good source of information about what to anticipate and how to proceed, even problems acknowledged as widespread and uncontrollable by the company were seen as indications of the organization dropping the ball. This was especially clear for those who felt that the same performance standards were being applied after shutdown, despite them not receiving clear guidance on how to do so, given the variety of challenges presented by totally rearranging one’s work process. The takeaway here is that when all else fails, being able to confidently rely on one’s organization to provide real leadership can make even unprecedented challenges something employees are willing to meet head on.
Personal Pandemic Safety
This topic was actually generally a positive pattern of response (i.e. Workers felt that they were much safer working from home), which is a bit of a surprise given the pandemic and all. For those employees who were able to continue working from home, many reported the experience as empowering. Here they were, actively taking steps to keep one another safe from an unknown virus. The more negative responses within this group appeared to be driven more by apprehensions concerning being asked to return to work too early, or the possibility of the disease getting out of hand generally. In normal circumstances, the employee reaction to organizations requiring everyone to radically change their day-to-day patterns of work, or requiring them to slog through lagging shared intranet sites, would be a bit of an acrimonious nightmare. From this, we reasonably can take away that 1) most employees preferred that they were working remotely, given the options, and that 2) radical changes in interest of the common good will be tolerated, despite containing many more of the annoyances that are involved in organizational change efforts. The “Why” behind challenging efforts makes all of the difference.
General Work Uncertainties
These comments were of a general character from respondents who were concerned about the economic fallout from the pandemic. Many reported worrying that they would lose their job, whereas others discussed a belief that their efforts on the job were likely futile during this time period given that the business climate for additional sales would be exceptionally weak. In a similar fashion to the 2nd topic concerning managerial support, this one also focused on lacking a clear sense of direction from the organization. However, it differed in that these responses focused more upon how business decisions were thwarting or preventing them from accomplishing their job. In these cases, the organization was framed by the respondents in more of an incompetent or indecisive light, rather than in an uncaring one. Pretending like there are not large challenges and changes to everyone’s organization coming as a result of this crisis does nothing to build the confidence of your workforce. Instead, it is likely much better to acknowledge those fears and describe in clear detail how the organization intends to head off these risks. Although the 2nd topic indicates that demonstrating that you care makes a difference, following through on that support will help employees trust the organization as a competent actor, capable of weathering the storm – an organization worth being a part of during uncertain times.
Loved Ones and Work
Those of you who do not have children currently at home have still probably run into these same responses, hearing about it through the well-deserved venting opportunities they take during down times prior to being in a call/or writing that next email. These coworkers have gone from having one position with a defined set of rules concerning appropriate conduct and objectives, to a series of multiple jobs (worker, nanny, teacher, etc.), whose functions are likely to be wholly unrelated to their current profession. Although additional thought on how best to support families during times of uncertainty is likely critical to addressing this problem in a systematic fashion, simply being there, as a supportive co-worker, can be enough.
That said, if one is currently worried about their ability to fulfill these new roles AND their work roles, it may be of great value to consider previewing a contingency conversation with you and your coworkers. In our prior article, we found that one of the strongest predictors to Organizational Wellbeing was a sense that your coworkers and supervisor would be there to support you if you needed their help. Consider setting yourself up for success and removing your fear of falling short by working with your manager and team. If you are a member of HR, finding ways to facilitate these kinds of conversations/processes may be what makes the difference not only for addressing questions of work-life-balance during a crisis, but also in developing an overall HR strategy that remains robust in our uncertain future.