Putting the Employee Experience First in the New World of Work

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

We are starting to see the light. The ever-increasing number of vaccinated Canadians is creating new energy and optimism. However, it will likely be a couple of years before we start to feel a sense of stability and we have a true sense of how the new world of work will be organized.

COVID has created massive disruption and employers are faced with an uncharted course for getting things back on track. As we near the end of lockdowns, many are wrestling with big questions about organizing how work gets done—whether employees will return to the office full time, or continue working remotely, or whether their organization will adopt a hybrid model.

In a recent panel discussion hosted by the Conference Board of Canada based on PwC’s 24th annual CEO Survey, Nicolas Marcoux, CEO of PwC said this of the new world of work, “The office will be different. We are not going back to what it looked like in January 2020. The number I’m hearing most is three… three days a week. I think employers will need to provide greater flexibility to their employees because people have realized that they can work remotely and be quite efficient, and there are benefits to working remotely. But there are also benefits to working in the same space, so we’re going to have to find the right balance. The office will become a place where we celebrate success, share knowledge, co-create and transfer knowledge from one generation to another like we’ve been doing for over 100 years at PwC Canada.”

The survey revealed that in addition to digital transformation, cyber security, and sustainability, Canadian CEOs are prioritizing people, well-being and productivity as they look to the future. In particular, they noted that creating a modern workforce strategy that puts the employee experience at the core will be of vital importance.

In doing this, leaders will need to consider some new risks that have emerged as a result of the crisis and nearly a year and a half of working remotely.

  • Masks: some employees may want to wear them, some may not. Regardless of the rule, tolerating differences without judgement and harassment may be a challenge. Some employees may want to continue wearing masks even if we’re no longer being mandated to do so. And there is a very real possibility that they may be teased or cajoled by others who are anti-maskers or who wore their masks, but have happily shed them with restrictions easing.
  • Employees who are in the office versus those who are working fully or partially remotely. This situation, if not managed properly, has the potential to cause friction. Remote employees, and those working in a hybrid fashion, may perceive that those on site have access to opportunities and privileges and that they don’t. Ensuring employees do not feel discriminated against or excluded will be very important and may present challenges for some organizations.
  • Different perspectives on vaccines. Leaders may face conflict and civility issues linked to vaccines. Some employees will be hypervigilant about managing exposure until they are certain their vaccine is working and they feel confident that their peers are vaccinated. And there will be others who refuse to get vaccinated.
  • Workforce capacity. As the CEO survey revealed, digital transformation is a priority. Leaders managing a flexible, hybrid workforce may find it challenging to know who is working and who is off, what employees are working on, and whether they are operating at capacity, or they, in fact, have room to take on more work.  There is a good chance you are looking at different technologies to assist you with monitoring and managing in this new reality. This means you and your managers will have access to more data and you may use new tactics for making decisions and evaluating progress.

Every organization will have its own approach to designing work in the post-COVID work world. And while there is no one “right way” to create a healthy, inclusive and engaging culture, there are some guiding principles you can follow.

Engage in conversations to understand individual needs
Surprisingly, despite all we have been through, there are still leaders who are reticent to prioritize communication and individual needs. Leaders at all levels must be held accountable for having conversations with team members to determine their needs and how they work best. This should start with you and your direct reports. This pandemic has highlighted our ability to be flexible, not only on a grand scale, but on an individual level, too. We can’t lose sight of that important lesson.

It’s helpful to reflect on what you have been doing over the past year. Because there is no pandemic master game plan, you’ve likely had to be pretty nimble and have had to figure out how to manage some tricky circumstances on your own. Take a moment and write down the top five lessons you’ve learned about leading during a pandemic. Think about what has worked and what hasn’t worked so well in terms of engaging employees and maximizing results.

Ask questions
One of the best things you can do when the road is not clearly marked is to ask lots of questions. Questions create opportunities to uncover different perspectives, ideas and considerations. Asking the right questions and gathering input from the team will help you make better decisions and will ensure you continue to create a positive employee experience.

Be open to learn and change
The old expression, “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks” suggests it is hard to get people to change after they have done something for a long time. This isn’t the case. People and organizations can change. Leadership has been evolving for several years to be more people-centred and there has been greater focus on the employee experience. You may need to evaluate and adjust your style and approach to ensure you are creating a healthy and supportive employee experience.

There is no pandemic playbook to follow; it’s being created in real-time. However, we can be sure that things will be different in the new world of work. And, in many ways, they will be better. More leaders are looking at it as an opportunity to design a new work model that is efficient and productive, but also caring, respectful, and trusting. There are a lot of tactics to improve the bottom line, but none is more powerful than employees believing you care about them.

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