The COVID pandemic is a power-packed punch in our face by the VUCA world. (VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). We have been working for years on strategies to cope with a VUCA environment, yet the pandemic has left us reeling under uncertainty, and gasping for breath. Employee motivation and engagement have taken a nosedive impacting performance. How can HR practitioners cope with this? Specifically what measures can be taken to sustain high performance?
Here are a few suggestions that may help organisations during this crisis:
Frequent & Clear Communication
The goalposts are rapidly shifting. With the pandemic, an employee’s objectives may undergo an enormous change. Companies are changing their targets, which causes a ripple down effect on employees. Project definitions may undergo change, or projects could be scrapped altogether. Such high degrees of instability and confusion can result in severe loss of motivation. Regular and transparent communication is the only way to cut through the chaos. HR needs to advise senior leadership to regularly communicate the changes being made to readjust the business to the pandemic. The frontline managers need to understand the impact of these changes on their specific work areas and communicate accordingly to their employees. In the absence of clear communication, the gaps start filling up with rumors leading to fear, and further dips in performance.
A Culture of Empathy
Physical proximity in workplaces satisfies our need for social connection. Working from home, and being isolated from colleagues can make employees restless. It’s important for managers to check-in regularly with employees on how they are doing. Along with discussing work, it is helpful to talk about how they are coping with stress and other domestic responsibilities. Employees may have specific domestic challenges that need re-prioritization of work or change in timelines. By discussing these, and finding suitable workarounds, a manager demonstrates empathy and care. Along with communication, empathy is the second antidote to uncertainty. Also, high stress can lead to flare-ups. Managers have to dig into their reservoirs of resilience and tolerance to minimize damage caused due to conflict. HR has a critical role to play here in terms of educating managers on the importance of empathy, tolerance, resilience, and imparting these emotional intelligence skills as well.
Performance reviews with the right frame of reference
Working from home could completely tilt the playing field for some employees. In Indian society, women are expected to take care of household chores. With the lockdown and domestic help being unavailable, many working women have been straddled with both domestic and official work. This could have significantly impacted their productivity compared to male colleagues. Managers need to keep this imbalance in mind while reviewing performance. Not only working women, but there could also be employees who are caregivers, or have other domestic challenges which may have demanded a lot of effort from them during the lockdowns. Also, due to changes in targets, it’s possible that employees may have put a huge effort into a project, and later the project got canceled. So there may be no results to show for the efforts. But, the efforts have to be recognized, because the non-achievement of results could be due to factors outside of the employee’s control. Such situations need deep consideration during performance reviews to ensure fairness. Reviewers need to be aware of the employee’s particular circumstances, based on which they can develop the right frame of reference for a fair performance review.
Managers shoulder the responsibility of keeping employees motivated and managing their performance. The added expectations of high communication, frequent check-ins, empathy, and emotional intelligence can cause managers to feel overwhelmed. Their stress levels could be much higher than employees. HR’s initiatives of mental health and well-being need to consider managers as a group needing special attention. HR could create managerial support groups, where managers can talk about the challenges they are facing, share different practices on how they are coping, and encourage each other. HR can also do frequent check-ins with managers to talk about how they are coping. As managers expend their energy on helping their teams cope with the crisis, HR needs to offer an empathetic ear and a helping hand to managers.
Increased autonomy & higher performance going forward
The good part of a crisis is that it reveals the fault-lines of a system. Some organizations measure performance by “time spent in office”, instead of results. Attendance management is regarded as the holy cow, instead of performance management. With work from home (WFH) becoming a necessity during lockdowns, this fault-line should get rectified to some extent. Organizations are realizing that results can be achieved without a physical presence in office (in specific work areas). WFH gives greater autonomy to employees in planning their work and should help increase performance. Of course, appropriate guidelines for WFH are needed to make it a success.
Another malaise that will hopefully reduce with increased WFH is micromanagement. Managers will have to inspire commitment with their leadership, instead of extracting results through control and fear. And an inspired workforce will deliver better results.
Let’s stay optimistic, and hope that the lessons the pandemic has taught us will help increase performance in the long run.
Author – Gulshan Walia, HR Consultant & Coach at Infinitzus Consulting
Gulshan Walia is a Human Capital consultant and coach. Her areas of expertise include coaching, leadership development, behavioural training workshops, HR processes, performance management, strategic HR, organization development, career planning and high potential development. More details about her work can be viewed at www.infinitzusconsulting.com