The pandemic gave employers many challenges, but also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way they work.
Yet instead of capitalising on the opportunity, many businesses are taking a step back and retrenching to respond to the current economic environment, instead of leveraging the opportunity to reshape the way they engage with their people.
To help teams push through the Long Covid fog, managers and leaders have to get to grips with what their people need and want so that they can motivate them in the right way – making sure they’re equipped to deliver against clearly defined goals.
The paternalistic employer
During the pandemic, companies became far more paternalistic.
Leaders and managers had to change their leadership styles and become more empathetic almost overnight, to help their people navigate this cataclysmic change to their working lives.
Businesses also had to issue mandates to keep their employees safe, and regulations around social distancing could be both contentious and alarming. Amidst this chaos, people looked to employers to offer clarity, security and support.
As such, the focus was very much on safeguarding individual wellbeing.
But as companies started to build back and re-orient themselves around the new normal, they struggled to define the new relationship between them and their employees.
Many remain unclear on what expectations are realistic in 2023 and beyond as employees increasingly focus on what a company can offer them, rather than what they bring to it.
The unspoken contract
The pandemic resulted in people becoming more individualistic than ever before.
Many felt isolated and their bonds to their teams and companies were weakened as they were physically distanced.
The great resignation and our own findings that what people value most at work are work-life balance, flexibility and security underline this shift.
Not enough businesses are deliberately focusing on restoring the connections that were lost during the pandemic.
Over the past few years, so much focus has been put on meeting individual needs and on personal wellbeing that many have found it hard to reorientate their people around business performance and their future ambitions.
What you need is to strike a balance: to make sure people’s individual and specific needs are met but also that they feel connected to each other and to the business itself.
In addition and in light of the current wellbeing crisis, employees need more support from their workplace – they need to feel a strong sense of purpose and belonging and have clarity about the future to feel fulfilled within their roles – so how we motivate and incentivise them has to change.
The unspoken ‘give and get’ cultural contract between employer and employee has fundamentally shifted.
This new contract has not been well articulated by many businesses, who are neither adapting to what people want – and expect – from work today, nor clearly resetting and communicating their own expectations.
For example, many are pulling back on flexible working arrangements but their messaging on why remains hazy, leading to frustration and distrust.
Build resiliency in a world still in flux
So what’s required to help people overcome their anxiety and fatigue?
Psychological safety remains paramount. People need to feel safe and heard, but must also have absolute clarity from their employers from a strategic and personal perspective.
They need to know what is expected of them within their individual role and have to understand how they fit into the bigger picture, so they can continue to have an impact through prolonged disruption and change.
That means training and equipping leaders and managers to engage their people differently, so they can focus on helping people navigate change and feel more comfortable when disruption hits.
They should also rebuild trust by empowering people to work autonomously with clear parameters and expectations set in place.
If they can help their teams build up that ‘resiliency muscle’, people can turn it on when they need to and can work through disruption as a collective.
In order to better understand the power of community and strengthen the bonds both between teams and between the individual and the company, line managers and leaders have a huge role to play.
Organisations may think the legacy of the pandemic is over, but very few have truly got to grips with just how much has changed – and will continue changing.
Alys O’Neill is global director of consulting at culture change consultancy United Culture