Maintain a People-Centric Culture in the New Digital Work Environment
Technology is taking over during COVID-19; it can be very useful but also very challenging to get the job done.
- By Andrea Jones
- May 05, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic upended business as usual for most companies. Granted, some were impacted less than others, but it’s hard to name one that did not adopt any new procedures or ways of operating during the past year because of the disease. While vaccines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are now becoming more widely available, today’s “new normal” is unlikely to change much, and certain disruptions faced by organizations because of the virus are going to remain.
For many companies, this includes remote or hybrid working arrangements for employees. With this new working arrangement comes an increased utilization of and reliance on digital tools to accomplish many daily tasks. These two trends can have significant consequences on maintaining a high-performing, safety-focused workforce culture if careful consideration is not given to how they impact employees who are a company’s most valuable asset.
Remote Workers Face Numerous Challenges
Hybrid and remote working arrangements are particularly difficult as they cause employees to spend considerably more time away from a physical office and colleagues, and instead be tied to computers or participate in videoconferences throughout the workday. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters during the day, and small talk during coffee breaks, it's hard for workers to feel connected to their immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.
Recent data shows how dramatically the typical workday has changed to rely significantly more on remote online interaction since the pandemic began. One survey by Microsoft compared work activities for its 30,000 global employees between February 2020 and February 2021. It found that time spent by employees in virtual meetings more than doubled during the period. The volume of emails also sent was up by more than 40 billion and the number of workers collaborating in online shared documents increased 66 percent.
At the same time that employees are working remotely, they are being asked to use more and more new digital tools and technologies. A recent survey by Forbes and Twilio, 2,569 corporate enterprise decision-makers found that 97 percent of executives acknowledged the pandemic increased the pace their digital transformation and 79 percent say COVID-19 led them to increase their budgets for adopting new digital tools.
Maintaining a Strong People-First Culture
If not managed correctly, these developments can quickly erode a workforce’s ability to achieve strong safety and business performance. To prevent this, companies need to maintain a laser-like focus on their people. Creating and maintaining a people-centric culture requires:
• Giving employees the training, skills and capabilities to thrive in today’s “new normal” work environment
• Empowering them to take ownership and contribute to the organization’s safety and operational goals
• Maintaining frequent communication with them regarding their progress toward meeting those goals
• Uncovering any barriers to achieving them they may be experiencing
The goal is to have a workforce that is highly engaged despite its remote or hybrid work arrangement. Workers can easily become disengaged in this environment and employee disengagement can quickly lead companies on a downward spiral of poor business performance. One study conducted by the Gallup Organization and Queens School of Business found organizations with low employee engagement experienced 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more safety incidents, 18 percent lower productivity and 16 percent lower profitability.
An engaged workforce proactively contributes to the safety and business goals of a company not because it feels necessary but because the company wants to. Affective leadership connects with employees through strong relationships, and a commitment to accomplishing shared goals is vital to achieving this, particularly with regard to safe operations. A company’s leadership and management needs to not just communicate its belief that safety is a core value for the organization, it must also demonstrate it by participating in daily team briefings with employees about safety, making safety the first topic of discussion in all formal meetings and frequently acknowledging achievements and progress toward safety goals.
Leaders should also invest in digital tools that drive efficiencies for employees and empower them to make decisions. These tools should quickly gather data, analyze it and produce actionable insights that generate improvements to equipment or processes without adding burdensome procedures to an employee’s already challenging workday. Leaders should promote the use of Visible Management and Digital Dashboards to track safety performance (through both leading and lagging indicators), which show safety actions required of employees far more efficiently than manual methods (spreadsheets). Finally, leaders should encourage workers to seek safety training that goes beyond what is merely required to meet certain regulations and help them expand their risk awareness capabilities beyond their immediate job responsibility to make them better decision makers not just for safety, but also to improve quality and production.
Establishing a strong, people-centric culture of high-performing and engaged workers during today’s “new normal” of COVID-19 can seem a daunting challenge, but company leaders will find it an easier task if they follow three basic principles:
1) Personalize interactions with employees: Make a genuine connection with them. Ask how they’re doing, and whether their families are well. Have these conversations often. Today the lines between work and home have never been more blurred. Acknowledge it by making employees feel equally supported with their responsibilities at home as their responsibilities to the company.
2) Simplify your focus: Make expectations clear and prioritize what is needed from employees. Save what isn’t essential for another day if you can’t eliminate it altogether. Employees in hybrid work environments are coping with new challenges and learning new tools associated with working remotely. Asking them to divide their time among more and more tasks means none of the tasks will get the attention they deserve.
3) Embrace technology, but scrutinize it: Don’t adopt technology just because it’s the newest thing on the market. Make sure it will contribute to building a people-centric culture and drive efficiencies in your employees’ workdays as much as it will increase safety and improve operations for the company. As a rule of thumb, an organization should spend 70 percent of its time focusing on insights obtained from a digital tool resulting in change management necessary to improve safety, and just 30 percent of its time on the technical implementation of the tool itself.
Focusing on your people and maintaining personal connections, empowering them to act proactively, making sure digital tools implemented by your organization are appropriate and effective and leading employees by your actions will all contribute to a safe and high-performing culture within your company even during the pandemic’s many disruptions.