COVID-19 and the employee experience

COVID-19 and the employee experience

McKinsey yields three overarching insights so leaders can create more tailored responses to workplace challenges.

McKinsey article by Jonathan Emmett, Gunnar Schrah, Matt Schrimper, and Alexandra Wood

As it turns out, most companies did a solid job of addressing their employees’ basic needs of safety, stability, and security during the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis. However, those needs are evolving, calling for a more sophisticated approach as organizations enter the next phase. McKinsey recently surveyed more than 800 US-based employees on a wide variety of topics related to employee experience.

We found that employees working remotely see more positive effects on their daily work, are more engaged, and have a stronger sense of well-being than those in nonremote jobs with little flexibility do. Parents working from home appear to be faring better than those who are more isolated are. Fathers working remotely seem much more positive about the experience than mothers are. But those statistics believe a more fundamental truth about employee experience: even when faced with similar circumstances—more than 80 percent of respondents say the crisis is materially affecting their daily work lives—people have widely varied experiences, perspectives, and outcomes.

The return phase presents an opportunity for companies to rethink the employee experience in ways that respect individual differences—home lives, skills and capabilities, mindsets, personal characteristics, and other factors—while also adapting to rapidly changing circumstances. The good news is that with advances in listening techniques, behavioral science, advanced analytics, two-way communication channels, and other technologies, leaders can now address employee experience in a more targeted and dynamic way. While drilling down on which employees need more and varied types of support, they can also tailor actions that create widely shared feelings of well-being and cohesion across the workforce.

Our research yielded three overarching insights, each coupled with practical steps leaders can take to support employees through this next phase of the crisis:

  • As a leader, you’ve had to make sweeping changes in recent months to address your employees’ most pressing needs, and your workforce thinks your instincts were probably right. Build on the trust and affiliation you’ve earned by continuing to be present, action oriented, empathetic, and fully transparent.
  • In addition to basic needs (safety and security), three other experience themes (trusting relationships, social cohesion, and individual purpose) are having a disproportionate impact on employee well-being and work effectiveness. Enable improvements in those areas by prioritizing actions that will address a broad set of needs for the majority of your workforce.
  • Changes are hitting your people in widely diverging (and sometimes unexpected) ways. Some are struggling, and some are thriving. Use a combination of science, technology, data, and analytics to segment your employees like you would your customers and tailor interventions to support them in personalized and meaningful ways. 

Build trust: Keep listening to your workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy that has played out across the globe. People are experiencing unprecedented levels of disruption in their homes and communities, as well as in their jobs. If there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that organizations and leaders are stepping up in critical areas, according to employees we surveyed.

Organizational responses are having a tangible impact on employees. Compared with respondents who are dissatisfied with their organizations’ responses, those who say their organizations have responded particularly well are four times more likely to be engaged and six times more likely to report a positive state of well-being.

While those results don’t offset the tremendous uncertainty and anxiety that many continue to feel, they do point to a distinct sense of employee confidence and trust in their organizations’ leaders at this time. This runs contrary to the idea that employees, as a group, are reacting to the current crisis situation with a fight-or-flight response. In fact, an emerging scientific viewpoint is that during times of great uncertainty, the natural human tendency is a “flight and affiliation” response toward individuals and situations that feel safe and familiar.

By being readily available and helping employees give meaning to a crisis (“sense making”), leaders can build employee resilience and social capital with their people. Moreover, they can help connect employees to the organization and to one another and can help enhance social connection and affiliation—not just formally, but also by allowing informal and organic conversations to emerge.

Return stronger: Focus on workforce effectiveness and well-being

We noted that organizations have done well in addressing immediate safety and stability concerns. But a full return requires organization-wide commitment to a broader range of needs and to the strongest drivers of work experience, effectiveness, and wellness.

For decades, need-based theories of motivation have emphasized the importance of need fulfillment on employee motivation and behavior. Applied to employee experience management, organizations should seek to address the most critical, prominent needs of the broader workforce while taking stock of unique needs of different segments and individuals. Our research found a strong correspondence between employees’ stated needs and the underlying drivers of their engagement, well-being, and work effectiveness.

Jointly, ten employee experience elements accounted for approximately 60 percent of differences in outcomes. Overall, that means that as organizations continue to adapt to the crisis, they can meaningfully improve employee experience. For example, while organizations may not be able to take action on compensation right now, our survey results show that they can achieve a 55 percent improvement in engagement by addressing employees’ need for work recognition through nonfinancial means.

To address employees’ needs and help them thrive during the return, organizations should focus on four areas: safety and security, relationships, culture, and purpose.

Continue to meet the need for safety and security

With the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 infections or other disruptions, leaders would be well served to codify an approach to mitigating further effects of this landscape-scale crisis.7 To that effect, McKinsey’s Organization Practice recently published a series of articles providing leaders with a research-backed set of best practices.

Potential actions to ensure safety and security include the following:

  • Demonstrate compassionate leadership. Leaders should focus on making a positive difference in people’s lives by demonstrating awareness, vulnerability, and empathy.
  • Exhibit deliberate calm and bounded optimism. In communications, leaders need to strike the right balance between realism about the challenges ahead and confidence that the organization will find its way through the crisis.

About the author(s)

Jonathan Emmett is an associate partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office, where Matt Schrimper is a consultant and Alexandra Wood is a solution leader, and Gunnar Schrah is a director of research science in the Denver office. The authors wish to thank Aaron De Smet, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger for their contributions to this article.

2020-07-28T18:30:35+00:00

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