August 31, 2020

3 Real Solutions to “Workplace Dread” during the Pandemic

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I recently came across this interesting survey by Blind, an anonymous sentiment tracker for tech employees.

According to the 2000 respondents, including those at Paypal, Facebook, Oracle, and Intuit, 1 out of 2 “dread work when they wake up.”  

“Workplace dread.” It’s a thing.

The causes are summed up by an employee at LinkedIn who cited “toxic team culture, bad management, and unexciting work.”

And, yes, these factors are often present during non-pandemic times. And, yes, this survey was far from scientific (it was based on self-report data from a self-selected population).

But we don’t need a survey to explain the obvious.  

With an unprecedented environment of market changes, lockdowns, political unrest, and massive uncertainty (not to mention fire evacuations and terrible air quality for California-based employees), you better believe that many knowledge workers feel crippled right now.

What about your organization? Do you know how many of your employees feel sick in the pit of their stomach before coming into work? 🤔

If you’re like most leaders these days, you’re scrambling.

As an org effectiveness consultant, I hear two questions from leaders right now:

1-  How are other organizations responding?

2 - What do you know (that we don’t) that can help us?

In this post, I share my observations and offer three tried and true techniques that make a HUGE difference to organizational performance and the abilities of people to manage as best as they can during massive disruption.

Observation #1: Organizations are squeezing their people with a resource efficiency strategy

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I’m seeing a fast and furious transition into a resource-efficient mindset, where the focus is on the maximization of employee utilization.

Companies are freezing hiring and promotions.

They are also asking their teams to deliver on “disruptive response” strategies, on top of existing operational needs.  

The mantra for teams and employees is “do more, faster, and with fewer resources.”

I see very few companies invest in re-skilling and re-tooling so that their teams can figure out how to deliver more value to their customers in a way that is sustainable.

Instead, a lot of teams are working longer hours and making less traction than before.  

In short, teams are working harder, not smarter.

Observation #2: Organizations are overly reliant on anonymous surveys to understand current employee needs  

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A lot of well-meaning organizations want to understand what the “real real” is for their employees. Unfortunately, too many default to the standard anonymous survey tool as the only way to gauge sentiment.  

You don’t need a survey to know that your employees are struggling with increased workloads, as well as their own personal circumstances (e.g. schools closed with uncertain re-openings, spouses out-of-work, etc).

You also know there is an unspoken work atmosphere right now of “at least we still have a job.”

How valid do you think survey responses are when people are worried about the security of their jobs?  

Anonymous culture surveys, even in non-pandemic times, have a few problems of their own (which I’ll get into another day).

There are far more effective ways to understand and respond to employee sentiment right now, which I’ll share in a moment.

Just know that when you ask your employees to fill out forms without context, without accountability, and without any level of empowerment, you are likely perpetuating a feeling of helplessness and fear.

Just stop it.

Observation #3: Organizations mistakenly promote “self-care” as the sole solution

As a response to increased employee stress, I see organizations focus primarily on providing resources on self-care and emotional wellness.
I also see a lot of well-meaning advice floating around, such as that promoted by Blind, to get up an hour earlier to center yourself, stay organized, and “learn to be in the moment.
While mental health is obviously important, and there are some solid mental health solutions employers can offer employees right now, you also need to look at the impact that your work system has on your people and teams.
I see few organizations looking to understand how their current work system contributes to workplace dread.

As Edward Demming, management scholar and “lean thinking” pioneer, states, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.

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If you are asking your teams to deliver on multiple strategies simultaneously, to take on more responsibility than before, and to do so with fewer resources, you have a badly designed work system.

Loneliness, anxiety, and declining productivity levels are symptoms of broken or damaged systems, not the cause itself.


3 Sustainable Solutions to Overcome Workplace Dread


It’s critical right now to step back and look at what’s really causing the pain.  

To do this well, you need to have the right mindset.

As a leader, you have to be brave enough to ask yourselves what’s working with the current system and what’s not. You need to create an environment where your teams feel safe enough to take risks and grow together. You also need to approach your internal improvement initiatives in a way that helps people feel invested in the outcome.

With this mindset, you will be better equipped to implement the following solutions to improve your work systems.

  1. Focus on delivering maximum value to your customers, not maximum utilization of your employees. Stop maximizing your employee resources and start improving the things that are most valuable to your customers.
  2. The simplest way to do this is to identify the strategic projects that will most likely improve customer value. Then ruthlessly prioritize these projects. Ruthless prioritization is both humane and necessary to execute well on strategy. Focus on one or two key strategic projects that will drive your organization forward during this time of extreme disruption - no more.
  3. Give permission to your teams to focus on the “critical few.” Stop asking your teams to do more, all at once. Give permission to teams at all levels to deliver on the “critical few” accomplishments - no more. And do not ask your teams to deliver more than what their capacity allows.
  4. Empower teams at all levels to run their own “team improvement sprints.” Give teams their own forum to ask themselves what’s working, what’s not, and what could they do to improve their work environment. And then empower them to implement their own solutions.
  5. In my experience, teams know best how to improve their own work - whether that’s more social time, moral support, peer coaching, better designed workflows, reducing dependencies, automating systems, etc. You will be surprised at the proliferation of solutions devised and implemented by teams themselves when given the opportunity to do so. This  practice, also called a retrospective, is fundamental to improving team performance. It’s a relatively simple practice, as well as easy to train and scale across the organization.
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The above are tried and true lean/agile strategies that have helped thousands of organizations emerge stronger in times of disruption. And, while an upgrade in your work systems will not change the trajectory of the pandemic, they will boost your company’s chance of thriving (and not just surviving) in this turbulent environment.

And, by the way, you don’t have to figure this out on your own. There is a roadmap for iteratively improving your organization’s work systems in a way that inspires courage, builds a high level of psychological safety, and cultivates a mutual commitment to action and accountability.  

Let’s jump on a strategy session to uncover how you can create the conditions for long-term effectiveness in today’s disruptive conditions.

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