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Thriving at work in the post-pandemic world

Leaders can take four steps to show employees how valued they are and ease the trauma of COVID-19.

Let’s call the past two years what they have been: a collective trauma. We haven’t always labeled it as such because we tend to think of trauma as a horrendous experience, like war or a physical attack, that happens to a discrete set of people. However, in organizations across every industry, the impact of the last two years has a lot in common with what would widely be considered traumatic events.

In our work as consultants in the workplace, and in the academic research on the topic, we see people exhibiting a decreased capacity to deal with emotions (their own and others’), increased displays of anger, higher rates of anxiety and depression, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems. We believe one of the key drivers of the “great resignation” is the trauma we have been through. So how can leaders and managers help people reduce anxiety and regain balance and energy?

Moving forward after any trauma depends in large part on both feeling heard and sharing common experiences. We know that these two workplace conditions are essential for employees to feel engaged and do their best work. According to a May 2021 study by Glint, a company that creates employee engagement platforms, the top two drivers of a work culture in which employees are happy, satisfied, and engaged are (1) an opportunity to learn and grow and (2) a sense of belonging. Researchers reached these conclusions after analyzing millions of responses from 629 companies on Glint’s platforms and studying more than 275,000 job postings from 375 organizations on LinkedIn.

Moving forward also requires having the opportunity to acknowledge and grieve what’s been lost. To do so, people need a psychologically safe environment. At work that means allowing colleagues to talk freely about the challenges they’re facing, such as fears about new coronavirus variants, grappling with uncertainty, and collaborating with coworkers whom they may have never met in person. Telling employees to “tough it out” is not helpful.

To better understand and facilitate healing without becoming mired in talking about trauma, leaders should focus on four actions that will help employees feel valued in the post-COVID workplace.

Simply listen. First and foremost, lend an ear without trying to solve any problems. It sounds easy, yet leaders rarely practice this highly effective approach. When you jump to provide solutions, even when you mean well, people do not feel heard, and are disempowered to find solutions of their own. The best way to show that you value people is by expressing genuine care about their lives and well-being beyond what they are producing at work. Doing so requires patience and allowing space for emotions to be expressed.

The best way to show that you value employees is by expressing genuine care about their lives and well-being beyond what they are producing at work.

We are not advocating that leaders become therapists, but rather that they add an important skill to their behavioral repertoire: listening intently for at least five minutes without feeling the need to offer opinions or advice.

As an example of how this works in practice, one of us (Darren) cites his experience volunteering at a crisis helpline in college. All of the volunteers were trained to listen carefully and to reflect back to the caller what they’d heard, including the details of the caller’s account and the emotions that were expressed. Volunteers were told explicitly not to ask questions or give advice. So, for example, the volunteer would simply say, “You felt angry when your friend changed his mind.”

Caller feedback revealed that this technique made a big difference. If a group of inexperienced college students volunteering their time can learn a skill that improves the well-being of complete strangers, imagine what a group of smart, motivated leaders can accomplish by applying the same skills with their employees? Research by Avraham N. Kluger of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Guy Itzchakov of the University of Haifa, published in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior in October 2021, shows that being listened to by managers can have a powerful impact on employees’ trust, well-being, and performance.

Foster autonomy. Many leaders underappreciate how granting people decision-making power can show them that they are valued and belong, thereby boosting motivation, performance, and well-being. A recent Harvard Business Review article illustrates that while employees want flexibility in where and how they work, they only want that flexibility if they have a hand in deciding how it’s applied.

Leaders can increase autonomy by establishing principles, not simply by promulgating policies. For example, one of our clients observed that his company’s rigid return-to-office practices were not working. Insisting that employees be in the office a set number of days generated negative reactions. Valuable talent was leaving, and morale was plummeting. The company decided to give employees a voice in deciding how they return to work. A committee of employees, supported by members of the leadership team, made recommendations for effective practices, such as deciding on specific days for bringing people together to attract staff back to the office, and providing managers with better technology to help their teams work together more effectively. While it is too early to calculate the impact, merely launching the effort has generated excitement within the organization.

Respect people’s time. During the pandemic, on top of an already emotionally taxing situation, the number of minutes people spend on video and voice calls is estimated to have doubled in many cases, with a significant impact on workloads. In an attempt to give people time to do their work, many organizations cut the length of meetings in half, which only resulted in twice as many meetings. People are simply overloaded. Leaders can respect people’s time by making it clear why a meeting is needed, canceling those that aren’t, and running meetings more efficiently.

People often want to attend a meeting because they want to know what will get decided. Consider publishing meeting minutes and reducing the invitee list. It saves time and maintains information flow. One team we worked with also set clear guidelines on internal email traffic so that everyone understood and agreed on who needed to be cc’d. This team also produced guidelines on how to write more concise emails. Since 40% of the team’s email traffic was internal, those changes greatly reduced everyone’s time on email.

Allow people to take ownership of their development. People feel valued when they think their manager is trying to help them develop their careers. To do that, leaders need to give timely feedback that helps people move forward.

The single best approach is to ask a question that channels an employee’s thinking in a productive direction. Simply telling people how to do a task, even with the best intentions, is not motivating or helpful for growth. Asking a question that gets employees to think through their own approach to a task or problem encourages those employees to think for themselves, to own the solution, and to develop faster. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “Being a great manager is not about having great answers, it’s about asking great questions.” Feeling that you are growing and moving forward in your career is a powerful pathway to healing.

The pandemic has left most of us traumatized in one way or another, and the impact of that trauma is showing up in stress levels, resignations, anger, and lost productivity. While leaders at work should not be expected to become counselors, they can take some simple steps to help their team members feel valued and connected, move forward in their careers, and improve their morale, well-being, and productivity.

Author Profiles:

  • Darren Overfield is a consultant, executive coach, and educator who advises organizations on the people side of the business equation. He is president of Overfield Leadership Group, LLC, a boutique consultancy that provides leadership and team development to organizations around the world.
  • Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast “Out of the Comfort Zone” and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.
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