The latest data shows the impact of COVID-19 has created the worst economic conditions the world has seen since the great depression.
While the crisis will prove too much for many businesses, it offers those who remain an opportunity to reinvent the way they work thereby creating a whole new era of employment for their workforce.
In recent years, the point of conversation has been focused on trying to win the war on talent whereas today, it is about improving productivity and engagement against a backdrop of diminishing revenues and deteriorating balance sheets.
As executives across industry know, their ability to improve their people’s productivity will not only govern their profitability, it could determine their very survival.
So what’s the answer? How can we lift the productivity of our staff when so much uncertainty remains, and, what can and should we expect from them when we know so much is at risk?
- Be honest
- Reaffirm your vision
- Clarify your expectations
- Support your people
- Drive it hard
One of the reasons the situation we’re in is so confronting is that organisations have sidestepped what is arguably the most important conversation they need to have with their staff and that is to remind them that the purpose of a profit-focused business is not to employ people.
Unfortunately, when times are good, there’s a tendency for organisations to focus on the positives rather than talking factually about the fundamentals of business. As a result, many are finding themselves in a situation where their people expect their pay and conditions to remain intact irrespective of its affordability or impact on the business.
The fact is, profit-focused businesses exist for the sole benefit of their shareholders. To deliver on that purpose, however, we need to employ suitably skilled people to deliver products or services customers are happy to pay for. The only way those we employ are going to do that – and therefore deliver on their purpose in the business – is if we create an environment that enables them to flourish.
To do this, we need to clarify what winning looks like for them – then help them achieve it – and secondly, provide pay and conditions that are akin to the outcomes we’re after as a business.
If our people understand what we need from them in order to keep them employed, they will more than likely deliver it. However, if they think it is our responsibility to keep them employed despite the conditions we’re up against, we will face an uphill battle we’re unlikely to ever get over.
In other words, the security our people seek in regard to their job should be considered a consequence of their contribution, not a right that’s disconnected from reality. If they understand this, they will see that it’s all about the value they add in the context of where the business is at rather than what they think’s right based on how long they’ve been with us or where they fit in the hierarchy.
Reaffirming your vision
Every employee wants to know two things; firstly, that they matter to the organisation that employs them, and secondly, that their efforts are making a difference to those they serve.
If companies focus on these elements, they will not only create a true high-performing business, they will create a culture or environment their staff will adore.
To achieve this, we have to start by clarifying our vision so our staff understand what we’re striving to be. We then have to explain why it matters and to whom (our purpose and stakeholder intentions) and ultimately, how we will achieve it (our mission).
If we focus our people on our aspirations as a business, they will understand the things that matter rather than being consumed by trivia which not only compromises their productivity, it undermines their relevance and engagement in the business.
Regrettably, too many companies today are making the mistake of presuming their strategy only needs to be known by their senior leaders rather than accepting their ability to execute it will be governed by their people’s belief in it.
For this reason, you need to ensure your people understand your vision and how they contribute to it. If we fail to bring it to life in a way that makes sense to them, we will marginalise their relevance in the business and thus their aspiration to support it.
Clarifying our expectations
Once our people understand the facts and can see that what they want is the same as our shareholders, i.e. a return on investment which, in their case, is a fair financial exchange for their time and energy, we’ve got the basis of a meaningful and constructive relationship.
From there, it’s about clarifying our expectations so they understand what we’re looking for and what that, in turn, means for them.
The more our people know what success in their role looks like, the more likely they will be to deliver it. Unfortunately, however, because of outdated practices, most employees today think it’s about doing what’s in their job description rather than delivering the outcomes the business needs from their role to succeed.
To achieve this, companies have to move beyond the contractual nature of job descriptions and instead, focus on setting strategically focused performance agreements that state in clear, simple language what their people need to produce to excel in their role. By clarifying the goalposts, it transforms their confidence (and with it, their relationship with the business) because they know where they stand meaning all they have to do is get on and deliver it.
Supporting our people
Because of an entrenched misinterpretation of what matters to staff, organisations have not only become paternalistic, they’ve lost their ability to influence them. This in turn has created an industry of confusion where support for staff is not only misguided, it does little more than keep the HR community employed.
When we talk about support in business, what we are referring to is ‘helping people deliver the outcomes that matter’.
Because the majority of initiatives miss the point, staff across the board are becoming increasingly frustrated, and yet the interventions being deployed to address it are not only falling short, they’re exacerbating the issue whilst simultaneously destroying the integrity of workplace relations.
The fact is, when people know what they need to deliver, and are given the tools and support to achieve it, everything works. However, when there is a deficiency of leadership and/or a reluctance to take responsibility by those above us, it creates a state of unrest that cannot be swept under the carpet.
The reason this is happening is that (in many instances) the challenges businesses are facing are being transferred to the ranks because of a lack of leadership; hence staff are feeling under pressure or at risk of being squeezed out by management.
As a result, we’re seeing dissent increasing across industries that businesses appear incapable of managing rather than seeing it as an expected response to less-than-ideal leadership.
If we want our people to perform, we have to give them the tools and support to perform. If, however, we become preoccupied with the challenges the business is facing, we will not only create fear amongst them, we will put them in a position they cannot address thereby turning them against us; because they’ve got little alternative. If people are afraid of losing their jobs, they will feel like they’ve got little choice but to fight for their rights rather than taking responsibility for delivering the outcomes the business needs from their role.
Driving it hard
By the term driving it hard, I mean digging deep within ourselves to make a difference to those we’re here for.
If our people see us working hard for the benefit and betterment of our customers and stakeholders, it will remind them what’s important to the business and therefore what they need to focus on.
If, however, we become consumed by what they’re doing, we will not only destroy their confidence, we will politicise the business and create a culture of blame in the process.
In other words, our staff need to see us focusing on the things that matter in order to do the same. If we get it right at the top, we should see successive levels in the business orientate themselves accordingly. If, however, we position the problem as something our people have to resolve, we will create a sense of mistrust that will not only tip them out, it will lead to levels of stress we will then need to address; hence the increasing demand for ‘resilience’ training.
Please note: People don’t typically need to be more resilient. Instead, what they need to know is what they need to deliver and that they’ll be given the backing and support to achieve it.
By getting these things right, you could use the crisis as a catalyst to embark on a new way of working that not only brings out the best in your people but attracts the talent you’ll need to win in the future.
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