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Experiences in crisis: How employee expectations will change and what leaders can do about it

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When living in unprecedented times, most attempts to describe and characterize the myriad ways that people who are spread across every country, every demographic, every job type, every identity, experience the whirlwind of change inevitably fall flat. Nevertheless, as so many of us confined to our homes facing this pandemic can attest, there are common threads that run through our diverse experiences.

As humanity at large grapples with this pandemic, people face extraordinary circumstances that have upended every facet of life. Simultaneously, organizations are staring down the single largest catalyst for change in memory. When things start to settle, people’s priorities and ways of making decisions will have certainly changed. And the status quo for conducting business will never be the same. Leading through this crisis requires empathy for what people are going through now and understanding how living through this crisis will shape people’s expectations around work and non-work lives.

What people face right now is a Fog of Pandemic. Akin to the “fog of war,” where uncertainty complicates every decision, this crisis-induced opacity affects almost all decision-making. People are struggling to make sense of what this crisis means for their livelihoods, and ultimately, their priorities in life. We are all on an emotional rollercoaster, bracing ourselves against experiences over which we have little or no control. The bigger picture right now is hard to grasp — the future impossible to see.

Leaders deciding how to restructure their organization, both in the near-term to face this crisis and with an eye on a future when the crisis has abated, will be wise to consider how these experiences in crisis shape employees’ needs and priorities. Now is the time for leaders to consider how they should respond to shifting expectations among people in their workforce and the pool of talented workers at large.

On the other side of this crisis, tolerance for rigid work arrangements and low-quality work experiences will evaporate. Talented people, freshly equipped with reoriented priorities regarding their work and non-work life, will require both more flexibility in how they work and access to the technology they desire to complete their work.

While no one expects a clean cut-off between crisis mode and a return to normalcy, rebuilding will entail its own challenges and require its own work tempo. And there will be a new normal. Nevertheless, driving high-quality employee experiences at work will become more important than ever.

Leaders will be prudent to consider the following recommendations both now and when we all start transitioning to a new normal at work.

Embrace flexible working arrangements permanently. A huge proportion of the workforce is working from home right now. People have made this transition under extraordinary circumstances, their success hard-won in the face of ongoing challenges. Many have already or will become comfortable with working from home. On the other hand, others lament the change and long for the office environment again. Regardless of their preferences and current experiences, forcing employees back into a rigid work arrangement, without considering what they have been through, could be perceived as insensitive. Leaders who choose to embrace flexibility as a principle, both as they deal with the crisis currently and then start shaping a vision of work-life after the crisis winds down, will increase the likelihood that they retain the talented people upon whom they rely to drive business value.

Embrace modern work technologies and processes. Many organizations have scrambled to purchase and stand-up digital and cloud-enabled technologies to enable their workforce to work remotely. These changes to work technology, brought about by crisis response, should be further embedded into the way organizations do work in the future. However, many new processes have been created to ensure continuity in the face of the crisis — not all of them will be amenable to high-quality employee experience. Create space for employees to suggest which processes, both old and new, have enabled them to do better work, and which hinder their best work. Times of disruption are a great place to begin the work of discovering what is essential, what works well, and what can be eliminated. Engaging employees in this process is more critical now than ever.

This crisis touches everything regarding how we live and work. Before it began, the momentum to bring about positive change to employees’ experience of work was burgeoning as never before, and that energy remains. On the other side of the curve of the pandemic, people will want more flexibility and better work experiences than they had before it began. Now, even as this crisis continues to unfold, leaders should be thinking about how to lead through these times of change to drive positive employee experience in everything they do.

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