In the early months of the pandemic, energy and motivation levels were high. Leaders went above and beyond to deal with the crisis and bolster their workforce. Employees put in extra time and effort to respond nimbly and creatively. There was even a certain charm to working from home: no long commutes, more time with family, higher productivity. But over the months, the novelty faded and morale plummeted. What seemed like a 100-metre dash at first had turned into a triathlon – with no end in sight.
Pandemic fatigue is real. Leaders with their ear to the ground would already have a sense of the challenges that employees have been grappling with: anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, lack of motivation, pessimism, loneliness. And the evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Across the world, studies show spiralling mental health issues. According to research, 75 percent of employees in the US and around 30 percent in Asia-Pacific are feeling burned out. We can assume India falls somewhere in that range. Whichever end of the spectrum we may be closer to, that is still a whopping percentage.
Building on pandemic-era changes
Companies began operating differently during the pandemic – and some are using that as a foundation to leapfrog ahead of their peers. Common changes include a more flexible working model, reduced bureaucracy in decision-making, and the ability to roll out new technologies rapidly. As a leader, you can build on these in order to reenergise your organisation. Think about who is currently leading the way in your industry. Did they migrate to digital this past year? Are their teams empowered to make quick decisions? Have they adopted a hybrid working model?
Putting people centre stage
Perhaps most importantly, we are seeing a growing focus on empathy, compassion and authenticity. Businesses are seizing the opportunity to create more human-centric workplaces. This shift was already taking place prior to COVID-19 – and it seems the pandemic has accelerated it.
Putting people first is central to revitalising any organisation. It has become clear that employees are searching for something beyond a generous pay check or a climb up the company ladder.
Increasingly, they seek purpose and passion, personal wellbeing and social equity. These elements, all of which spring from an intensely human vision of success, are crucial to renewing the energy and spirit of our workforce.
How to renew organisational vitality
It is up to leaders to inject a fresh dose of vitality into their organisations. As you map the way ahead, here are five recommendations to consider:
1. Counter disillusionment with bounded optimism.
We are coming out of a period of intense loss and grief. The upheaval came in different forms – from battling anxiety and losing loved ones, to seeing our social support systems in crisis. For many, this process wasn’t just exhausting but also disillusioning. A McKinsey piece advises leaders to employ “bounded optimism” to help organisations emerge from this state faster and stronger:
Leaders need to display inspiration, hope, and optimism that’s tempered by reality and help their people make meaning out of the circumstances… Meaning builds confidence, efficacy, and endurance but also can serve as a balm if the outcome takes longer or is different from what is expected.
Bounded optimism means communicating a positive outlook that is grounded in realism. Instead of falsely hopeful narratives that insist “everything will soon go back to normal”, leaders must facilitate acceptance. Let’s acknowledge that things will be different, perhaps even better in some ways. Anchoring your message in the organisation’s broader vision will help your team regain a sense of purpose and spark their motivation.
2. Listen deeply, carefully and regularly.
As we move into a still-uncertain future, there are bound to be plenty of highs and lows ahead. In order to manage the energy and mood of your organisation, you will need to keep your finger on the pulse. To begin with, create spaces and mechanisms that allow employees to share their concerns with leadership. “Listening tours” are an interesting option, especially for C-suite leaders; they can be conducted remotely as well as in offices.
Along with listening to people directly, you can leverage technology-based tools to reach broader sections of your workforce. Tracking data sources such as employee surveys can generate valuable findings, allowing you to intervene and address needs in a timely, targeted manner. Leaders must also set the tone for frank workplace dialogue by being vulnerable and sharing some of the challenges they’ve faced personally. Finally, as the authors of the McKinsey piece point out:
Perhaps more important than how organizations listen is how often they listen. It’s not enough
to launch a few listening efforts and then act. Organizations must listen continually, taking a regular pulse on how employees are doing.
3. Develop a broader approach to wellbeing.
After the transition to WFH, companies introduced several well-intentioned initiatives that were meant to boost social interaction and wellness. But let’s face it: while happy hours or pizza nights might be fun, they are woefully inadequate to counteract the kind of burnout, isolation and energy drain that have been caused by COVID. It’s high time organisations both deepen and expand their idea of wellbeing – this is the bedrock of restoring vitality.
This includes making sure your employees take time off to relax and recharge. With travel on pause, most people haven’t had a proper vacation in the last 1.5-2 years! What’s more, with WFH in play, business has frequently encroached upon weekends as well. Leaders can take a two-pronged approach here:
- act as a role model by taking much-needed holidays and unplugging from work on weekends
- strongly encourage or (if necessary) mandate taking overdue time off
As you broaden your organisation’s approach to wellbeing, consider the following:
- Limiting and rebalancing workloads, especially when it comes to your top talent. The most in-demand employees often get sucked into relentless busyness, which leaves them drained of energy.
- Redefining meeting culture by aiming for shorter times, tighter agendas and limited invitations. Apply this same mantra to your personal calendar by declining meetings where you can’t add real value.
- Celebrating small wins and milestones along the way. Think of it as infusing small doses of energy on an ongoing basis. Loop in your communications department to maximise the impact of success stories through the organisation.
- Treating mental health with sensitivity and care. With the pandemic shining a light on mental health issues, it’s time for corporate leaders to act – from cultivating honest discussions, to making policy changes that provide employees with the support they need.
4. Check in with yourself.
When is the last time you took stock of your leadership? When I talk to fellow leaders, it’s clear that many have been consumed with work since the beginning of 2020. That’s 18 months of being in crisis mode. Of making huge decisions that impact your workforce, your organisation, your stakeholders and your community. As we transition to the next phase, the stakes are set to remain sky-high.
For leaders running on an empty tank, it would be self-sabotage to keep going without a timeout. Now is the perfect juncture for personal revitalisation: We are out of lockdown. The crisis has abated somewhat. The next phase is just about starting. Making time to reflect and recalibrate the inner Self is crucial to rejuvenate your personal resources, manage your energy, and remain effective as a leader. As an article published by Egon Zehnder points out:
Living through the crises of last year has been traumatic, and leading through it no less. Carrying the weight of so many life-altering decisions can be depleting [for CEOs]… if left unaccounted for, the weight of the past can chip away at their strengths and drain their reserves, leaving them more susceptible to weakened judgment and reactivity.
5. Increase innovation by celebrating risk.
Vitality and creativity are two sides of the same coin. When we explore new possibilities, we receive a fresh surge of energy – which in turn makes us more agile and innovative. Organisations that proactively foster this virtuous cycle have been reaping rich rewards, and will continue to do so. Leaders should recognise employees who step out of their comfort zone to take risks, regardless of whether they succeed or fail. The point is to create a learning and growth oriented environment where people feel inspired to try out new ideas.
As an added bonus: when employees develop the ability to take setbacks in their stride and leverage them for growth, they also learn a vital lesson in resiliency. In fact, being able to bounce back from failure enables ongoing revitalisation. It allows teams to renew their motivation, adapt to change, and keep forging ahead even during tough times. A valuable mindset in a VUCA world.
This pandemic has taken a heavy toll on inspiration, motivation and energy. As we shift gears once again, leaders must make it their mission to revitalise their organisations. Vitality isn’t an empty buzzword. Rather, it is an essential ingredient for businesses to continue reinventing themselves, grow sustainably and thrive – both today, and in the future.