COVID-19: Managing uncertainty in your workforce

As the coronavirus pandemic puts mounting pressure on workers worldwide, it falls to HR and business leaders to guide their teams. Sam Alberti and Laura Pettitt, Head of Talent and Engagement, News UK, examine how leadership can manage uncertainty among their workforces and ensure business continuity.

Date published
April 24, 2020 Categories

Right now, our world is in constant flux, and uncertainty is a fundamental by-product of this. Any significant political, financial or societal shift is bound to ripple through the world of business and the global pandemic we face in 2020 is no different.

Where the dynamic of the workplace is concerned, leaders must consider how such uncertainty will affect their workforce.

For instance, a 2019 report estimated that 48% of UK workers were concerned that Brexit might threaten their job.

What’s more, the general consensus is that anxieties surrounding world affairs lead to decreased happiness, engagement and ultimately productivity. According to one study, the nations that experienced the most adverse effects as a result of the 2016 Brexit vote all saw sharp degradations in employee engagement thereafter.

To understand this further we spoke to Laura Pettitt, Head of Talent and Engagement, News UK.

First outlining the potential significance of this uncertainty, she said: “Though it depends on the sector and location of the organisation, it could certainly be damaging for many businesses.”

“At News UK, for example, our purpose is brought into even sharper focus through the value of our content and services.”

“The public are looking for information and for leaders to be held accountable, as well as needing entertainment and humour. The likelihood that we can provide this to the best of our ability would certainly be compromised by uncertainty and disengagement within the organisation. “

And this link between anxiety, uncertainty and productivity levels could hardly be clearer. If employees are fearing for their professional and financial security, their commitment and performance will naturally suffer.

One study even found that every year in Great Britain, 12.8 million workdays are lost as a result of stress, anxiety and depression.

Now that we understand the potential impact of uncertainty on employees, the crucial question remains: how do we strategically manage it and ensure that we limit or even completely prevent losses in productivity and engagement?

Pettitt again offers her take on this, outlining how she believes HR leaders can do to remedy this uncertainty.

“Leaders must make sure to communicate how important the work of their staff is,” she said. “It’s vital they know that they are valued and respected.”

Pettitt also cites general communication as an absolute must when it comes to reassuring employees. “You should communicate often and with compassion and honesty, through different mediums,” she said.

“Talk, consult, gather ideas from employees on how to do things differently, and most of all be humble, human and kind.”

This notion of effective communication is particularly pertinent during these difficult times, with leaders focusing strongly on how they can compensate for the loss of co-located working, and keep their teams engaged.

In fact, research shows that 70% of small to mid-size businesses claim that ineffective communication is their primary problem. There has never been a more significant time for such companies to remedy this situation.

Pettitt also cited “opportunities for growth” as crucial in tackling uncertainty during this tumultuous time, suggesting that if organisations continue to develop their people, this will help to offset the stress and anxiety that comes with such alarming disruption.

But, as is always the case with disruption-induced challenges, there is another dimension to the dialogue that surrounds it. Namely, how will it affect the landscape of business and HR in long run?

New measures and attitudes implemented by leaders may become accepted as part of the status quo and expected as part of ordinary practice going forward. Similarly, the attitude of senior leadership itself may change permanently, altering the state of play when it comes to corporate decision-making.

Pettitt outlined her vision as to how this could play out.

“People will review what is and isn’t important to them and for that reason businesses may be led by the talent that they employ,” she said.

She also goes on to comment on how new attitudes towards remedying uncertainty could change the way we produce our output.

“Work may be reconstructed towards output rather than hours,” she said. “And the social constructs built on face-to-face meetings and relationships are being consistently broken down, so the way teams form and work together and the way businesses run will likely change.”

Doubtless, this is a conversation that could continue infinitely. The reality is that the prospect of mass disengagement due to uncertainty is majorly concerning for employers, and so new measures are being taken every day in an attempt to offset this.

In turn, the face of business will change exponentially as this happens, and once business-as-usual recommences, the extent and impact of these changes will become much clearer.

For now, leaders must focus their efforts on providing a safe, comfortable, enjoyable and prosperous working climate for their teams, with a view to tackling the ensuing uncertainty, retaining their employees and maximising productivity.

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