3 Strategies to Help Employees Thrive in the New “Normal”
There’s still uncertainty about what the workplace new normal will be, and it’s easy for companies to default to old routines and habits. Based on their extensive research on psychological contracts, idiosyncratic deals, and leadership, the authors present three strategies managers should implement now to develop thriving employees — those who experience learning and vitality at work and feel that they make difference. By recalibrating expectations, reestablishing commitment, and rebuilding capacity, you’ll strengthen your company’s most important asset to weather the next unexpected, extreme event — whenever it comes.
As businesses continue to feel their way into a post-pandemic world and plan for a new normal, managers and organizational leaders are dealing with a number of immediate and near-term decisions. And big questions remain: How can I motivate my employees while balancing work from home and safe return-to-work policies? Is there a way to get employees to be creative and come up with innovative ideas to help them and the organization navigate the uncharted workplace reality? If you’re considering questions like these, what you’re really asking is: How do I help my employees thrive?
Employee thriving is a psychological state in which they feel that they can adapt, evolve, and even transform themselves. Researchers have found thriving employees to be passionate about their work and are willing to continually “show up and be counted.” These qualities are essential not only as a buffer for stress and uncertainty, but they’re also potentially a secret weapon in responding and succeeding in uncertain times.
Most managers would agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has been an extreme event: A low-probability but high-consequence occurrence. When the pandemic first hit, none of us had a clear reference to compare it to — we had to navigate our jobs without a roadmap. Now, as we emerge into a post-pandemic reality, one thing is certain: Viewing the pandemic as a “one-off,” never-to-happen-again event is a significant missed opportunity to learn to succeed in future extreme events, which surely will come (hopefully not in the form of a global pandemic).
Contrary to common belief, your employees focus less on how the crisis unfolded and more on how your organization responded to it. Therefore, it’s critical to attend to how they interpreted your actions — and inactions. Our extensive research on psychological contracts, idiosyncratic deals, and leadership identified three organizational strategies you should use to develop thriving employees: recalibrate expectations, reestablish commitment, and rebuild capacity. Before you can implement these “three Re’s,” you need to understand employee sensemaking.
The Importance of Sensemaking
Sensemaking describes the psychological process by which individuals construct meaning as they interact with their environment and with others. All of us engage in sensemaking as we ascribe meaning to our experiences. Most experiences, including those at work, tend to be routine and therefore require little or no sensemaking. However, extreme events like the pandemic defy easy interpretation and response.
Because individuals will always make sense of things with themselves as the central focus, your employees are expending significant energy and effort to understand the post-pandemic workplace and asking, “How does this affect me?” This offers you and your organization a unique opportunity to nurture your employees — your most important resource — by ensuring that they feel valued and cared for. This is the essence of the three “Re’s” and will free up employees to seek new and innovative opportunities in significant and unexpected ways, allowing them to thrive in the new normal.
Common organizational responses to Covid-19 that resulted in cost-cutting measures and layoffs sent negative messages to your employees that probably set in motion a self-defeating cycle of anxiety, neglect, disengagement, lower productivity, and even turnover. Our research found that employees with relational qualities, such as loyalty and organizational commitment (in other words, the most valuable members of your organization) are particularly prone to such adverse responses.
To recalibrate expectations, you have to demonstrate that your organization is open to being creative and innovative about the work relationship you and your employees have. It’s less about your contractual relationship with them and much more about their perceptions of how supportive your organization is and how effective you are as their manager.
Recalibrating expectations as the pandemic winds down requires a deliberate approach and the active involvement of your employees. Our research on successfully negotiated individualized work arrangements, referred to as idiosyncratic deals (“i-deals”) has shown positive outcomes for both employees and organizations. These i-deals enable employees to adapt work arrangements to better suit their personal needs, values, and preferences, and benefit you through enhanced productivity and decreased absenteeism.
These customized arrangements can vary in nature and scope. Some employees may want flexibility in their work schedules, which could look like different start and end times than their peers or the option to work during off-hours, for example. Others may have individualized preferences regarding their work location. Some may ask for role-crafting that allows them to stay current and challenged. (For example, consider a print-marketing employee who wants to branch out into digital marketing.)
Individualized arrangements can be logistically challenging. However, our research found something surprising: individualized arrangements even minor in scope can have a comparable positive effect on career satisfaction and perceptions of organizational support as more major accommodations.
Managing the Return
The future of work is here.
There are two keys to success. The first is a willingness to explore and engage in creative ideas, as they’re likely to yield unexpected and important benefits. Consider a rising employee who’s upset that the pandemic recovery has delayed their promotion. As a manager aware of their career aspirations, you may negotiate an arrangement for them to attend an executive program to further develop their skills — and thus be ready for the much-anticipated promotion when the company is on a stronger footing. Recalibrating expectations using this type of thinking is a win-win for both parties: skill development and career advancement for the employee and retention of a motivated and skilled employee for you.
The second key to success is taking the right tone in your discussions with employees. These discussions on renegotiating work expectations call for transparency and reciprocity. Communicate your needs openly so that organizational concerns, such as the viability of the business, are shared, but do so while acknowledging and addressing your employees’ needs. This sends the message that you’re ready to support your employees so that they in turn can be productive members of the organization.
Overall, recalibrating expectations using an individualized rather than a one-size-fits-all approach will result in radical improvement for your organization because you’re investing in a committed, skilled workforce.
Reestablishing commitment involves giving honest explanations for why you, as a representative of your organization, made the decisions you did and how you came to make them. In the absence of such explanations, employee sensemaking tells us that your employees will fill in the blanks with their own explanations, often to the detriment of the organization.
With extreme events like the pandemic, employees engage in social comparison, which is to psychologically compare their situations with actual or imagined individuals. Such comparisons often result in your employees believing they’ve been treated unfairly, which produces negative views of the organization. Reestablishing commitment helps prevent these unfavorable judgments. It requires you to go on the record as to how the crisis was managed, which allows you to build credible trust and confidence with and in your employees.
Reestablishing commitment can be done in three ways:
- A mitigating explanation, which involves a straightforward presentation of why you did what you did (think following local health mandates).
- A justification approach, which legitimizes your actions by referencing an authoritative source (think CDC guidelines and other research that guided your actions).
- A reframing approach, which calls for highlighting outcomes that would have been worse than the current situation (think extreme workplace quarantining practices in some parts of the world).
Reestablishing commitment demands transparency. As one of our research subjects so eloquently said, “Engage everyone by having leadership down through the ranks of personnel share what challenges they faced personally and professionally.” This organizational action says, “We’re all in this together.” It also reinforces values of empathy and caring so that these values, rather than random circumstances, serve as guideposts for your employees. This serves to normalize the situation so that employees can look beyond the uncertainty and strive to be productive.
Rebuilding capacity addresses beliefs about your company’s ability to take effective action. It involves giving systematic attention to what best serves the organization and what needs to be let go. For example, one of our research subjects, an owner of a counseling services firm, calls her capacity-building strategy, “Get lean to grow” — to walk away from relationships and agreements that no longer “work” and invest intentionally in systems and technology that promote transparency and growth. Money freed up from ending unproductive relationships and contracts can be invested in systems that replace outdated legacy management information and reporting infrastructure. Employees can now be better informed and be more productive, as their time and effort is better served without the frustrations of dealing with burdensome documentation and communication systems.
Rebuilding capacity also means investing in employee skills that energize them and benefit the organization. For example, a private higher education institution serving a predominantly Hispanic student population now offers free Spanish lessons to all institutional members. Now all employees (faculty, administrators, staff, etc.) feel they can serve students and their parents better because they have some language proficiency, which communicates respect for and honor of the families’ culture.
Another capacity-building strategy is to support employees in building professional networks. Employees can discover efficient work practices through trade groups and industry-specific organizations. One of our research subjects discussed how the pandemic has been a golden opportunity to partner with new firms with strong presence in the industry, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas and skills. For example, a company committed to social justice issues could invite prominent national speakers on diversity, equity, and inclusion to give a company-wide presentation with follow-up breakout sessions about how to apply some of the concepts to the company.
Personal networks also provide support and feedback for developmental goals. For example, a manager could sponsor an employee for a sustainability conference and another employee for a meeting focused on prevention of ransomware attacks.
Taken together, these networks play a vital role in building employee capacity through access to support, feedback, insight, resources, and information that they’ll bring back to the company. This fosters innovative and creative organizational responses. Investing in employees’ sense of self-efficacy helps buffer against the hopelessness and defensiveness that extreme events engender by allowing them to identify how they could intervene and how they can make a difference, and thus how they can act effectively.
There’s still uncertainty about what the workplace new normal will be, and it’s easy for companies to default to old routines and habits. Our three Re’s are planned opportunities that you should take now to develop thriving employees — those who experience learning and vitality at work and feel that they make difference. By recalibrating expectations, reestablishing commitment, and rebuilding capacity, you strengthen your company’s most important asset to weather the next unexpected, extreme event — whenever it comes.