Recorded webinar: COVID 19 and the employee experience

Where do we go from here?

The workplace as we know it has been disrupted. We can't turn back, and we can't stay where we are. We've all stretched ourselves to adapt to a new landscape, but the cracks are starting to show, and we need to chart a new way forward.

In this talk, recorded for the virtual Employee Experience Strategies Summit 2020, Habanero president, Steven Fitzgerald shares what we learned from our recent global research into the effects of COVID-19 on organizational culture and employee experience, including:

  • New ways to uncover and understand your current employee experience
  • What people and organizations want to keep from this experience
  • Areas of opportunity you can leverage as you plan your next steps
  • Guidance on how to avoid backsliding to unproductive behaviours

Who this is for:

HR and workplace transformation leaders navigating the current workplace disruption with the intent to create great employee experiences.

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Hi there, I’m excited to be here today to talk about Habanero’s COVID employee experience research study, but before I get into sharing some of the results of that, I wanted to give a bit of context.

We help companies become better places to work

Habanero is an organization that exists to help other organizations do a better job of creating great career experiences for people. We help organizations become places where people’s careers can flourish, people can lead fulfilling professional lives and lead better lives overall. Our way of doing that, our way of helping organizations, is through helping them with the employee experience. It’s our ability to go in and identify the dehumanizing experiences that hold people back and the wonderful experiences that really help people, then magnify the wonderful ones and eradicate the dehumanizing ones that enable us to impact the employee experience. That’s what we do.

What we were seeing

When COVID hit and the lockdown happened and people were sent home, we experienced one of those moments where purpose meets circumstance. What we were hearing talking to our clients about their world of work was:

  • People, by and large, were rattled – quite rattled – and they were finding the circumstances quite difficult.
  • Organizations were struggling to really know what was going on for people deep down at a personal level.
  • Organizations were using surveys and similar strategies to find out some higher-level information, but they were really missing the true story at an empathetic level.
  • The tools that organizations had used in the past weren’t suitable for this current point in time. We’ll talk more about that later.
  • And finally, of course, we were seeing quite early on that this is the beginning of a big movement in the world of work and we were really interested in how it would play out and how it was going to affect employees’ relationships with their professions and their employers.

How might we best help?

Thinking about this and stepping back a little bit, we asked ourselves, “what can we do to help the world right now?” and one of the things we came up with was the study that we’re going to talk about today. The whole idea was to get more of a high-resolution look at what was going on for people at a human level.

Study design goals

Deep dive into the empathetic heart: We wanted to lean on our empathetic research capabilities to really get down to a high resolution empathetic level.

Move quickly: We wanted to move quickly as we knew that it’s quite a dynamic world right now. We do a lot of this type of research, but it generally spans a longer period of time. So, for this research we got it down to a four week to five-week process in and out of an organization.

Surface actionable steps: We focused on surfacing insights that people could use.

Find the bigger wins: But not just the quick hits and quick wins, we wanted actually to find out the bigger ideas that organizations could use to design their future.

Build a smart community: We wanted to be able to pull those ideas out across different organizations, create a community around the participants so they could share information about what was going on in each of their organizations. We knew there was a rich learning opportunity and we wanted to draw those bigger conclusions out of it.

This is the time for your EX leadership!

Here we are, we’re at this conference together, employee experience professionals, and one of the things I’ve learned is that the conversations we’ve been having recently are at a higher level in organizations. We would be talking to CHROs in the past, now we’re talking to CEOs, CHROs and other operations leads in the organization. The idea of employee experience has become much more strategic. What I wanted to put out into the crowd is a conversation about how we can, as employee experience leaders, elevate employee experience in the organization and make it a topic within the strategy conversation that happens overall.

Mallory O’Connor, one of my colleagues, was the host last year and she met many wonderful people with great skills and capabilities. She said one of the themes was that people felt they weren’t supported enough, and their work didn’t have enough profile in the organization. I think that has to change now, so my ask to everyone here is that they find a way to step up in their organization and elevate this conversation to a higher level.

From our research we know

The breadth of this research is massive. We talked to people in 49 countries pulling from a cumulative employee base of over 84,000 people, so the findings are quite rich and broad. I’ve pulled out three themes that I think are really important for this crowd. And they are:

  1. We can’t go back to the way we were as organizations, that world is gone.
  2. The state we’re in right now is not sustainable and we need to actually find a way to evolve forward from where we’re at.
  3. It’s time to focus on evolving into our futures. We’ve learned enough in this last little while that it’s given us new opportunities to use different tools and think differently about how we will evolve forward.

There is no normal to return to

Let’s get into this a bit. First, I talked about not being able to go back to where we were before. One of the key elements of that comes from the experience people have had as they moved to working from home.

Autonomy and trust replaced micromanagement

Supervisors and people leaders have had to change the way they show up. What we found is that people by and large have been less micromanaged and less supervised in this current environment. The response to that is people have felt more trust from their organization and they’ve actually given more trust back to the organization in response. Of even greater significance, they felt a deeper sense of meaning in the work that they’ve been doing.

If you think about that, and where we are right now, that’s an amazing gain. Organizations work really hard to build a sense of meaning in work and the circumstances of what’s been happening right now has actually provided that for us. We can’t go back on that, we can’t try and put that genie back in the bottle. As leaders, as employee experience leaders, we need to help our peer leaders in our organization understand that they need to show up differently for their people and develop a different relationship with them and allow people to continue to work with that autonomy.

Working from home has seen successes and failures

A lot has been said about working from home and there’s a lot written about how happy people are working from home. What we’ve found is that there are good aspects and bad aspects. But what we found universally – and there’s a lot of other research that supports this – is that people now have a different expectation of the balance between work from home and work from the office. And so, going forward, organizations need to think about and design and be thoughtful about a hybrid option that meets peoples changed expectations because it’s not going to work to send everyone to the office 100 percent of the time and it’s not going to work in the future to have everyone home 100 percent of the time. We need to find a way to leverage the strengths of both those things and be thoughtful about designing a hybrid experience for people.

People have adapted to deeper integration between work and life

Another dimension of this that’s turned out to be very important is how people have had to adapt their personal lives to make things work in the last little while. And what’s come out of that is people have learned a lot about what works for them at a personal level, what works for their family and their loved ones. This level of work-life integration, where there were exceptions made in work to allow for that from time to time, has to become the norm because people have built their lives around this new situation. This new environment, this new context for them and their family and the people around them in their community. So, going forward the opportunity is to be thoughtful about designing that and not as the exception to how we work, but as a thoughtful element of creating a great employee experience.

Productivity is variable

We’ve talked about why we can’t go back to where we were, I want to talk now about why we can’t stay where we are right now. So, one of the big things is how variable productivity is. There’s a lot to be said about being at home and being focused. That works great for certain types of tasks but not all work, our research shows, is equally effective. So, we have high variability in productivity, with some tasks that are very hard to get done in the current environment and some tasks that work really well. We’ve talked about the implications of that variability with respect to a hybrid office environment. Further work has to be done by organizations to think carefully about and design not just the tools that we roll out to people, but the culture that supports them; the capabilities people have around the tools; developing new norms and behaviors to make the best of those tools when working remotely; and being able to transition in and out of being in the office and being together, being remote and working separately.

People are fragile and over-extended

One other absolutely critical element of this is where people are at from an emotional point of view. People are really on thin ice still and in quite a fragile state.

What we found is that there’s high volatility in people’s response to things like risk and growth orientation. That tells us that people are somewhat overextended from an emotional and an energy point of view. We know that people are working more hours, we know that people are making lots of other personal sacrifices, and they’re dealing with a lot of other unsettling elements in the rest of their lives, obviously.

We can’t look at what’s going on right now with productivity and say, “Awesome, we’re working at this great level, we can just chart that going forward.”

Organizations need to think about where people are at. We like this notion of surge capacity. Right now, people are at the edge of their surge capacity in a lot of situations. They’re going as hard as they can and they’re right at the end of their emotional tether. There has to be some design work done to allow people to find a sustainable happy place for them to be productive but be happy and well adjusted. This idea of people being fragile is a very important part of our study and a very important finding.

Cultures are shifting in unintended ways

Culture is another really interesting topic. Culture by definition is slow moving. Culture in an organization tends to be quite fixed and makes small changes over time because it’s based on deeply held beliefs that everyone shares in the backs of our minds in an organization. As a result, those are actually hard to change over time. However, we’ve been in a really interesting period with massive tectonic forces acting on our organizations. It’s not just COVID, it’s also Black Lives Matter and racial justice. It’s a massive industry transformation and industry disruption, It’s organizations having to force their way through really significant business model changes and all these forces are actually creating a more dynamic environment for culture than normally exists. The problem is that it’s not intentional cultural change, so some of it’s working out in a favorable way, adapting to the environment, and some of it’s not. What has to happen in the future is organizations need to be more intentional with their culture going forward, which means understanding more about the about how it shifted in the past little while. I think we’re also in a really interesting opportunity zone right now because what we found through our research is that organizations have become more empathetic. We’re more connected with each other and leaders have been listening more to people. Here’s a great opportunity to leverage that to co-create the future culture of our organizations by working with the organization cohesively rather than having it be a top-down change.

COVID: accelerating humanistic change

I wanted to bring up something I think is really important, it’s the broader context to this whole thing. If you think back 70 years to industry, particularly going back to the 50s, the forces of competitive advantage came from things like real estate holdings, and how big my plant was, and owning supply chain, and perhaps the number of patents I owned, and my financial reserves. Those competitive advantages have created moats around industries, around organizations, that fended off other challengers.

But what’s happened over time is competition has shifted from being focused on “the people with the most assets win”, to organizations that can create an environment where they can attract the best people and put them in an environment where they can work individually, and even more importantly, as teams, to do their very best work and solve big problems. We see that, for example, in technology, and all these really competitive industries, but that trend is increasing now across all industries.

We refer to that as the “humanization” of industries. It’s been happening for the last 70 years, but we’re at a really interesting time right now with COVID. And what we’ve measured, what our research shows, is that rate of change has actually increased in the last little while and I can’t say for sure if this rate is going to continue forever. I do think it’s an opportunity for us to go into our organizations and talk to our peers or the other leaders and let them know that this isn’t a transient thing that’s happening with COVID, this isn’t an aberration, this is actually part of a bigger trend. It’s accelerated the process and it’s here to stay.

It’s time for our methods to evolve

Okay we’ve talked about why we can’t go back; we’ve talked about why we can’t stay here. There are so many important learnings about what works, and we can put those learnings into how to evolve our organizations in the next little while and I want to talk quickly about that.

One of the key things is that we do our research in a way that we try and beat out the biases that we have and we try not to go in with a bunch of hypotheses to prove or disprove them, we want the stories and the experiences of people to surface and we’ll pull the themes out of that.

Impact of more vulnerable human leadership

A theme that came out loud and clear was leadership, and we found that by and large actually the organizations who were in the study were great employers, their leaders did a very good job and people are quite happy with the decisions they made. This isn’t universal, and there’s some horror stories about when it goes wrong.

What we found is that people’s sensitivity to great leadership and poor leadership is very high right now and it has a dramatic impact on the employee experience.

Empathy must be a core leadership capability

And not surprisingly, empathy plays a key role in the experience people have with leadership. When leaders can show up and understand what’s going on, talk to people at a human level and be vulnerable, that’s made a big difference for people.

And when leaders show up and they’re tone deaf and they’re not really able to put themselves in the shoes of the people they’re talking to, it’s been quite catastrophic for people and quite damaging for their relationship.

This idea of empathy showing up in the leadership realm, we’ve talked about it for a long time. It’s absolutely core to what leadership is right now and we have to rethink about the role empathy plays in leadership [going forward].

Organizations were forced to sense and adapt

Another big thing that’s really important and really fascinating is seeing how organizations have had to be adaptive and experiment and try things. One of the participating organizations had a 10-year digital transformation strategy and they had to roll out the bulk of it in a month. They had to experiment, they had to try things, they had to be okay with failure, and they had to have everyone in on it learning and sensing and responding.

Embedding agile behaviours will be a key survival tool

This is an example of an organization learning how to be agile, and I’m not talking capital A agile development process, I’m talking about adopting agile behaviors. We see this as a critical opportunity for organizations going forward to observe how they’ve worked in this last period of time and understand what are the elements of being agile that we want to keep and help flourish in the organization going forward because it’s going to make our organization more adaptable and more resilient.

Surveys alone weren’t getting to the real goods

A third element that I’m very passionate about is what we do as professionals to really understand about what’s going on with the people in our organization. I’m here to say that surveys aren’t going to provide us the entire picture. I’m not trying to say surveys aren’t important, they’re very important to us in our organization and they will continue to be important, but there’s so much more we need to understand about what’s going on with people that we can’t get from a survey.

Mixed-methods research will drive human-centred action

We really advocate for more of a mixed method approach to research and listening. What I mean by that is combining quantitative tools like surveys with qualitative tools like empathetic research and listening labs and other tools that are designed for discovery. They’re not testing a hypothesis or validating a concept, and they’re focused on creating a bubble of psychological safety around people, helping give them the language to express what’s going on with them and then pulling those themes out. It’s the combination of these two research techniques that really provides the rich high-resolution picture of what’s going on. There’s a lot more to be said about that but I really think this is a critical element of the whole story of all our learning.

Employee Experience to the rescue

Here we are, I feel this is a really important time for employee experience professionals to play a leadership role in their organization. I mentioned before how this has a much higher profile, but this is our chance to really educate the rest of our team about what the employee experience is. It’s not just the journey, it’s not just hiring and onboarding, it's really how people are coping and reacting. We can help other leaders in our organization make a really strong connection between the employee experience and their ability to be successful in their roles.

Leaping ahead instead of sliding back

I think a lot about the risk of us returning back to the office and people snapping back into the old physical environment and having that show up as people returning, or backsliding I would say, into old behaviors that aren’t as constructive.

I think that’s where our job really shows up, to create future environments where our organizations are really strong and really robust, fueled by great employee experiences, we need to be the ones that show up with this vision of how it could help your organization evolve and not snap back or not fall back into the world it was in. The goal of all this is to create organizations that are built to succeed in the future because they’re built actually to create great environments for the people within them.


Many CEOs understand, at last, that to build an organization that’s fit for the future, you must first make it fit for human beings. – Gary Hamel

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