Almost all businesses in the world – from mom-and-pop stores on the corner to global multinationals – have had to adapt to COVID-19. This has real-world implications across all aspects of running a business, as companies scramble to find new markets and ways of working to help them survive. But sometimes overlooked are the physical and mental health of the people who make these companies tick: the employees who are under a new kind of pandemic pressure.
Most companies were unprepared for the pandemic
COVID-19 has led to the biggest set of internal and external crises that most businesses have ever faced 1. And while the idea of adapting to a pandemic is not new, it was definitely off the radar for most companies. When it hit with such ferocity and scope, most were unprepared 2.
Thousands of articles, blogs and white papers have been written about how companies are adapting. Even the CDC is providing advice to businesses across the globe 3. Most experts agree that moving forward, businesses now understand that the ground will continue to shift under their feet. They are course-correcting over and over again by re-evaluating their assumptions and strengthening their ability to respond 4. In other words, companies across the globe are flocking to the idea of business agility.
What does ‘business agility’ mean in the real world?
It’s a term we can’t get away from, but what does it actually mean in the real world? Business agility is simply ensuring that your company is as adaptive, flexible and creative as possible in a changing landscape. It enables companies to respond to threats and opportunities, and it includes three key characteristics. First, it is customer-centric, adjusting services and products to customer demands and re-organizing resources and systems to adapt to customer needs. Second, it uses coordinated teams that work together to respond to change. Third, it fosters a growth mindset, incorporating failure as part of the learning curve, and not a block to progress 5.
The three R’s of agility
Many companies are using a three-step process to achieve this. First, they are Responding to the new COVID-19 world by maintaining employee safety and keeping essential business functions operating. This phase can be chaotic and not without some quick fixes. They are also Recovering, which includes more organized activities to re-stabilize operations. Third, they are Renewing, through strategic change across the organization. Here, they learn to run their processes and workflows in new, repeatable and scalable ways, using lessons learned and new ways of working from previous actions to set a new way forward 6.
An increasing sense of responsibility for employee wellbeing
Of course, business agility brings a certain amount of flux, which can introduce uncertainty and stress. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, increasing attention is now being paid to the effects of agility on employees’ health and wellbeing 7. In fact, 95% of companies surveyed think that they have a responsibility for employee health. As companies strive to set good examples from the top, wellbeing is increasingly seen as a CEO issue, and not just a problem for HR to ‘fix’. Ninety-four percent also describe agile/home working as a current and future employee demand 7.
However, balance is a key issue, as many people also need the stimulation of an office environment for their positive mental health. The main shift here will be the notion of home working as an equal companion to office work, and not an exception. Middle managers are going to play an increasingly powerful role here, as they actively set the right tone in terms of work-life balance, communication and openness 8.
Embedding wellbeing: APMG launches ‘Agile Teams’ for happier employees
As global accreditation company APMG began conducting their agility activities, they quickly made the protection of employees’ health a priority. Like many businesses, they pivoted to online working environments. Unlike many businesses, they realized that communication was key. They now have ‘Agile Teams’ in place, and encourage colleagues to support one another and learn new skills for fast results. They use regular communication channels to make their priorities clear, and they project confidence and positivity while not shying away from bad news. They also emphasize empathetic and humble communications that give employees a ‘blueprint’ they can use as they themselves adapt. Finally, APMG has made it ‘safe’ for anybody in the organization to propose improvement ideas. The approach is working, and it’s fostering positive feelings of support and achievement, with calmer, happier and more successful employees 9.
Embedding wellbeing: Deloitte introduces Health and Risk teams to lower anxiety
Deloitte has increased their agility by establishing a Business Response and Continuity office, by confirming critical roles and backup plans, and by deciding which work is mission-critical and what can be deprioritized. At the same time, the company has adopted a variety of new practices towards employee wellbeing, and it is a great example of a company that is making sure its employees thrive in the pandemic. In terms of virus transmission, they have clear protocols and obligations for at-risk employees, and they are adapting their leave and absenteeism policies. They have stronger health measures in place in areas such as worksite containment and contamination, travel and meeting protocols. They combat ‘fake news’ by ensuring that the information they send to employees is first confirmed by their Health and Risk teams, which include medical professionals. They then disseminate this information through webinars and live Q&A sessions. They also provide a 24-hour telemedicine service, they have medical experts on call to answer questions, they offer social worker help for those who want it and they even have a meditation app. The approach is significantly lowering anxiety and stress levels across their workforce 10 11.
Embedding wellbeing: DHL’s CEO heads a Coronavirus Task Force with a wellbeing initiative
DHL has become more agile in a variety of ways. They started by prioritizing the delivery of emergency medical equipment and supplies to healthcare workers, delivering necessary goods to private customers and finding solutions for companies to continue their operations. They have also adapted their business operations to mitigate impact, and they have introduced pandemic risk scenarios as part of their regular risk planning activities. And in keeping with the need to lead from the top, the company’s CEO leads a Coronavirus Task Force that works with international organizations such as the WHO, the CDC, the ECDC and the Robert Koch Institute. Just as importantly, DHL is focusing on their employees through what they call a ‘wellbeing initiative.’ This initiative includes activities such as online courses about COVID-19, as well as support in areas such as mental health and stress management. The approach also focuses on people managers, with compassion training that has increased a sense of optimism and resilience among their workforce 11 12.
Turning challenges into change
The pandemic continues, with a shaky vaccination rollout and mitigation measures in place across society that are likely to last far longer than any of us ever thought. We are adapting with varying degrees of success, but the challenges are very real, and very hard to overcome. The good news is that many employers are starting to realize this and are embedding employee wellbeing measures into their business agility models. And this type of mindset shift is a good thing. It means that businesses across the globe are turning the pandemic’s huge challenges into real change 1.
Stephen Johnston is a professional business writer who has decades of experience working with a variety of international clients across Europe and the Middle East. His expertise ranges through virtually all business areas, including consulting, banking, logistics and corporate journalism. He holds an MA in Psychology from Carleton and McGill University.
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