Perspectives

Surviving the 'COVID Marathon'


March 7, 2021

What started out as a sprint to remote work has become a fatiguing marathon. For organizations to survive, experts say, leaders need to build workforce endurance.

“Leaders are increasingly concerned about the endurance of their employees.”

Grange Insurance has about 1,200 employees across 13 states selling personal and commercial insurance. Prior to the pandemic, the bulk of its workforce was on-site in Columbus, with only about one-third of employees working remotely in other areas of Ohio, Wisconsin, or elsewhere. Ammendola says during the first six months of the crisis, employees from everywhere pulled together and were running on pure adrenaline. “The rush of the call to action carried them through,” he says.

After the rush, however, comes the crash, and Ammedola says employees are naturally having a hard time staying engaged and motivated. As much as he worries about the current situation, he’s even more concerned about navigating a post-COVID hybrid model. “At least now everyone is playing on the same field,” he says. “Engagement will get more splintered when that is gone.” Put another way, it’s one thing for leaders to navigate a Zoom call with a team of 20, but it’s a totally different dynamic if five people are in a room, six are on video, and seven are dialing in. “Ironically, that’s not as optimal as what we have right now,” Ammendola says.

Furthering the deployment analogy, however, Mayville says one way to prepare for that inevitable reality is to focus on the “squad effect,” wherein a network of frontline player-coaches create cohesion and foster trust. “People have a higher tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity when they have something big to rally around,” says Mayville. While the plan comes from the CEO, successfully carrying it out depends on the credibility and authenticity of frontline leaders to initiate engagement and instill purpose in the mission, he says.

4 ways to build workforce endurance

1. Create the "squad effect"

Activate frontline leaders to build trust and restore camaraderie among team, unit, and division members.

2. Circulate with a purpose

Devise a cadence for connecting with team members that includes defining a purpose and desired outcome for each meeting.

3. Build energy and engagement

Accelerate what should go faster and slow down what requires deeper thinking or is not urgent.

4. Find your rallying cry

What is that big believable goal that everyone can share in and be inspired and engaged to achieve?

To be sure, as organizations sort through different hybrid work models, leaders worry that the more spread out the workforce, the more likely people are to feel they are missing out. Thomas Crane, vice president of human resources and communications with the construction engineering company China Construction America, calls it “the crisis of left-out-ism.” He says, “The challenge we are trying to figure out is how, with a globally distributed remote workforce, to keep people connected.”

Solving that challenge isn’t as simple as greater collaboration and teamwork. It involves rethinking the employee experience, bridging communication gaps, and linking productivity to purpose. Michael Eichenwald, a senior client partner with the Korn Ferry Advisory practice who focuses on global financial markets, says leaders have been checking in with employees at a regular pace and cadence for months, and all that’s led to is video fatigue and suppressed emotions. What’s missing, he says, is a purpose and desired outcome for each connection. “Leaders need to understand who they are engaging, why they are engaging them, and to what effect,” he says. “That’s the connective tissue that leads to increased endurance.”

“Leaders need to understand who they are engaging, why they are engaging them, and to what effect.”

The hope was that 2021 would bring more certainty to the business environment. But with nearly 3.5 million people filing for unemployment in January and only 49,000 jobs created during the month, organizations are already rethinking their forecasts for the year. Moreover, while everyone wants to see the pandemic end, one-third of Americans still say they are unsure if they will get vaccinated, according to the latest data.

Maryjo Charbonnier, chief human resources officer at the media company Wolters Kluwer, says the cumulative effect of these factors is leading to a wearing down of the workforce. “Employees are starting to lose their resiliency in the face of the sustained assault of uncertainty,” she says.

The only way organizations can surmount this collective psychological hurdle is by building workforce endurance. Indeed, if endurance is the power to overcome a difficult situation without giving way, then leaders need to build it among their workforces as a competitive advantage. Mayville casts the idea of workforce endurance as a way to reinforce an organization’s culture and values regardless of the operating environment. Grounding decisions in that manner will help leaders put mechanisms in place to arm employees with the technical and emotional skills needed to toggle seamlessly between whatever hybrid environment works best for the organization. “Structure is gone for much of the workforce, so it’s up to leaders to restore resiliency and help employees adapt and cope to the environment they have now,” Mayville says.

For more information, contact: Bill Mayville at bill.mayville@kornferry.com or Michael Eichenwald at michael.eichenwald@kornferry.com.