Edward Tuorinsky, Managing Principal of DTS, brings two decades of experience in management consulting and information technology services.
Disruption from the pandemic continues to influence the nature of work three years later. That’s not surprising; Covid-19 impacted every aspect of our lives. What is surprising is how significantly the pandemic experience impacted career development. As a business owner, understanding your employees’ pandemic experiences can help you provide prescriptive training and development support for near-term gains—and long-term success.
An Uncommon Experience
Despite their closer connection to employees, small-business employers can’t pretend to know what working through stay-at-home orders was like for all of their people. We’ve all heard the stories about the struggles, challenges and heroic efforts of those determined to keep things running smoothly. What you can know for sure is that each person’s experience is unique and deeply personal—involving perspectives and emotions that reach beyond the paycheck. Although the feelings of a crisis might have now passed, the lasting effects of the pandemic continue to show up on the job.
I’ve observed a fundamental conflict between two employee groups distinguished by their situational response to the pandemic: On one side, we have those who waited out the challenge, a group who saw the pandemic as a “blip”; and on the other side, there are those who leaned into the challenge, a group I call “the flips.”
Looking at these mindsets helps make sense of today’s most challenging management issues. It explains why some in the workforce struggle despite more flexible work policies. It explains why it’s so difficult for some companies to find talent. It sheds light on why teams struggle to gel and how great people don’t necessarily equate to great productivity.
This year, research has provided a way forward and given employers the data and direction to make tough choices about returning to work in person, adopting new policies and supporting employees on and off the job. For example, Gartner’s 2023 trends in work made the somewhat expected recommendations about hybrid policies, the changing role of managers and pursuing non-traditional candidates. It also included “healing pandemic trauma” as a pathway to sustainable performance.
For those of us relying on every last employee to keep our small businesses moving and growing, the pandemic’s impact on personal growth is an area worth exploring.
Workers who fall into this category hold on to the status quo and are silently resistant to change. For some employees, it’s as though the past three years have been a blip in their careers—a gap in development. They show up to work but remain in their bubble, not making significant strides and doing enough just to get by. From my observations, this group includes the quiet quitters, as well as some career jumpers and some new grads who entered the workforce during the pandemic.
According to Gallup, at least 50% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged, feeling detached and doing the bare minimum. It notes that these employees have become a problem because “most jobs today require some level of extra effort to collaborate with coworkers and meet customer needs.” This group is hard on small businesses where growth is closely tied to employee effort.
These workers initiate and innovate. They are early adopters. They seem to work at double speed, and they took adversity and turned it into opportunity. “The flips” found that flexibility during the pandemic allowed them to do more, erasing the boundaries between work and life. They often thrive under pressure and do best when juggling several big things. In my experience, these employees tend to be millennials or slightly older employees eyeing an early exit from their first career, some working parents and newer grads with ambition.
The blips and the flips seem to be opposites. They can certainly clash in work settings. Here’s how you can make peace and get the best out of both.
A Reset For Success
The pandemic came at a time when technology made it possible to keep businesses running. A similar event in the 1980s, before video conferencing or texting, would have crushed the economy and wiped small businesses off the map.
Having lived experience proving that businesses could operate remotely fundamentally changed the nature of work. We also know that having to adapt to working at home, under unprecedented pressure and amid many other complex situations, fundamentally changed the workforce.
It makes sense that moving forward requires a decided non-technical approach: Leaders need to reach each employee where they are to reset the fundamentals. All employees can benefit from a timely reminder about standards, expectations and their value to the business. And the best part is that this can be accomplished with a call or visit.
From a work perspective, we need to culturally integrate the two groups of employees for the health of our businesses. Tapping into each person’s contributions helps managers use the resources available and prepares employees for a more resilient future. Set a healthy pace, reestablish trust and norms and build teams. Deliberately move on from a period of time that has been anything but business as usual.
Focused personal development could take many forms. You can reinforce the same themes and messages through one-on-ones, team engagement, training and developmental goal setting. For some, you might need to include a refresher on business basics and company expectations, such as dressing for work, communicating with clients and colleagues, or etiquette on the phone or video. Others might consider intensive off-sights where employees cycle through sessions on personal and professional development to understand their strengths and motivators better.
Leaders should recognize the value of connecting with employees regularly—to check in and provide personalized support and motivation. The pandemic might be over, but the experience revealed many truths about what businesses need to succeed and who employees are as people. We can’t go back and pretend we haven’t gained that perspective, but I believe we can use insight into our employees’ pandemic experiences to provide better developmental support.
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