Published: 27 July 2020
COVID-19 can create stress and isolation among workers, which undermine their performance. Executive leaders can keep employees motivated, productive and cohesive with culture hacks that kindle positive emotions like hope, agency, belonging and pride.
Executive leaders are expected to manage the COVID-induced stress of their employees while dealing with their own stress from isolation, family and health issues, furloughed colleagues and a sustained increase in work.
For many, this crisis has created the most challenging business environment in many decades and challenges look set to continue.
In this environment, leaders must rally employees to do great work, but many tactics that work in normal times will add undue stress on employees that could quickly lead to burnout.
Executive leaders who are guiding digital business transformation during COVID-19 should:
Create swift culture changes that have an immediate impact by learning the art of culture hacking.
Adapt culture hacking to the crisis by focusing on hacks thatevoke positive emotions.
Avoid overprocessing the approach by considering the state of the organization and the mood of the workforce, matching those with positive hacks and getting started.
If you feel like your team is demotivated and could use a shot of morale, you’re not alone. Executive leaders are being asked to rally employees to carry the enterprise through perhaps the most challenging business conditions they have ever encountered. In this environment, leaders must be careful not to add to employees’ stress, which could overwhelm and render them less productive. Instead, leaders should encourage and reassure workers by appealing to positive emotions, such as pride, belonging, agency and hope.
Leaders can use culture hacks — quick, meaningful actions that signal immediate change — to evoke these emotions. Examples of hacks might include changing the way you start or end a meeting, instituting a team ritual to celebrate a victory or sending an informal video out to your people. They could also be a myriad of other small actions that can trigger a surprisingly sizable response in your people. The advantage of culture hacking is that it is a quick, low-effort way to engender on-the-ground change, which matters as the ups and downs of the crisis make themselves felt.
A great culture hack is a living thing that exhibits five characteristics (“ALIVE”):
Actionable— Ideally, hacks should scale by going viral naturally. The design should make it easy to adopt the hack. Multiple people, from the bottom to the top of the organization, should be able to use the hack.
Low effort — The hack should be easy to execute. In most cases, it should take fewer than 48 hours to design and execute. Note that low effort does not mean low courage.
Immediate— The hack should have an instant effect. It should not take weeks or months to have an impact.
Visible— The hack should signal unequivocally to the target audience that something has shifted in the culture. The change should be visible to everyone in a meeting room, for example, or be sent to everyone in an email.
Emotional— The hack should incite a deeply felt reaction. Change is primarily an emotional process, not an analytical one.
Hacking is a way to change the culture quickly and materially using small actions that leaders often underuse and overlook. These smaller actions can change the perception of the crisis, at least for a time, and avoid negative emotional contagion of employees. Read on for examples of hacks in the real world (see for more information).
The No. 1 difference between “peacetime” hacking and culture hacking in a crisis is the need to create a positive emotional impact. A crisis environment like COVID-19 differs from normal conditions. In normal times, executives must often awaken employees from a business-as-usual torpor, and can use hacks to get people’s attention. These hacks might provoke change by inciting surprise, shock or even in some cases fear, as a way to send a clear message that the change isn’t just “talk.”
In a crisis, however, hacking to produce a negative emotion is not useful. Fear is the dominant emotion in a crisis already, so adding more of it is likely to do more harm than good. You want to energize people, not paralyze them. In crisis culture hacking, executives should reach for positive emotions that sustain employee motivation and productivity over the long haul.
Hope, agency, belonging and pride are by no means the only positive emotions to shoot for. There is a host of other possible emotions that deliver a lot of goodness, such as joy, empathy, honoring sacrifices made and peacefulness. However, we chose these four because they are the emotions most at risk during a crisis, and those most capable of delivering a sustainable positive boost to the workforce as the long, chronic phase of the crisis continues (see Figure 1).
Leaders can create a more hopeful, optimistic atmosphere by showing that things will get better in the future and by removing burdens on employees wherever possible. Here are some sample hacks that we’ve seen being used in the real world (see Table 1).
A crisis like COVID-19 can make people feel helpless. It can feel like circumstances beyond their control are dictating many aspects of their lives. Leaders can restore some sense of control in employees with culture hacks that signal that they are empowered to act and have autonomy to improve their situation (see Table 2).
A crisis can be a “make or break” point for teams. The stakes are high. A crisis generally increases or decreases team cohesion, but will not leave it the same. With COVID-19, people are working from home and in danger of being more isolated from colleagues. In these circumstances, leaders should do more to reinforce a sense of community among employees. These hacks help build a sense of community by reinforcing team identity. Of all the emotions, this is the one most sensitive to particular cultural norms. A hack that for one culture creates a sense of team might be cringeworthy for another. An extra degree of cultural sensitivity might be required to get these just right as with, for example, the first hack on the list below (see Table 3).
Pride comes from doing a job well and getting recognized for it. Moreover, in a crisis, most people want to contribute to solutions. They crave the knowledge that their work has value beyond money-making. Pride motivates them to help others. Leaders can encourage a sense of pride with these culture hacks (see Table 4).
With not that much effort, leaders can lead a few crisis culture hacks that create a warmer climate within their organization, helping employees to stay sane through the long chronic phase of the crisis. The effect of hacks doesn’t last forever, so leaders should rotate hacks in order to keep morale up. When choosing hacks, leaders should choose hacks thoughtfully, choosing with sensitivity for their team/organization and what would resonate with them. Not all hacks work in all cultures, and there is a difference between being brave and foolhardy. Many hacks will prove most effective in combination. It’s hard to feel hopeful if you have lost your sense of agency. It’s hard to feel pride in your work if your sense of belonging to the organization and community has weakened. For best results, leaders should choose hacks that will reinforce each other within the organization’s specific context. Above all, leaders should be authentic — in this environment, real is better than perfect — and start crisis culture hacking today.
This document is based on Gartner’s research into COVID-19’s effects on working conditions, as well as its compilation of culture hacks gathered from clients and other external sources.
“HRE’s Number of the Day: Coronavirus Stress,”Human Resource Executive.
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