3 Lessons to Sustain Workforce Resilience Through Disruption

June 24, 2021

Contributor: Mary Baker

HR leaders must focus on workforce health, not just productivity, to achieve and sustain workforce resilience.

Many leaders have looked at productivity and engagement as ways to gauge how employees have fared during the pandemic. There are certainly signs of workforce resilience, but there are also red flags.

Many HR leaders and employees report that productivity has been maintained or improved since the onset of COVID-19, but it has come at a price — substantial declines in less obvious but key aspects of workforce health. 

Gartner surveys taken before and during the pandemic, and drawing on data from more than 20,000 employees, revealed that COVID-19 has negatively impacted the workforce health of 55% of the global workforce. 

“We measured workforce health across three main factors: healthy employees, healthy relationships and healthy work environments, looking at multiple workforce well-being elements, including work-life balance, psychological safety, burnout, collaboration, innovation and responsiveness,” said Molly Tipps, Senior Director, Advisory Gartner.

Workforce resilience isn’t just about productivity

The Gartner 2021 Workforce Resilience Employee Survey found that no segment of the workforce was immune from significant and widespread damage to workforce health, specifically:

  • At least 50% of the workforce at each level
  • At least 44% of the workforce in each function
  • At least 35% of the workforce in each industry

Assessing workforce health across these factors, Gartner research also found:

Many employees also say their trust in their teams and leadership has declined, as has their receptivity to change. Nearly one-third believe inclusion has declined.

“Organizations must figure out how to sustain and grow performance, whether in a period of disruption or not, without damaging the health of employees,” said Piers Hudson, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner.

HR leaders should work with other business leaders and managers to incorporate three lessons to drive productivity without damaging workforce health.

Lesson No. 1: Averages don’t tell the whole workforce resilience story 

Despite workforce health data looking, on average, unchanged across the whole workforce, the pandemic has actually created both “thriving and diving.” Among the employees surveyed, 30% experienced limited or no change to their psychological safety. Another 34% experienced a decline in psychological safety, while 36% reported significant improvements. Employees who had the highest levels of workforce health pre-COVID-19 were not necessarily more likely to thrive, and those with the lowest pre-COVID-19 workforce health were not predisposed to fare worse.

Leaders need to deepen their understanding of how disruption impacts different employees to develop effective and affordable interventions. Rather than focusing on average and ultimately misleading findings, digging deeper than function- or segment-level averages will enable HR leaders to understand which parts of the workforce have experienced damage and who has thrived. Retaining individual gains in workforce health is as critical to rebounding post-disruption as fixing the points of damage.

Workforce Resilience

Lesson No. 2: Connections come first

In an attempt to keep employees inspired and connected to the organization, HR often focuses on corporate culture and a shared mission. Instead, during a disruption, what employees need more is a personal sense of purpose. When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of sustained workforce health.

Employees also need to feel connected to one another. Fifty-one percent of teams were disrupted due to COVID-19, but Gartner data shows that in times of disruption, the connections in immediate working teams matter most. Highly cohesive teams have a 37% higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health.

HR, along with managers, must help employees connect their personal goals to business goals while also realigning teams to ensure that relationships are functional.

Lesson No. 3: Leaders should prioritize fixing the work

Many organizations attempted to boost workforce resilience by adding employee benefits, recognizing and rewarding employees more for their work, and offering employees greater decision-making autonomy. However, these additional activities had minimal impact in improving workforce resilience during the disruption.

In fact, Gartner research reveals that if autonomous decision making is not already a well-practiced capability, increasing autonomy as workload increases seriously degrades workforce health. For the 83% of employees who are operating at or above capacity, increased decision-making authority diminishes their chances of having good workforce health by more than 30%, as it adds too much ambiguity and personal risk and therefore stress.

Actually, one of the biggest drivers of workforce resilience is leaders themselves, and their ability to both understand and address the barriers that are preventing employees from having a healthy work — as well as life — experience. Managers can make work easier by engaging employees with empathy, both personally and professionally.

Managers can show “work empathy” by adapting priorities to minimize lower-priority work and showing employees the impact of this work so they can focus their effort. Because autonomy is a powerful capability, organizations that want to enable employees to make more autonomous decisions need to understand that it is not an intuitive process. Instead, they should seek to build decision-making judgment over time with guardrails and training  

“One of the biggest drivers of workforce resilience is leaders, and their ability to both understand and address the barriers that are preventing employees from having a healthy work and life experience,” said Cian O’Morain, Director, Gartner.

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