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Seven Workforce Challenges for Leaders and How to Tackle Them

on November 11, 2020
Resources All Managing Change

We’re seven months (or more) into a pandemic that everyone thought would be over in weeks, leaving us with challenges we couldn’t have foreseen at the start of 2020 – challenges that almost every leader is faced with right now.

Challenges – but also opportunities. After all, each hurdle we face, in work and in life, forces us to problem-solve. And, many times, our solutions lead to innovations that put us in a better position than if everything had remained status quo.

As we look ahead to 2021, I thought it would be helpful to recap seven of the most common issues business leaders are currently facing. Many of these issues aren’t new; most existed before March 2020. But if we can create solutions to these problems in the midst of so much uncertainty, chaos, and change, think about how easy it will be to engage, motivate, and inspire your people to new heights when business is going well.

How to Navigate Common Workplace Issues

Based on polls, surveys, and client conversations, we’ve identified seven common people-related challenges that have emerged. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Morale and Employee Well-Being

You know that your people are feeling extra pressure right now. At home. At work. You can’t ignore that anxiety. You need to validate how people are feeling. And of course, your EQ skills are critical right now. Empathy is the order of the day. But what else can you do? There are several ways you can show your people that you “get it,” and yes, this can be an opportunity to create meaningful connections with your people. Here’s how:

  • Define reality in a clear and honest manner. Leaders need to talk to people in real ways, get on the phone, send personal emails, communicate frequently, whatever is necessary to let people know where things stand. If you aren’t transparent, it will create even more anxiety, and that will impact performance even further.
  • Set up a feedback loop. Once you share the realities, people will have questions, concerns, and even ideas for the future. Give them an opportunity to share what they’re feeling – in a safe space – and let them know that you want to hear all of their thoughts. The good and the bad.
  • Support your managers more than ever before. A recent Gallup survey showed manager engagement dropped more than 4 points in the last quarter. If your organization wasn’t helping managers develop the tools they need to lead their teams, now is the time. It’s imperative to arm your people leaders with the mindsets and skill sets they need to fully support their teams. Many managers are thrown into their role without training on how to be a great people leader. Combine that lack of basic business capability with managing a remote or hybrid team, plus helping people navigate a roller coaster of emotions, and your organization will find it tough to muddle through, let alone thrive.

2. Safety and Workspaces

Whether your people are on the front lines or serving from the back office, safety in the workplace is top of mind. Your organization’s values, beliefs, and purpose play a huge role in your people’s comfort and feeling that they’re supported by their leaders. In 2020, this support obviously must include a focus on health and safety, which translates into employees who want to give their very best. If there’s any question that profits are more important than their well-being, you’re likely to see engagement levels drop, turnover increase, and performance become inconsistent.

As we head into next year, be sure that all leaders are aligned and consistently clear on safety protocols. Provide necessary training to support those protocols. It’s equally important for employees to see that leaders “have their back” when protocols aren’t followed by customers or others in the organization, as that adherence to safety is evidence of an organization committed to its people.

3. Navigating Uncertainty

The uncertainty we faced at the beginning of the year is clearly lingering longer than leaders anticipated. In one recent survey, leaders said they didn’t expect to get back to pre-COVID levels of performance until at least 2022.

While some industries were immediately hit hard, others might have skirted along without impact at first and are now feeling the effects. Some businesses might have bounced back already, while others will be battling a downturn for several more months or years. Regardless of the scenario, people can’t give their best when they’re worried about what’s going to happen to their job.

One suggestion is to give your people a new starting line. People tend to fixate on what they lose – salary, bonuses, their 401(k) – and this is wasted energy that prohibits them from moving forward. Leaders need to help their people focus energy on the “new normal.” Helping people understand that you’re starting over (together) under new conditions that have been strategically designed to lead to success can change mindsets significantly. As always, be transparent on where you are as a business and acknowledge shifts – and the revised plan – as soon as they happen.

4. Upskilling and Reskilling Workers

A recent Gartner survey of HR leaders highlighted that the pandemic has worsened the reskilling challenge. Keeping pace with the growing depth of skills that people need to do their jobs was challenging before COVID. Since the pandemic, the number of new skills people need to be successful at work has grown even more. Added to the challenge of a scattered workforce and the inability to bring together large groups in person safely, building workers’ skills is definitely a headache for L&D leaders.

The good news: A veritable banquet of new virtual capabilities to facilitate knowledge transfer and skill building has emerged. When you couple great content with interactive, engaging, and dynamic virtual experiences, learning can be as good as or better than in-person workshops or training. Plus, because they’re virtual, these new experiences can offer:

  • Accelerated change because of quicker deployments
  • A financial savings (no travel means less cost)
  • Bite-size deployment – shorter sessions mean less time off shifts and greater flexibility for schedules and processing of information

5. Communication

When it comes to communication between leadership and the masses, things have certainly changed. Managers and leadership team members used to be able to check in with their people simply by walking the halls or popping into meetings. But with much of the world working from home these days, impromptu check-ins just aren’t in the cards.

The good news: As you head into 2021 and you’re trying to articulate the strategy for the year and how that impacts everyone in the company, you have a lot more options (and opportunities) for how you engage your people in that conversation. If you haven’t been able to bring people together in the past for big strategy rollouts, you can do that now from the comfort of your home or office.

Leaders need to up the ante when it comes to communication and likely are spending more time than ever to ensure they are connecting with their people on a regular basis. Whether it’s quarterly or monthly company updates, standing Zoom or Webex meetings, bi-weekly phone chats, spur-of-the-moment texts, ongoing Slack conversations, or something unique to your organization, leaders (at all levels) must do more to foster the relationships that help employees feel connected and invested in their work.

Don’t give up on basic emails either. Sometimes a quick note is the most effective way to say thanks or to check in. The bottom line is that leaders must step out of their old ways to create the meaningful connections that were likely much easier to establish when most of the company was housed in one building. And most importantly, these communications need to be conversations, not one-way tells. Because let’s face it, dialogue is the oxygen of change.

6. Remote Culture

The new work-from-home style of business has turned workplace culture upside down. No more lunch and learns. No more monthly birthday celebrations. No more spur-of-the-moment group brainstorms, and certainly no office shenanigans. So, what can leaders do to ensure the organization’s culture continues despite the lack of in-person work environments?

  • Celebrate your values. There is no reason you can’t continue to celebrate the things that make your organization special. Create a Microsoft Teams recognition channel. Build a webpage where leaders and managers can call out those who are walking the walk and talking the talk. Use your all-company meetings to give opportunities to celebrate and share cultural milestones or values.
  • Make process shifts transparent and obvious. Part of what makes your organization unique is how you do the things you do. You’ve likely had to make shifts over the last seven months, so making sure those changes are acknowledged ensures that people from home understand exactly what might be changing, why it’s changing, and how it changes how you do business.
  • Set up regular connects.They can be just 15 minutes with your team every other day, and they don’t have to be a heavy lift. Plus, you should already be connecting with your direct reports on the regular. Don’t forget to turn on video cameras occasionally if you’re not face-to-face.
  • Call. Cookie bouquets.Whatever your mode of communication is, leaders must take time each week to reach out to those people they used to run into in the hallway to ask how they and their family are doing. Don’t forget to go beyond your core team members and make an effort to connect with those you would only bump into at the coffee machine.
  • Get outside.There’s nothing to say you can’t gather a few of your colleagues at a park and go for a walk and catch up (even better than that stale hallway air). Managers might want to make an outdoor meeting a regular on their team’s calendars.
  • Over share, over share, over share. People always perform better when they can see the big picture and have all the information. Even if it doesn’t pertain to their day-to-day tasks, you might be surprised at the connections they’re able to make that you weren’t even aware of.

7. Employee Experience

Any leader who thinks the customer is the secret to their success is incorrect. It’s all about the employee. In fact, the customer experience can never supersede the employee experience. If your organization struggles with this, solving the issue isn’t insurmountable, and there are a few key actions leaders can take to start ensuring the EX is never overshadowed by the CX.

  • Employees, team members, and associates are customers of organizational strategy. And organizational learning execution speed is not determined by the speed of the brightest individuals, but by the average speed of the entire organization.
  • People will tolerate the directives of leadership, but they will ultimately act on their own. This means no leader can dictate, sell, or cajole people to accept change. Leaders must set the stage for people to build a bridge and cross it. Leaders must allow people to go on a journey of discovery and draw their own conclusions about critical business issues. Only when people change their conclusions will they change their actions.
  • Everyone in the organization must see and understand the big picture. They must understand the “why” behind the strategy or change. If they are only informed on what they must do, and not the reasons behind it, the business will not be set up for success.
  • Your people operating on the front lines or in the back office have great ideas – because they’re living it every day. Make sure to create a feedback loop that lets them share ideas on how to continually improve how they operate and how they can serve your customers.

Employees aren’t just warm bodies; they are the heartbeat of your organization and they need to feel comfortable with all the whys and hows. Don’t leave them in the dark. Keep them informed and make sure the employee experience is a core organizational value by keeping the tips above top of mind.

Evolving Your Challenges into Opportunities

As we prepare to enter a new year, we have to understand that the changes faced in 2020 aren’t behind us; we’re still working through them. If this past year has taught the world anything, it’s that the unexpected is possible and leaders must be ready to shift and evolve key strategies to keep employees, customers, and all other stakeholders happy, motivated, and focused on the big picture. Companies that can turn distractions into opportunities will be the ones to remain standing in the end. And that’s the ultimate goal.

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