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From lockdown to reopening: Anxieties continue shaping the employee experience

Findings from global research and lessons for leadership

Employee Insights|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Patrick Kulesa | September 2020

Reopening jitters among employees are real, but there are the three key tactics leaders can apply to better support their people.

Reopening. The very word provokes anxiety. Much of the world is taking concrete steps to restart economies following months of lockdowns that have crippled global GDP growth and pushed many large economies into recession. But as coronavirus case counts continue to grow globally, are workers ready, willing and able to be part of a reopening process fraught with risk and the potential for a return to lockdown? How can leaders support such a monumental transition and manage its uncertainties?

When COVID-19 became a truly global crisis in mid-March, we launched our COVID-19 Pulse Survey. Once we reached our first 100,000 responses, we took a slice of data as a global representative sample and summarized our findings. Today, we have deeper insights into the experiences of more than 500,000 workers globally from the beginning of global lockdowns in mid-March through July. What major themes emerge from this window into the global workforce?

Reopening jitters are real

New to our results are several telling findings about the state of worker mindsets as reopening plans loom or are put in place.

73%
prefer to continue working from home and not return to office locations

Specifically, only 33% of respondents are fully confident their company office locations are clean and that working from them is not a threat to health and safety. Not surprisingly, 73% prefer to continue working from home rather than return to office locations; only 12% express being ready to return to office locations.

In addition, just 30% express full confidence that commuting to work is safe. The answer is clearly "not yet" to the question of whether employees have full trust that all necessary measures are or can be in place to protect the health of those returning to physical office locations.

Employees continue to feel the heat

Consistent with that sense of unease, a recurring result in recent months is that employees are feeling high anxiety levels driven by the coronavirus and significant work distraction. Additionally, financial worries are increasing as government support in many parts of the world is expiring — and may not return at all or to the same levels.

Trends in employee concern (e.g. anxiety, distraction and financial worry) by month, substantial worries remain in July
Trends in employee concern by month: Substantial worries remain in July

Source: Willis Towers Watson Employee Opinion Norm Database

Anxiety – Results from the July Pulse Survey indicate that 83% of those surveyed have some anxiety from the COVID-19 crisis, with 46% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety. Those results are slightly down from March, when 92% reported some anxiety and 55% indicated anxiety to at least a moderate extent.

In analyses we conducted predicting the extent of anxiety from all other survey questions, the top drivers of anxiety are workers' abilities to cope with stress from the pandemic and their perception of how well their colleagues are managing the crisis. Consistent with enduring anxieties across 2020, reports of coping have hardly changed. In March, as the global crisis began, 39% agreed fully that their colleagues were coping well with stress. That result has declined to 35% today. The March sentiment that employees themselves were finding ways to cope, 57% fully agreed then, is unchanged through July.

Distraction – With an historic health crisis came distraction from work. As the lockdowns turned global, 70% of employee participants reported at least some distraction from work due to coronavirus concerns, with 26% indicating a moderate or high degree of distraction. This pattern has improved just slightly. In the July results, 66% reported some level of distraction, with 21% saying they are distracted to a moderate extent or worse.

Distraction levels may not be deeper due to the steadying influence of work team connections. When we study the experiences at work that are most likely to predict distraction, we consistently find high-quality team relationships to be a top driver of less distraction. Importantly, workers report nearly the same level of connection to work teams in the July results (90%) as when the global crisis began (91%).

Financial – A gradually worsening trend over the course of recent months is increased financial concern. In the July results, 77% of respondents report some degree of financial concern from the coronavirus, a nearly 20 percentage-point gain from when the crisis began (61%), and 51% indicate a moderate or high extent of worry, more than double the rate from March (25%). Emergency government aid, some of it direct to workers, has cushioned the shock from lockdowns, furloughs and job losses, but with those forms of support expiring in many countries, and in some cases unlikely to return, the insecurity even among current workers is palpable.

Though economic factors external to employer efforts certainly impact financial worries, our work identifies some concrete ways companies can lessen financial concern. Specifically, financial anxieties are mitigated as employees gain confidence in leadership's ability to manage the crisis and when worker productivity is better supported.

Implications for leaders: Lean into what workers report as your strengths

Given reopening worries, combined with deepening financial concerns and ongoing levels of anxiety and work distraction, what can leaders do at this point in the crisis? Is there a blueprint for action? The silver lining in our findings since the beginning of the global pandemic has been the well of deep, positive regard workers show for leadership. As we examine findings across the year, this positive regard can be summarized in three tactics leaders can apply now to better support their people.

Be crisis-savvy. Respondents are giving leaders high marks for steering companies through an unprecedented crisis. Leaders can apply numerous solutions to continue communicating their plans, especially for reopening, and building confidence in their abilities. High marks include ratings of effectiveness in:

  • Ensuring employees know what to do when they experience health and safety concerns (93%)
  • Keeping employees informed about important matters (92%)
  • Building confidence in leaders' responses to business challenges (91%)
  • Adapting work procedures to sustain or improve productivity (90%)

Maintain worker focus. Respondents have consistently reported clarity in work objectives and confidence in responding to shifting business challenges. The ability to understand immediate-term goals and not yield to the anxieties looming on the horizon are part of the equation for maintaining productivity. High marks in this area across the crisis period include:

  • A clear sense of personal job responsibilities (96%)
  • Continual team focus on key work objectives (95%)
  • Line-of-sight into how work is impacting customers (95%)
  • Clarity regarding where the work team should be focused now (91%)

Don't overlook basic supports. Workers are also giving employers high marks for continuing to provide necessary resources and clarity in company policies. Staying close to the basics needed to get work done is easy to overlook in reopening plans. Strong effectiveness ratings are apparent for a range of such basics:

  • Policies regarding travel and in-person meetings are appropriate (90%)
  • Receiving the support needed at this time (90%)
  • Access to the tools and resources needed to work effectively from home (90%)
  • Manager shows concern for employee wellbeing (90%)

Combatting worker distress

Our results from this ongoing look at the global workforce in crisis confirm that employee concerns continue to be real and persistent, even as economic policies pivot to reopening and restarting the engines of global growth. As distress endures, so too does the strong goodwill workers report about their leaders, presenting a concrete opportunity for employers to support their people.

The global economy will not rebound without a confident, focused workforce prepared to devote its attention to productive, excellent delivery. Achieving that goal calls on a leadership cadre that understands how to use its strengths to drive effective employee behaviors. The necessary management muscles are already in evidence, and the required tactics span levels of leadership and corporate functions, including:

  • Senior leadership attention to communicating performance results, adapting work approaches, and sharing honest stories about setbacks, lessons learned and future plans.
  • Line manager focus on team connections and clarity of immediate objectives, plus providing the tools, resources and empathy to support directed effort.
  • Human resource leaders working with businesses to structure work and reopenings appropriately, deliver clear messages and support employee coping via employer-provided benefits and other means.

Accelerating recovery will mean earning workers' trust that something even slightly resembling "business as usual" is once again possible. Some companies are already envisioning that "new north" of a workforce delivering on another level. Respondents are starting to see such a new world taking shape:

  • 83% report companies recognize the best efforts of colleagues and teams through the pandemic
  • 78% see a clear future vision
  • 69% are working smarter and faster
  • 64% indicate they are connecting in work teams more effectively than ever before

To realize that moment when reopening is met with enthusiasm over skepticism, employers need strategies that drive a deeper level of employee experience and build on the goodwill required to overcome global anxiety and once again drive worldwide prosperity.

Author

Senior Research Director

Patrick Kulesa, Ph.D., is a member of the advanced analytics group within Willis Towers Watson’s Research & Innovation Center. He oversees a group that manages Willis Towers Watson’s database of benchmarks on employee opinion, leading a team of data analysts in the U.S., Europe, and Asia Pacific.

He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Northwestern University and over 20 years of consulting experience. Patrick’s research has been published in trade industry and academic outlets, and is featured at major psychological, human resource, and industry conferences.


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