Avik Chanda

The country is bracing itself for a period of extended total lockdown in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, business leaders are coping with freshly worrying realizations. The lockdown may be lifted within a few weeks but there’s no denying that we have now entered an unchartered new paradigm, where ‘surviving against odds’ becomes the new norm. The overall economic impact of the outbreak will overshadow operations for years to come. But while companies grapple with survival and customer retention, even as stress and burnout, job insecurity, retrenchment, downsizing, emotional and psychological trauma assume centre-stage, it’s increasingly clear that recovery and turnarounds too, will have to be accelerated, post the immediate crisis. And with it, the realization that the right time to prepare for recovery is now.

It is imperative for employers to understand, and for HR leaders to impress upon them, that the old command-centre constructs of management of efficiency can hardly be expected to succeed, when everything else around us has changed irrevocably. A strategy of “cost-cutting, rationalizing, doing more with less” will not be effective, with a workforce that is incessantly anxious about job security, demoralized about career and business prospects, and depressed about life in general. Going forward, the employer-employee relationship has to be far more close-knit, dyadic, symbiotic. Needless to say, employees must embrace all the opportunities that can help make the most of unstable situations. But employers and managers have an equal responsibility in design the organization, business operations, job roles and responsibilities in a manner that enables employees to do meaningful work, while remaining positive psychologically. More than ever, therefore, alongside technology and process innovations, an investment in employee well-being needs to underscore business turnaround strategies.

Given the current circumstances, however, there would be a trade-off between the benefits of well-being and operational expediency. Let us delve into this, with regard to two major frameworks in applied psychology. First, the Demand/ Control Model. Research shows that workers with “active” jobs – characterized by a heathy balance of demand for skills and competencies, and the level of control an employee has over the tasks – are more likely to effect better coping strategies, in an environment of uncertainty and stress. On the other hand, a “relaxed” job, which entails low demands and higher level of control, does not provide employees with such intrinsic motivation. Likewise, “high strain” jobs that involve high demands and low control, are likely to overwhelm employees and encourage a form of helplessness that can undermine employees’ sense of mastery over their jobs, and dissuade them from optimizing current skills or developing new ones. Finally, a “passive” job, which combine low demands on skills with low control over tasks, does not encourage skill development and instead, can result in employee helplessness.

The evidence is that higher levels of job control are associated with increases in job satisfaction and decreased depression, whereas higher demands of skills and competencies, independent of adequate control tend to be correlated with increased anxiety. In the COVID paradigm, while employers will be hard pressed to get businesses back on the road, it’s unlikely that curating “active” jobs will be top on their list. Amid cost-cutting efforts, “relaxed” as well as “passive” jobs will almost certainly get loaded with additional tasks, which, while increasing demand for deliverables, won’t necessarily come with an accompanying leeway of control. In times of crisis, the shift will likely to be towards “high strain” jobs, leading to higher levels of stress and anxiety in the workforce, in turn adversely affecting productivity.

Next, consider the Role Based Model, which relates to the three characteristics that describe the employee’s experience of work: role load, role clarity and role agreement. In this context, research indicates that having sufficient information and predictability in one’s work (role clarity), restricted sets of demands and expectations (role agreement), and work that is challenging yet manageable (role load) can affect employee morale and job-related well-being.

With regard to the first of these characteristics, there’s a clear correlation between appropriate workload to and physical health, positive mood and well-being. However, given that an increasing number of jobs in the future will tend to be “active-high-strain” ones, how can roles be designed, for optimal effectiveness? Role load, translating directly into workload is likely to increase substantially, first, since downsizing will come into effect, as part of business recovery, and second, since many businesses will be in a frenzy of activity, to make good their losses. Should workload be increased across the board, or only for some departments? Within a department, how would employers identify those who have a higher learning curve, greater intrinsic resilience as well as perseverance, to complete tasks that are taken on? This is where accurate, comprehensive and personalized profiling of employees becomes critical, which then informs the allocation of work.

In a business-as-usual scenario, agreement entails a negotiation between employers and employees, where additional, more demanding or complex tasks are squared off against increased pay, position and other benefits. In a post-COVID scenario, however, where sustaining jobs becomes the primary imperative, the negotiation power of employees will be severely restricted, at least for some time. Agreements will consequently tend to take the form of unilateral communications from the management. Even so, there’s scope for better productivity and employee well-being, by focusing on role clarity. Studies show that job satisfaction and organizational commitment are consistently positively related to role clarity, along with reduction in lack of anxiety and better employee well-being. Key to the success of business recovery is the renewal of trust between employers and employees – therefore, transparency in communication, role clarity, and individualized work allocation are aspects that business leaders need to focus on.

Avik Chanda is a business advisor, researcher, columnist and entrepreneur. He is the author of “From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption”.

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