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Why employee belonging is vital for agile digital-centric organisations

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with a great opportunity to hit the reset button and transform the way we work and learn. But without creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety among employees, organisations will struggle to build a successfully agile, digital future.

16th Sep 2020
MD Nigel Paine.Com
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There is an excellent article, based on research conducted by Lee Walker from Hult Ashridge Business School, which looks at the conditions that create a sense of belonging, and those that do the opposite.

The research is based on the detailed analysis of in-depth interviews with a small number of working professionals, based in the UK, from diverse backgrounds. The group includes male and female participants whose ages range from their late 20s to early 60s, with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience in middle to senior management roles.

What she discovered is fascinating, as it confirms a lot of our assumptions about how people are motivated and what makes them perform in the workplace. In light of our direct experience of the major disruption to our working lives in the last few months, and the likelihood that we will all be reintegrated into more familiar surroundings soon, it is well worth refreshing our understanding of what makes work, work!

If our lives will return to some semblance of what we once thought of as normality, then we should build back better and not recreate the same environment that we left in April. Or as McKinsey aptly put it in a recent paper ‘How Six Companies are Using Technology and Data to Transform Themselves’:

The COVID-19 pandemic is a full-stop on business as usual and a launching pad for organizations to become virtual, digital-centric, and agile—and to do it all at lightning-fast speed.

Essentially, Dr Walker’s research offers a blueprint for that “full-stop on business as usual”.  She revealed that a sense of belonging at work is related to a handful of factors. The first is related to having quality relationships at work. The second is feeling that you're making your own contribution, and that you are adding tangible value to the organisation or to your team. 

The third is a sense of being valued and appreciated by your team and the organisation as a whole. The final conclusion is that staff need to operate in an environment that is psychologically safe and supportive.

Why belonging is key for agile organisations

These are the base-line components for building an agile digital-centric organisation, because all of those transformations require the active participation of the workforce. And that will not happen if they are not engaged and feel no sense of belonging. 

Where these conditions do not exist: i.e. where there are no quality relationships; you feel you are not adding any value, don't belong to the team and are psychologically vulnerable in the workplace, your performance drops, and you are more likely to be stressed and unhappy and will not transform your organisatIon. In fact, you are more likely to leave your employer at the first opportunity than help to build an exciting, agile future.

If you want to get the best out of your people, then you need to pay attention to those four conditions. Moving back into a semi, or full-time office environment gives everyone a unique opportunity to build back better not just slip into making the same old mistakes.

There is a unique opportunity unfolding that will allow a genuine leap forward and a remaking of work that is more productive, human-centred and empowering.

Taking a fresh approach to underperformance

We now have a great opportunity to transform our performance, and create great teams delivering higher productivity and happier workplaces. It is a unique moment. Yet, in spite of the research message, there are underperforming teams everywhere we look. 

Our solution for underperformance, has always been to blame the individual and try to fix the issue by punishing that person, or if that fails, ease that person out of the organisation. Yet, none of the criteria identified by Lee Walker are focused on the actions of a lone operator. The world she explores is more about teams, and the culture in which they can excel.

There are many lessons to be learned from this robust and interesting piece of research, especially as most organisations are beginning to raise their eyes to look beyond the current crisis and stagnation. We are close to the point where we stop worrying exclusively about managing the present, and we begin to focus a little bit more on building for the future. Coming back better, in every sense of the word, is on our agenda at last!

Lee Walker’s research indicates five crucial areas to pay attention to...

1. Management versus empowerment

Organisations need to take a long, hard look at the balance between management and enablement in order to create a sense of belonging and purpose for their staff. In lockdown, work teams rallied and built strong communities that were self-sustaining because they had to be.

The best workplaces created empowered teams that were encouraged to experiment and innovate rather than wait to be told what to do. They had the courage to dump the standard operating procedures when it was clear that they did not work. Retain as much of that spirit of empowerment as possible.

2. Team bonding

Having high functioning teams made a measurable difference to the speed and success of adapting to a new operating world. The trick was to build in space and time for groups to bond and get to know each other well, but also time for different teams to align across the organisation.

If good, strong work-based relationships were encouraged and given space to develop across the whole organisation, decisions could be taken faster, knowledge shared more readily, and problems solved much more quickly.

3. Learning culture

A learning culture offers the right environment for problem solving and agility. There was a lot to take in during lockdown, and the faster organisations learned the faster they adapted.

This was a conclusion from my last book on Workplace Learning and it was validated time and time again by countless companies.

Learning is one of the critical differences between successful and failure. Those that coped best and adapted fastest to the restrictions caused by the pandemic were the learners not the ‘know it alls’.

4. A common purpose

Connect everyone to a single, common purpose. That alignment and mission drove teams forward and built a sense of urgency and a desire to succeed. Coupled with the other imperatives: the drive to achieve, access to resources, expertise and problem solving across the organisation, purpose was what got people up in the morning.

5. Psychological safety

Think hard about psychological safety. Often under lockdown, people felt empowered to make decisions that they would not have been able to make in more normal circumstances. They felt safer admitting weaknesses and a knowledge or skills gap. That openness encouraged others to share and ask for help when they needed it.

Reflection is key to coming back stronger

These five characteristics are the building blocks for creating a new reality and new ways of working effectively in order to survive.  Some people spoke of feeling alive and engaged and hugely motivated. Ignore why this happened, and what changed to allow it to happen and you could set your own organisation further back than it was at the beginning of the crisis.

If you want to sustain that sense of purpose or achievement when people are no longer locked down, then make sure you share the war stories. Gather the evidence of what changed; bottle the distilled essence and bring it into the mainstream culture.

Ask your people to share what worked for them. What were the highlights? How did they manage to come up with brilliant ideas that got around the, apparently, insurmountable obstacles? Bring these insights back into your organisation, celebrate their achievement and embed the lessons. It is essential that you do not let the last six months evaporate without trace.

There is a unique opportunity unfolding that will allow a genuine leap forward and a remaking of work that is more productive, human-centred and empowering. Try to come back refreshed and energised, not a pale shadow of what went before.

If you want to be agile, digital and virtual, look after your people first. That is both the challenge, and the opportunity.

 

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