2020 has been a pretty horrible year and doesn’t look to be improving quickly. So instead of giving you sleepless nights and horror stories this Halloween it made more sense to see if we can exorcise your current HR demons!
Right now, many organisations are in a state of flux with their workforce. Many have had to reduce headcount through redundancies. Some have returned to the office, some are working from home, some are doing a bit of everything! There is no right or wrong answer. But, the big issue is that managing employee experience has changed and HR needs to be a step ahead of this.
The new rules, the organisational changes within the workplace, and the way business is now done are rational and have safety at the heart of them. In many cases, the rhetoric of telling staff how and where they should work is merely following government guidelines. But these sweeping changes can have a huge impact on an employee’s everyday life – and not all of them good.
The biggest problem is when an employee doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with the changes being made. They have a sense that the changes are being done “to them” not “for them” and certainly not “with them”. That has a disastrous impact on staff morale and can also lead to staff not making the behavioural changes requested in the first place.
What is Giving You Sleepless Nights?
So – the first question to ask is what are the problems right now? HR took the brunt of the questions when Covid-19 hit. In part – because no one actually knew where else to turn! That was 8 months ago though. The challenges right now are different to then, they have emerged over the previous months and now need to be tackled.
Communication, inclusion, performance, cultural dilution, departmental isolation, leadership issues, lack of empathy….all of the above? You are not alone. Almost every organisation in the developed world that has been touched by coronavirus has at least some of these issues to tackle. If they say they don’t, I put it to you they are clinically dead.
A recent study by Mind Gym revealed that:
- One-third of the UK workforce feel less motivated and have been less productive whilst working from home during lockdown.
- One in five UK workers doesn’t know what is going on day-to-day in their wider team.
- Two-thirds of UK workers claim their manager has made things worse or had no impact on their performance during lockdown.
Ok….I’d love to know what these UK workers thought of their manager before lockdown and maybe it has always been the case that one in five workers have no idea what happened within the wider team, but now they have an excuse for their ignorance!
Do not over-react though! Like always…different staff have different issues. These issues are all manageable. Hell, from an HR point of view you may even be able to say they are new and exciting problems to have!
Maybe your issues are more visible? Many of us have returned to the office. In many cases, those offices were designed to be as attractive as home. Open-plan offices with an array of fruit bowls and donuts. Modern kitchen facilities, sofas and crash out areas for creative discussions…created to instill a sense of community and collaboration – and reduce the eagerness to run home at the end of each day.
Yep – those days have gone. The office now needs to be a more “sterile” environment and employee behaviour within it needs to change to achieve this.
Nudge Theory Explained
It is not new, it is a concept first used in 1995 and then made famous by the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Since then it has been used in multiple facets of daily life by businesses and governments alike.
The idea of nudge theory is that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence and change our behaviour for the better. For example; if you are in a car or on a bike on the road and sat behind a lorry, it is not uncommon to see a sign saying “…If You Can’t See My Mirrors, I Can’t See You…” The immediate result is you change your behaviour for the better and ensure you can see the mirrors on the lorry. That is a nudge.
Nudges can be slightly more subtle and, in some cases, play to our subconscious. So, arrows on the floor of a shop pointing in a direction they would like you to walk are a classic nudge technique. You have free will, you do not have to follow them, you do not have to buy the product at the end of your destination…and yet many of us do.
So – why do we actually need to be nudged? Well at the heart of the matter is that human beings are irrational. Our brains are wired to take viable shortcuts. Our behaviour is made quickly, reactively and impulsively to the stimuli presented. It is how we have evolved and it is an energy-efficient and natural way to think….it just doesn’t always benefit everyone or everything in the bigger picture of life – or work.
Nudges Within The Office
I’m guessing many of you will have actually prepared the office for the return of employees. In many cases, the office will already have a skeleton staff in place. Floor plans will have been examined, maybe workstations have been removed to allow social distancing? Perspex screens installed between those workstations?
In some cases you may have put signs up around the office reminding employees to maintain social distancing and to wear a mask when appropriate, maybe you have hand sanitiser stations in place….but how do you encourage workers to stick to the rules?
Well, nudge theory in this scenario is a good tactic to use. Visual cues like arrows and reminders can encourage positive decisions. Maybe (if your company culture allows) you can use regular, informal messaging to highlight key requirements and make it feel more “fun” than simply a requirement. By this I’m talking about things such as sharing socially distanced team photos and the like.
Rather than stopping team meetings encourage them, but with guidance. So, the meeting room that used to sit ten employees now only sits four. Communicate that. Put a sign on the door that says “Hello, I’m a meeting room that now has a capacity for no more than four people – please respect that.”
Maybe you can introduce some gamification to encourage employee participation. Points on a leaderboard with prizes at stake for those recognised to be following the rules.
Of course, the big thing is to explain to employees where the rules are derived from. It could be government guidance – or even better in conjunction with staff. Regardless though – communicating will help obtain buy-in.
Fun, home-from-home offices are currently going through a culture shock – therefore nudge theory could be used to help staff understand why and how these changes are being made “for them” and not “to them”.
Nudges with Remote Workers
For nudge theory to really work it has to be used in the context of the company culture – there is not a one list fits all approach. This therefore brings about a key problem for many. Remote working, managing behaviour within that framework is probably not straightforward because you (and everyone else) are trying to come to terms with it in the first place. However….do not panic, there are still some common principles that could probably fit with your organisational goals.
Let’s take a look at a couple of issues such as productivity and leadership.
According to the survey results above, employees admit their productivity has dropped and line managers have not been able to turn the tide. So – what do you do?
Well, you can begin by creating coaching conversations between managers and their direct reports. And to make these happen – they can easily be scheduled through online diaries and technology with reminders that pop up on screen so the conversations are not missed. They can also be made as recurrent events.
If the whole organisation can embrace this from the very top downwards it will become a socially accepted activity. The coaching conversations should be seen as regular check-ins between manager and employee with the view of helping an employee achieve their goals. Constructive feedback and praise can be provided as well as feedback “in the moment” as to how valuable this work is.
Coaching conversations may improve productivity, but what about the leadership how do you improve this? Well, the message passed down the coaching conversations (from the very top) needs to be focused. You could ask for it to be explained about how important it is for managers to engage in coaching conversations with employees as it improves them as a leader and creates career progression….or you talk about the advancement and achievements they lose by not improving their leadership.
You see as humans we are actually much more motivated about not losing than we are about winning. Losing £50 is a more powerful emotion than winning £50. It should be emotionally equal, but it is not. We hold on to negatives more than positives. Therefore, use that with line managers.
To improve things further you can then look at creating online meetings between managers to discuss how these coaching conversations with employees are progressing. Suddenly, the coaches are potentially coaching each other. Again, to make it happen you need to rely on technology and online diaries that give the visual clues and directions.
Is It All Nudging?
Well – no! The example used about how we are motivated more by not losing rather than winning is not really a nudge. It lacks the essence of transparency in my humble opinion. It has it’s place, it can work, but it highlights to me how nudge theory is one element within the bigger picture of behavioural psychology – and that statement shows that nudge theory alone only goes so far.
At a granular level, we can all and probably already do use nudges with work to help employees behave as we want. But…do we actually implement and evaluate them properly? You might have neon flashing lights pointing at the hand sanitizer machines now in the office….but did it actually work?
It is not lost on me that one of the most searched terms on the Personnel Today website is nudge theory. Many can be looking to it as a means of creating positive behaviour. In many cases it could work and organisations across the globe have implemented it with varying degrees of success. But, I think to jump on the nudge theory bandwagon believing it is the answer to everything is blinkered.
Therefore, stop the psychoanalysis right now, look at the bigger picture and think through what the logical solutions are. Covid-19 has created some fresh challenges for us all. Nudge theory offers clues to solving them – but not the complete solution.
Oh – and a final word of warning…despite your good intentions, some employees will see nudge theory as intrusive and possibly patronising. Easy behavioural wins suddenly backfire and an ethical debate breaks out. Then you have a full-blown horror story to deal with.
So, don’t have nightmares this Halloween. It is an incredibly challenging time and organisations face a raft of new challenges. At the heart of the matter is the knowledge that a happy workforce is a productive workforce. Nudge theory is an option to consider in driving some changes, but maybe it is easier to implement within the office with things such as social distancing than in tackling some of the issues with remote workers.
I believe organisations will be better positioned to tackle issues if they hold on to the mantra of a remote-first mindset. Just because the team is out of sight, do not let them feel they have become out of mind.
About The Author
Simon Royston is the founder and Managing Director of The Recruitment Lab (A recruitment agency with offices in Aldershot and Brighton that offers employment services across Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and beyond). Simon lives in Guildford and has worked in Recruitment for over a decade. He has a degree and a master’s in psychology as well as a diploma in Human Resource Management. If you would like to know more about anything written in this blog or would simply like to express your own thoughts and opinions do not hesitate to contact Simon through The Recruitment Lab website.