If there are two things that define 2020 it would be change and uncertainty. Facing into the challenges of COVID-19, and the need to accommodate and adapt to a whole new approach to work and life, has been unprecedented for most of us.

With this immense and sudden change arises a range of significant challenges and risks that are only just beginning to emerge on the horizon. Key amongst these is the people and culture dimension of organizations. With our new mixed ways of working come a range of novel interpersonal dynamics and psychological job demands for people to navigate. The sustained disruption of COVID-19 has necessitated the development of new habits, and people have found their new normal, but is this sustainable? And what are the psychosocial risks emerging in our Work From Home, Live From Work, mixed ways of working?

We know that work is a determinant of mental health, and if managed poorly, work stress can become a significant trigger for mental health problems. But the factors that contribute to work stress in the current environment have never been more diverse and differentiated. One thing that we know for sure is that the current environment lends itself to incredible variation in peoples’ experience of work.

With the erosion of work-life boundaries and the increased work and home demands, burnout and overwork risks are becoming more pronounced. Add to this, less visibility over workloads, less informal feedback and the conflation of work and home factors, and the fact that many roles themselves don’t suit remote and mixed work environments it is easy to see why many people are feeling depleted.

Morale related risks have also been elevated. This comes with the challenges of a reduced sense of shared identity and shared understanding among new starters. It is also evident in existing teams where social structures and psychological contracts with work and sometimes job roles have changed. And what about those working so hard for so long, but with reduced access to variable reward payments or being asked to take a financial hit for the team? Appropriate reward and recognition, and not just financial, play an important role when it comes to maintaining morale.  

Incivility risks are also evident as people operate in low feedback and mixed non-verbal cue environments, while dealing with elevated and cumulative levels of stress. The potential for accidental escalations with stakeholders, customers and peers, subtle exclusion, and misinterpretation due to isolation, are all very real possibilities, compounded by the psychological impact of ongoing uncertainty.  Stress itself can influence the way we behave, and how we process information, and for many of us, our usual tolerance bandwidth has narrowed considerably.

There is also significant risk associated with ‘conduct creep’ as people find ‘work arounds’ for technology, processes and systems that were never designed for our mixed, remote and ever-changing ways of work. Ethical fading is also becoming a factor as people experience increased pressure to deliver while navigating uncertainty and cumulative stress and in environments that are largely divorced from reminders of organizational best practice, corporate values, and oversighting.  

What levers do leaders have at their disposal to respond these new and emerging risks? What are the capabilities we need to focus on in order to navigate 2021 and beyond?

Cultivating a culture where people feel they can respectfully and safely raise concerns, share ideas, and show vulnerability is going to be critical moving forward. Psychological safety underpins creativity, innovation, and a positive workplace experience, and also provides an important tool for risk management, yet low-cue online interactions and a dislocated workforce is making this harder to achieve.

One lever is to focus on building interpersonal capabilities within the team. Robust interpersonal relationships and a flourishing organizational culture turn on the capability for assertive, respectful, and open communication. Effective risk management, innovation and problem solving depends on the ability to interrogate and openly report issues of organizational significance. Yet, few people have the skills, and even less so the confidence, to step into challenging conversations – especially in our new virtual and mixed ways of work. This means that people often may not feel heard, that inappropriate behaviour can go unaddressed, and that decision-making may be unduly influenced by the status quo or a limited number of viewpoints.

Providing staff with effective and practical communication strategies, the self-awareness to manage difficult issues and interactions, and key emotional and interpersonal competencies, underpins a robust team culture capable of navigating uncertainty and constant change. It is through building these capabilities that leaders can ensure their teams develop the kind of shared identity, shared understanding, and ownership and that will not only mitigate the risks of 2021 and beyond but will build innovation and performance in an increasingly competitive environment.

If you are interested to learn how the fields of social and organizational psychology and behavioral ethics can offer considerable insight and opportunity for mitigating conduct risk, relational risk or job demand risk elevated by our current COVID-19 world and new ways of work, please contact david@psysafe.com.au or brock@psysafe.com.au (see www.psysafe.com.au for more details)

David Burroughs

WORKPLACE PSYCHOLOGIST

David Burroughs is a workplace psychologist who has spent the last decade and half working with major organisations, both in Australia and abroad, in the area of workplace mental health.

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