Opinion: 5 tips for leading teams through pandemic fatigue
2020 was, in many ways, marked by action. The pandemic and the resulting economic crisis and widespread social unrest led to an adrenaline-fuelled response on both a personal and business level. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, teams pulled together with a fighting spirit to adapt and survive in the ‘new normal’.
However, as we entered 2021 and a new lockdown, the high-energy spirit has faded and pandemic fatigue has set in. Employment remains virtual and the boundaries between work and home life continue to blur. We are seeing stress-levels rise and disillusionment grow as we rely on personal resilience to survive the isolation.
For business leaders, this is a difficult time to be at the helm. How can we ensure our teams are physically and emotionally supported through the extended vacuum of COVID-19, while maintaining productivity levels in a still unstable climate?
1. Create a collaboration ecosystem
‘Videoconferencing fatigue’ is sweeping businesses almost as quickly as pandemic fatigue. Many well-intentioned employee wellness initiatives are based around video calls; unfortunately, research has shown that their traditional ‘box grid’ layout tires our brains and drains energy. Leaders are looking for alternative ways to encourage collaboration across teams that take a different format, and innovative technology companies are already developing solutions to meet this need.
New videoconferencing platforms based on VR and AR create simulated environments for users to meet, communicate and interact in a more natural setting. Similarly, virtual connection-building tools (or internal talent marketplaces) can encourage contacts between individuals and teams, make personalised recommendations to link employees with like-minded colleagues or mentors, and support onboarding processes by connecting new hires with their team.
2. Empower your teams
Team empowerment is in many ways more critical than ever. Research has demonstrated that psychological empowerment is in turn positively associated with a broad range of employee outcomes. This includes job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and task and contextual performance, and is negatively associated with employee strain and turnover intentions.
By stripping out unnecessary bureaucracy and encouraging people to make faster decisions amid uncertainty, leaders can provide this purpose and help to prevent long-term stagnation. The agile methodology, with its focus on empowered frontline teams and clear outputs, lends itself perfectly to this. We are seeing many of our clients implement some of the core agile principles, defining outcomes, then letting teams chart their own path toward them, thereby instilling autonomy and the intrinsic motivation that goes with it.
3. Utilise digital interventions
New AI-driven technologies based on workplace data offer employers the ability to identify employees who are struggling with pandemic fatigue. Without regular face to face meetings and the spontaneous interactions that take place in an office setting, managers may find it harder to spot employees who are at risk for low productivity or thinking of looking elsewhere.
By understanding data and behaviours that most closely correlate with workplace success and failure, managers can identify team members suffering from emotional stress and fatigue and proactively intervene to address issues like poor engagement and feelings of low inclusivity. At the same time, they stand to improve work processes and create personalised employee experiences that create better engagement and outcomes.
4. Reskill and upskill employees
As we witness the economic aftermath of the pandemic, and investments in automation and AI continue to grow, employees’ own market value moves front of mind. Reskilling employees is more than a strategic decision in order to maintain a competitive edge. Employees increasingly expect investment in their marketability as part of their reward scheme.
The ability to grow and develop, especially during times of change and stress, should be a high-priority business initiative, and leaders can seize this opportunity to cultivate a learning mindset in their people and organisations. Now is the time to offer more training courses, skills development initiatives, and other ways to engage staff through learning opportunities. When done effectively, it creates enduring value for employers and employees alike, providing increases in productivity, commitment and diversity, and cost savings over external hires.
5. Look ahead to the next shift
Right now, businesses are operating in a prolonged climate of stagnation, suffering ongoing lockdowns with no definitive end in sight. However, once the vaccine rollout is established, we will see further technological innovation and business-model disruption. Consumer spend is likely to bounce back to an all-time high, and companies will scramble to win back business and reclaim customers.
Leaders who accept the ever-changing nature of the pandemic are able to better manage the energy of their organisations. In order to regain the momentum of their initial rapid pandemic response back in March 2020, businesses can look to the vaccine rollout as a fresh opportunity to mobilise their teams for action. Are our people ready for the next stage, and how can they be energised to deal with the pandemic aftermath?
Andrew Duncan is Partner and UK CEO at Infosys Consulting.
Billionaire Kumar Birla Champions Regional Supply Chains
As the head of the Aditya Birla Group, a US$46bn firm that operates in 36 countries, Kumar Mangalam Birla is no stranger to splashy strategic moves. Yet his recent announcement that he no longer wants to acquire globally distributed supply chains stood out. While many companies have struggled to cope with shipping backlogs, his firm has chosen to pivot and focus on regional networks. Said Birla: ‘We wouldn’t look at a company or a business where you source in one corner of the world and sell in another’.
He cited protectionism, the pandemic, and the limited movement of products and people around the world as ABG’s primary causes of lost profits. And they aren’t alone. Over the past year, 900 of the U.S. and Europe’s biggest IT, defence, and financial services firms have lost an average of US$184mn apiece.
An Era of Global Disruption
Over the past few decades, low shipping rates and rapid delivery times have lulled multinational firms into a false sense of security. In the early 2000s, companies chose to take on significant global supply chain risks in exchange for increased profits. First, it made sense to manufacture higher-value goods, such as electronics, in low-cost regions throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Second, first-tier suppliers started to outsource the manufacturing of specific components to second-, third-, and even fourth-tiers—leaving supply chains with extremely limited visibility.
So when COVID-19 disruptions struck certain regions, companies were caught unprepared. Usually, these events come few and far between. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen a number of ‘black swan’ events that have thrown the supply chain industry into chaos. Here’s a quick history of the most significant events in recent years, thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review:
- 2010. China creates export quotas for rare earth elements.
- 2011. The Tōhoku Earthquake hits East Japan; flooding sweeps throughout Thailand.
- 2016-present. Trade wars between the U.S. and China hurt suppliers.
- 2020-present. COVID-19 pandemic shuts down international shipping ports.
Now, Kumar Birla is one of many who want to re-evaluate how we run our supply chains. Though his company has acquired 40+ companies in the last quarter decade, Birla intends to build up local hubs rather than expand operations.
Why Pursue Regionalisation?
Combine Chinese economic dominance, global supply chain vulnerabilities, and major government policy shifts around the world, and you have a storm brewing on the horizon for big multinational firms. As Brookings noted, ‘the biggest risk for trading opportunities in the developing world is growing protectionism in more advanced economies, often dressed up as national security protection’.
Altogether, from the U.S. to the European Union, governments are trying to protect their domestic supply chains, secure adequate stockpiles of materials, and build world-class local networks. Consider Biden’s recent executive order, which seeks to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to home soil, or Japan’s bid to open more memory chip fabrication factories near Tokyo. The Aditya Birla Group intends to react in kind. Said Birla: ‘We’re looking at regionalism as a very big theme’.
Will Others Follow Suit?
In the post-pandemic economy, global businesses must decide whether to expand or contract. On one hand, the Alibaba Group’s Cainiao Smart Logistics Network recently launched a direct flight between Hong Kong, China, and Lagos, Nigeria. On the other, the Japanese government is desperate to make its chip manufacturing domestic. Indeed, as two supply chain strategies diverge in a post-pandemic world, the one businesses take may make all the difference.
Yet Birla is confident that regionalisation is the right call. According to his words at the Qatar Economic Forum, even necessary cross-border transactions should be smaller in scope. And as the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now lists his net wealth at US$10.4bn, up 52% from 2020, he may have the cash to test his theories out. ‘Regional hubs, regional presence, regional employment, catering to regional demand’, he stated. ‘We’re a global company rooted in local economics’.