Blog Post

Navigating pandemic disruption: Rebuilding trust and empowering employees

Jason Lauritsen

Management trainer

Episode 5 of HR Labs Season 5 is here!

In the last episode of this season of HR Labs Season 5, employee engagement expert Jason Lauritsen talks with host Marc Ramos about how people can connect their jobs to a sense of meaning. Together, Jason and Marc discuss how organizations can keep pace with evolving employee expectations and help their people discover the "why" behind their work. They briefly touched upon the relation between the pandemic and employee expectations, but without enough time to unpack it all, Jason shares his insights in this blog post. So, get ready to delve in!

Listen now on Apple or Spotify (or wherever you get your favorite podcasts for free).

The pandemic is over and still, we are trying to pick up the pieces of work as we knew it.

Most leaders are still wrestling with how remote work fits into their organization’s future plans.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg - there are also a lot of unanswered questions about equity, fair pay, inclusion, and so much more.

These issues aren’t going anywhere.

Regardless of how economic winds shift and media narratives change, people won’t forget the experiences they had and how they felt during those pandemic years.

Work has changed permanently. So have employees.

As we navigate these challenges, there’s one big change that I think is being overlooked and this one makes all the others more complicated.

What I’m talking about is a loss of confidence and trust in leadership by a lot of employees.

Let’s rewind the clock

If we look back to the 2010s before COVID arrived, we can see there was tension growing in the workforce over a desire for greater flexibility in where and how employees could work.

Here’s how it often played out.

Working parents (usually mothers) would make a well-reasoned and often desperate request to management or HR for the flexibility to work from home for a day or two per week.

These employees were struggling to balance work with the caregiving responsibilities of their lives and were confident they could do their job successfully from home, at least part of the time.

But they were usually told no. Not just that, they were told that it wasn’t possible for them to work from home.

Technology issues were often cited, usually some concern over data security. Other times, equity and fairness were the reason for the denial. “If we let one person do it, we have to offer it to everyone.”

Despite how badly employees wanted flexibility in where and when they worked, the majority of leaders and companies were insistent that it just wasn’t possible.

The impossible becomes possible

Then COVID arrived and this impossible flexibility became not just possible, it became a reality.

Over the next twelve to twenty-four months, employees showed what was possible when they were given the agency and flexibility to work at home.

They made it work.

It wasn’t always smooth, and it didn’t work in every case, but we now have evidence that remote working is not just possible, it’s a viable (and sometimes more effective) way to get work done.

You know this part of the story. But there’s another side to it.

The thing that isn’t being talked about is this: employees now know that when they were told that remote work wasn’t possible, it was a lie.

Working from home, remote work, or teleworking (whatever you want to call it) has been possible for a long time. All those companies who insisted it wasn’t, turned around and made it happen at scale in days when they had no other choice.

This was a slap in the face to all those employees who had been told no in the past. They suddenly understood that it wasn’t that working remotely wasn’t possible. The company, or more precisely its leaders, just didn’t want to allow or invest in it.

Imagine finding out after years of dating someone that the social anxiety your significant other had used as an excuse to never meet your parents wasn’t real. They simply didn’t want to and it was easier to tell you it just wasn’t possible for them.

How would you feel? More importantly, how would that affect how you felt about the relationship?

If you decided to stay in that relationship going forward, you’d probably have some serious trust issues to overcome.

Trust is fragile. And this experience has fractured the trust in leadership many employees had.

As we move forward, we should expect employees to be more skeptical and to ask more questions when they are told what’s possible and what’s not.

They are going to expect more explanation and a “why” behind decisions when they come. They may feel like they were fooled before and won’t want to let it happen again.

Employee expectations have risen

On this side of the pandemic experience, employees have different and higher expectations. This is but one example.

During the pandemic, management and leadership upped their game. Granted, the circumstances forced their hand, but the changes didn’t go unnoticed.

Communication improved in a variety of ways, becoming more frequent, more personal, and more helpful.

Most organizations became diligent and serious about taking good care of employees during these unprecedented times. There was more support, more flexibility, and a lot more checking in.

New technology tools were deployed quickly to improve safety, support collaboration, and improve communication. These tools were a response to immediate employee needs.

Leadership responded to the crisis, and employee engagement even rose in some cases in those early pandemic months when we were most concerned.

But here’s the rub.

Employees remember those days. And like with flexibility, they are asking themselves some questions about why things are changing now.

If it was possible during the pandemic, why isn’t it possible now?

Why not continue to communicate, care, and respond to employee needs the same way today as you did back then?

Employees have seen your best effort, and that’s what they now expect.

It is imperative to engage with your people now and always to understand, manage, and live up to those expectations.

Because if you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised when they leave you to find someone who will.

Related Resources

Want to keep learning? Explore our products, customer stories, and the latest industry insights.

Unlocking the limitless potential of people in local government

eBook

Unlocking the limitless potential of people in local government

This Cornerstone eBook reveals how investment in employee skills development can help local government become learning organisations. And that learning can prompt curiosity, which in turn leads to creativity, and ultimately discovery, disruption, and innovation.

Schedule a personalized 1:1

Talk to a Cornerstone expert about how we can help with your organization’s unique people management needs.

© Cornerstone 2024
Legal