Keeping your workforce productive as Omicron rages 

When companies transitioned to remote working in response to the COVID-19 lockdown, many discovered an unexpected upside of increased productivity. But now as Omicron surges across the US, organizations across the board are reporting that about 25% of their workforce is out of commission, exacerbating the country’s persistent labor shortages and threatening to complicate the labor market’s push toward pre-pandemic employment levels.

How does an organization continue to meet customer and client demands, without compounding the issue of employee burnout or stress on its remaining workforce? Below we examine various ways leaders across industries can approach this, separated into 3 key action items:

  1. Refocus the work.

    Employers need to consider changing the work itself and restructuring the very basic tasks that employees are spending their time on.

    • Kill off the wrong work. Times of crisis are when we learn that not all work is valuable. Organizations can take this moment to get clear on what work does not need to get done. If work doesn’t have direct outcomes behind it, it is likely performative in nature – valueless work that allows people to look like they’re working. Prioritize the work that adds value and is critical for sustained performance.
    • Minimize meetings, especially recurring meetings. An effective experiment is to ask employees to look at their calendar for a week fairly far in the future. Without any meetings scheduled, how many meetings are on the calendar just on a recurring basis? Lowering the meeting load can allow a smaller group of workers to do the work of far more. And it doesn’t mean you don’t meet, but you have time freed up for last minute meetings and conversations that are needed.
    • Minimize reporting tasks. In white collar and blue collar environments alike, we have grown quite fond of elaborate reporting on every facet of working life. Determine what types of reporting is vital, and what is rote.
    •  Poll the frontline. Ask those closest to the work where and how would they tighten up the machine to get work done better? You’ll not only get insightful suggestions, but you’ll build employee engagement at a challenging moment – people want to provide input on ways to optimize how work gets done, rather than be told how to do it.
  2. Empower your people.

    With a quarter of the workforce out sick or caring for a family member infected with COVID-19, how can managers shift their leadership style in a ways that encourages junior talent to thrive?

    • Put me in, coach. Leaders should encourage junior talent to look for places to step up and do more, even if they feel they are underqualified. Many roles might not require as robust a skill profile as described in the job description – but either way, leaders and managers should help determine the “scaffolding” (coaching, on the job training, and reskilling) that junior talent might need to succeed in these roles down the road.
    • Crack the door open wider. Similar to engaging more junior talent, there will be roles that can just be done by more people, period. Identify and remove barriers to a broader group of people doing a role. For example, education requirements may be excessive – many jobs ask for college degrees that don’t truly require them.
  3. Utilize technology.

    Technology can play a role, too, in alleviating labor challenges.

    • Consider quick and dirty automation – especially on task level.  Should you make costly, long-timeline technology decisions in the midst of a labor crisis? Of course not. However, it’s worth spending time examining which tasks can potentially be automated. While it may be tough to envision replacing a whole person with today’s technology, especially in a hurry, there may be individual tasks that are well-suited to replacement with not-very-expensive technology. There may be instances where the need has never presented itself because a human has always done the work just fine.
Across organizations, your mileage will vary and not every suggestion above will resonate. But chances are, there’s something your organization can do to optimize the way work is getting done and help alleviate the current labor shortages that Omicron is now doubling down on.

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