COVID-powered digitisation has resulted in new focus on employee wellbeing, but take nothing for granted

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels March 1, 2021
Rapid digital transformation during the pandemic has upped productivity levels, but created important lessons for business leaders and CIOs.

digital fatigue

The rapid shift to remote working through 2020 has created a new focus on behavior and wellbeing, a change that businesses need to take onboard if benefits are to be retained long term in the emerging Vaccine Economy .

Three tech chiefs discussed the impact of COVID-19 during a keynote presentation at the  recent DTX Tech Predictions Mini Summit. The digital leaders participating suggested that the enforced concentration on digital has helped their organizations respond to the challenges of COVID, but longer term could lead to a lasting performance boost, but only if businesses pay attention to worker behavior and wellbeing.

For example, Charlie Forte, CIO at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), said the exploitation of digital is absolutely crucial to the work of his organization, everything from operations on the battlefield through to departmental functions back at base. While COVID-19 has presented huge operational issues, it’s important to never waste a crisis, he advised:

We've used the COVID experience to really accelerate the delivery towards a mobile-first workforce. If we hadn't done this for our 200,000-strong enterprise, we would have really been quite challenged in terms of supporting defence. So we're in the middle of that transition, and it's been hugely successful and had a big impact on what UK defence does.

Forte said the MoD’s modernization programme has been centred on what he called “the basic improvement of infrastructure”, which includes the strengthening of the organization’s security stance. He said the potential weakest link in any organisation is how people approach cyber safety when they work digitally:

So we've been putting in a lot of effort as part of a wider cyber-awareness programme into equipping people to think responsibly and to have the education to act responsibly. We think that's probably the most fundamentally important part of what we're doing – and, of course, it extends beyond the process of working remotely during lockdown.

That focus on education resonated with David Farrell, Head of Digital Readiness at Health Education England, whose work focuses on creating an uplift in digital skills across the NHS. He said productivity should be about enabling people to work better and more confidently within a digital environment, something that technology has enabled during the pandemic:

There's been a massive increase in digital health services and that’s just been accelerated in the past year. We've seen many examples of changes to ways of working, such as the increased use of video consultations or around fully virtual learning and development programmes, which have been quite successful.

James Maunder, CIO at private health care provider The London Clinic, views attempted increases in productivity in two key ways - making the technology team as productive as possible on the one hand and using technology to help the clinic create better clinical outcomes for patients on the other. Pre-pandemic, his organization wasn’t set up for remote working at all and had to establish remote working:

We've used technology like Teams, WebEx and Zoom, but where we've really seen improvements has been around focus, meaning and removing the noise from people's lives, so that they can get on and deliver the value that we've asked them to.

Productivity and value

Maunder reflected on how organizations can continue to keep productivity high post-COVID, recommending that business leaders should ensure their staff “have fun” at work. Leaders need to create environments in which people feel comfortable enough to demonstrate both their authenticity and integrity, he argued:

What my team have really valued through COVID are the actions we take to bring them together, and not just for formal communications around what do activity levels look like in the hospital, but also linking the day-to-day small activities with long-term strategic outcomes and how people are contributing to the hospital.

Forte agreed with this focus on creating value through people. He said that the pandemic has meant many leaders have increased their focus on something that they probably should have been doing a lot more of anyway: connecting with teams in many different ways. The MoD has used a range of techniques during the crisis, from briefings and two-way dialogues on Zoom calls through to informal get-togethers in the evening:

COVID has given us a kick to get on and do a lot more of that. And I think it's been quite healthy in that respect. I hope it's a theme that we don't lose and that we make sure that we don't forget the lessons learned as we go forward.

Zoom fatigue

There was also a recognition on the panel that increased connectivity has some downsides. Complaints of video-conferencing fatigue are common. With no opportunity for face-to-face interaction, there’s a danger of staying on video calls from 9am to 5pm, leading to Maunder urging that business leaders must find ways to ensure that their teams avoid burnout and maintain wellbeing:

I certainly know from my own experience that all-day video calls is incredibly tiring and mentally draining, but with that mental drain comes a reduction in our creativity and curiosity. Our emotional intelligence drops through the floor and, therefore, our productivity drops. I think, as leaders, we need to role-model some better behaviors. It is fine for us as leaders to say, ‘I can't talk now, I'm just about to go for a run, cycle or workout’.

Farrell agreed that it’s crucial for business leaders to act as role models for productivity. When it comes to embracing digital change, he said the most important thing for Health Education England is having a senior leadership team who sets the tone:

Anecdotally we have nurses, for example, who could go and lock their devices away in a locker, go and work, and then go home and the use their handheld devices. And that has to change. So it has to be around giving people devices, giving them connectivity and policies that allow them to work properly as well.

My take

While digital tech can create a boon in productivity, it can also create new pressures. Another speaker, Flavilla Fongang, Founder and Managing Director of marketing agency 3 Colours Rule, described how the amount of LinkedIn requests her team receives has soared over the past year. Managing this sort of expansion is “exhausting”, said Farrell, suggesting that stepping away from social media is a good coping strategy:

It helps with a bit of calm and a bit of focus. It's also very liberating in terms of how much time you get back in the day. This has been a very busy time, and a very difficult time. It’s a little bit more inward-looking, rather than outward-looking. We've got a business plan to deliver against and stepping away from social media has helped.

It’s good advice for others.