The dark secret of the ‘New Normal’

Even with the distractions of working from home (and the ongoing pandemic), productivity is up. But that improvement comes with a high cost.

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Disclosure: Cisco is a client of the author.

Most of the large companies I’m involved with almost all report higher productivity numbers due to the shift this year to working from home. But behind these numbers are less widely circulated statistics that indicate employees are burning out, feeling neglected, working too much, and becoming depressed. While performance has increased impressively, it been possible by sacrificing a healthy work-life balance.  

Cisco is one of the few firms whose Chief People Officer, Francine Katsoudas, has identified the problem and worked to mitigate it as we approach the holidays. It is worthwhile to explore just why the firm has routinely been ranked first as a great place to work — even before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.  

I’m a big believer that if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of you. And with the rumbling of the rise of technology unions, this is a very timely topic for companies to consider. 

Cisco and focusing on what is important

Cisco changed the name of its HR Department to “People and Communities,” and it is that community’s part that most of us are missing. Earlier this week, I spoke at the World Economic Forum on Innovation and Infrastructure. One of the issues that came up was not just how we are losing work/life balance, but also how we cannot meet new people and discover new things as quickly anymore. This reduced ability to interact suggests we need something like a Tinder for friends — something that Facebook was initially before it became, instead, the home of Fake News and fake advertisements.  

Cisco is shifting to the concept of affinity groups: communities the company is formally resourcing to build internal support structures and provide better insights into what is going on inside the firm. These existing and potential communities revolve around ethnicity, sex, education level, tenure, age, and shared hobbies and interests. Once in place and promoted by the company, they can help provide the social framework many lack during the pandemic due to missing group lunches, in-person meetings (with side breakouts), and other events like birthdays that typically assure the social fabric remains intact at a company. 

These communities can provide insight into problems such as employees who’ve been bypassed for decades for raises or promotions; discrimination for any reason; and bad behavior by anyone. They can evolve into support structures, so people have others they can unofficially call for help, advice, and support when they need it most. We already see depression on the increase, divorces rising, and growing concerns about a potential uptick in suicides. Suppose companies get their employees talking more to each other and broadening their friend base (rather than see it decline due to things like distance and political affiliation)? In that case, they can perhaps help offset these troubling trends. 

Suppose we don’t get ahead of these problems as we expand to recruit employees who are increasingly geographically removed? In that case, a lack of connection to others inside the company and the related loss of local friends and support could easily fester over time and bite companies. We need to look at what Cisco is doing and consider doing that inside our firms. 

Wrapping up

Collaboration tools have been improving dramatically over the year, and now companies are reporting higher productivity than when employees were actually working in the office. However, part of that benefit is coming at the cost of lost friends, broken relationships, divorces, and the destruction of the balance between work and life. If we, like Cisco, can focus on this collateral damage tied to the beneficial productivity increase, we can better assure this increase will be sustained over time and avoid the problems associated with overwork. 

In the end, as we approach the holidays, the concept of caring for co-workers has never been more critical. Cisco is leading the way, and more companies need to see what it is doing and why — so that they, too, can avoid the dire outcome Cisco is looking to avoid. 

Here’s to hoping you can maintain a healthy work/life balance in 2021. And have a wonderful and safe holiday!

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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