Building organizational resilience through purpose, potential, and play

Someone works on a laptop from home

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Of all the memes I’ve seen about the year 2020, one of my favorites features infomercial star  Billy Mays, with this caption: “2020 every second: BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!”

The predictable result of facing so many unprecedented challenges in such short succession—both nationally and globally—is default to short-term thinking. When office buildings first cleared out in March, many thought we’d be working from home for a few weeks at most, just long enough to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 transmission. Here we are, almost seven months later, with no end to remote working insight.

Writing in  Harvard Business Review, Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi stated, “During crises such as Covid-19, people often tend to focus more on tactical work—answering the right number of tickets, or following the approved project plan—rather than adapting to solve the bigger, newer problems the business may be facing.”

But when a crisis drags on for months, a focus on tactical work will only keep us treading water. The question before us now is how to shift to long-term thinking and keep our newly remote workforces engaged and aligned around the work that matters most to our organizations. Here are four ways for HR leaders to move beyond that initial crisis response, establish resilience, and build and maintain greater organizational agility to help us weather whatever’s coming next.

1. Harness intrinsic motivation.

For years, the way to attract and retain talent in the tech world has often been through extrinsic motivators like bonuses, rewards, ping pong tables, snack rooms, and free lunch in the on-site gourmet cafeteria. Now that everyone’s logging in from home, leaders have to ask themselves what their employee value propositions truly are. What are the intrinsic motivators?

Now more than ever, we need to find ways to make sure the people we hire are in love with our business problem, not with our cutting-edge facilities and perks. How do our people have fun not just at work, but in doing the work? Are our people finding meaning and purpose in the work they do each day? These are the questions we need to be asking if we want to motivate our top people to stay.

2. Practice goal-setting.

There’s a long-standing myth that people aren’t productive when they’re working from home. It’s the “if I can’t see them, how will I know they’re working?” mindset. Thankfully, enterprise work management solutions make this concern obsolete. Today’s technology enables us to see what everyone’s working on, at any time of the day or night, which is great. But as good as it is, technology can’t set everyone’s goals, align them with higher-level initiatives, and follow through on them.

Achieving goals is fundamental to improving business health organization-wide. But the people the business expects to execute on the overall vision rarely have insight into the guidance and trajectory that they should put themselves on. So you end up with amazing people doing amazing work that may or may not help you attain what you want to do as a business. There are many possible reasons for this:

Training team members on the practices and habits of goal-setting—and modeling these skills at all levels of the organization—will mitigate these challenges. But it’s important to remember that this is a skill like any other that must be practiced and honed. Yes, technology enables much-needed visibility and alignment around goals, but each individual still needs to do the work of setting goals and following through. And as they do so, their personal contribution to the organization’s mission and vision will become more clear—fostering a sense of purpose and belonging that’s essential for staying engaged and connected in a volatile time.

3. Leverage a sense of play.

Work can’t be all goals, all the time, however. A sense of play is important, too. And I don’t mean mailing out packages of Silly Putty for everyone to keep their hands busy during Zoom meetings—although that would be fun. I mean that joyful sense of accomplishment people feel when they’re working at their full potential when they’re being comfortably stretched when they’re excited and engaged in the work they do.

In a high-performance culture, play and purpose go hand in hand. People love the work they do, and they believe it matters. That’s the secret. Think of it like playing tennis. If you love the game, you don’t care that it’s hard, or that it’s hot outside, or that you don’t always win. You’re just happy to be swinging that racket and hitting that sweet spot again and again. But if you don’t like tennis, you’ll never lose yourself in it. You’ll be annoyed by all the running, the heat, and the off-putting scoring system.

The same holds true in the business world. If there’s a match between the job you’re asking your team members to do and their natural interests, fulfillment and engagement will follow. So, what are you doing as a leader to not only ensure this kind of alignment but also communicate that it’s a company value?

4. Encourage freedom within the framework.

Imagine you have a team that’s executing a marketing campaign comprised of three initiatives. Perhaps new information comes along, or someone gets a spark of a brilliant idea. But in order to adjust the plan in any way, they’ll have to go back to their leader, who must consult their leader, who must then consult their leader. The team is more likely to throw up their hands and crank out the original request, costing you both innovation and speed. This is a case of too much framework and not enough freedom.

Instead, set up a clear framework of mission, vision, and goals, with plenty of room for team members to iterate and innovate, via rapid feedback loops. But for it to work, you have to make sure your rapid feedback loops aren’t about micromanaging or auditing. They should be about co-creating and enabling greater autonomy.

Adaptive performance is agile and fluid, but it’s not boundaryless. When you have a transparent, autonomous culture, the boss can monitor parameters and keep an eye on what’s going on. And team members feel empowered to adjust the plan, proactively attach the tasks to particular goals (because they know what the goals are!), iterate and innovate, and ultimately take the project in exciting new directions.

But wait, there’s more!

I have a feeling 2020 isn’t quite through with us yet. And that means now’s the time to recommit to increasing transparency, alignment, and engagement among our remote workforces, so they can help us build and maintain greater organizational agility for whatever new challenges this year has in store. As McGregor and Doshi write, “Some teams rise above the rest in times of turmoil, regardless of the challenges. They win market share. They earn life-long customer love. They keep their productivity high or higher. In other words, they adapt.”

Whatever tools you rely on to increase intrinsic motivation and adapt to the challenges at hand, make sure you don’t approach it from a compliance or micromanagement mindset, or it will feel like just another top-down initiative cascading from leadership to the masses. This is not about taking command of the ship and charting the course yourself; it’s about getting everyone voluntarily rowing in the same direction, with each rower clearly understanding their purpose, connecting to their true potential, and even discovering a sense of play along the way.