How's work? The OK is not OK edition

Work and life right now are…OK. Not great, not terrible — just OK.

OK is not OK

It's certainly not easy at the moment. As we have highlighted, the average employee experience is down across all of our clients. While there's been some bounce back from the shock of lockdown in mid-March, the average score has still decreased to around 65 points (on our 0-100 Happiness KPI) from 70 points pre-COVID.

Averages hide a lot of variances. This week, we thought it would be helpful to look at the data on people's median response — the most popular response on the Friday Pulse platform. Each week people are asked how they felt at work. They can then respond with one of the following five options:

  • Very unhappy
  • Unhappy
  • OK
  • Happy
  • Very happy

In the pre-COVID world, the most popular response has always been happy. Happy is a common response in subjective data, especially in developed economies. However, over the last 10 weeks, the median in our client responses has dropped to OK. While there is still a healthy 37% of employees who report that they are happy, and 14% reporting being very happy, it’s concerning to see the shift towards OK. 38% of respondents report that they are OK, a 9% increase from pre-COVID.

Median Weekly Employee Experience

If we apply this shift, from feeling good at work to only feeling OK, across the whole of the UK and US workforce then nearly 20 million people are now OK where once they were happy.

This grim picture comes from percentages based on our clients' responses — atypical businesses. They already focused on employee wellbeing before the crisis, and they have access to data about their employee's work experience every week — data they act on. In reality, 20 million people is an underestimation. Companies that do not focus on wellbeing are likely to have higher unhappy responses. 20 million also does not account for the millions of those furloughed (7.5 million in the UK) or unemployed (2.1 million in the UK, 36 million in the US).

Why are we in this OK funk?

The consequence of OK is financial. We’ve talked about how a half point shift on our five point scale can result in a $1 million loss because of a loss of creativity and productivity.

Undoubtedly, many people are just grateful to have a job in this market — a feeling that is likely suppressing the number of people responding as unhappy or very unhappy, right now. It's for this reason that we insist on having a response labelled OK. It acts as a soft "not great." Not everything is good or bad. Some experiences are just OK — not terrible, but not great either.

This is the majority of employee experience now. People are grateful for work, but it's not a cure-all. In some of our clients we’ve found that the extra cognitive strain in people’s lives has led to employees acting out in meetings. HR departments have had to tread the line between empathy and drawing the boundaries around acceptable behaviour, pandemic or not.

For many, the novelty factor of remote working and face-to-face video conferencing has vanished, meaning the solutions that worked at the beginning of the pandemic are not as effective now. People jump in and out of virtual meetings as fast as they can and the jovial small talk that once populated team interactions has disappeared.

As a whole, we’re coming to accept that there is no returning to the “normal” of our past. Every week, firms like McKinsey publish pieces on what the next normal may be. But with that acceptance, comes a price — a state of OK.

How to help people move from OK to happy

In December, before the pandemic, Harvard Business Review conducted a survey into the logistics of teamwork and the professionals that responded reported that they found working across virtual teams challenging. Nearly 76% found it difficult to feel connected with their teams due to distance or time zones. These problems have only become exacerbated with the pandemic.

Businesses that want to succeed and thrive in a post-COVID-19 world need to start thinking about how to improve their employee experience — at the very least back to where it was before the pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on how you can do that.

How do you really feel?

We're big advocates on having real discussions. To go beyond OK, ask people how they feel and follow up with open-ended questions which will deepen conversations. If you leave space for people to answer, you'll be amazed by the collective wisdom you unlock.

Reflect as a team

Taking half an hour every week as a team to reflect on how the week has gone is a great way to build on what is going well, and tackle what isn't. When a team reflects together, they can feel an increased sense of collaboration and creativity. These discussions are then reflected in improved innovation, productivity, and profitability.

Consistently be consistent

Any kind of positive change has to be brought about by consistent effort. It can't be done with one-off surveys or asking how someone is faring once a quarter. It may be difficult at first, especially with Zoom fatigue setting in, but the efforts do pay off in more resilient teams and higher trust levels.