TLNT: How Companies Can Maintain Organizational Health Amid COVID-19


This article was first published on TLNT: Talent Management and HR and was written by Ben Waber.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic shift in how companies interact on a day-to-day basis. With social distancing measures in full effect, employees are further apart physically and working in entirely new ways than they have in the past. There’s a looming sense of unease about maintaining productivity and satisfying customer needs while weathering stress and uncertainty about the future. During these unprecedented times, it’s important for HR to work alongside company leaders to not only evaluate their organizational health but actively work to maintain it. The days of annual organizational health check-ins are well in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. In good times, companies simply need to keep a finger on its pulse. In times of crisis like we face today, organizational health is critical for companies to survive.

The fundamentals of organizational health

In essence, the organizational health of a company refers to its ability to unify around a common vision,  function effectively, weather change, and use creative innovation to grow from within. It is directly influenced by company culture, leadership, work environment, and financial resources while requiring a consistent approach from all levels of the organization. In the past, a company’s culture, leadership, and environment could only be measured through surveys that produced limited findings often altered by recency bias.  For example, imagine a company-wide survey inquiring about work-life balance. A team that was recently overworked on a short-term project would be more likely to give negative responses that reflected poor work-life balance within the company. However, those responses would be swayed by recent conditions that weren’t indicative of an employee’s typical workload.

On the other hand, workplace analytics can produce in-depth metrics relative to the three leading indicators of organizational health, as well as trends in health over time:

  • Engagement captures how socially connected employees are within the organization and how likely they are to experience burnout.
  • Productivity measures how aligned communication patterns are with processes, as well as the capacity for improvement.
  • Adaptability captures how quickly an organization’s communication and work patterns can evolve, as well as the strength of connections between different hierarchical layers.

The complexities of COVID-19 can have a direct impact on organizational health if companies don’t adapt appropriately. Failing to adapt to external circumstances associated with COVID-19 will decrease employee engagement, which in turn will hinder team productivity.

Combating COVID-19 organizational health challenges

Some companies were more readily equipped for the transition to remote work, while others are still in the process of finding solutions to major obstacles. Before COVID-19, the technology, IT, and healthcare industries already had a large number of employees working remotely. They weren’t forced to adapt to the differences of a digital workplace. Meanwhile, other industries like social services, education, and finance were primarily centered around office presence. Employees were used to physically collaborating in order to perform the functions of their job.

The shift to remote work has removed previous in-person interactions that were considered vital to fostering a culture of organizational health. These interactions came in the forms of simple hellos in the hallway, small talk in the break room, chats in the office, and last-minute lunches. With most companies working remotely, video conferencing tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams have become increasingly popular. However, they don’t create those similar human interaction patterns that are considered natural. Because of this,  fewer new connections and relationships are formed, especially from employees who do not work on teams that collaborate frequently.

Company leaders and HR departments should work together to create initiatives that encourage employees to continue exploring and connecting with new people. Collaboration via video is essential. Employee teams should hold meetings on video rather than audio conference calls or group chats to increase face-to-face communication — even if it’s just a brief weekly check-in. The implementation of workplace analytics can allow company leaders to assess successful digital collaboration patterns.

How to coordinate informal interactions:

  • Schedule meetings 15 minutes longer than usual to allot for informal chit-chat either before or after the agenda is discussed.
  • Organize virtual lunches where 3-4 randomized employees are placed into a virtual room and eat lunch together for an hour to simulate a typical interaction at the office.
  • Implement virtual happy hours, trivia games, mid-day exercise classes, and yoga sessions that can support organizational wellness from both physical and mental standpoints.

It’s the role of the HR department’s combat COVID-19 through an increased focus on inclusion within the company. These initiatives should be constantly evaluated to assess levels of engagement, along with what’s working and what’s not. Employees are dealing with intense pressures and anxieties spanning from their own health and fear of loved ones falling ill to general worries about job security and the future of their organization. HR’s priorities should revolve around ensuring all members of the organization are supported.

Consistent leadership accessibility is a critical component of alleviating employee stress and making employees feel valued. Just because employees have access to company-wide digital conferencing doesn’t mean they feel their questions, comments, and concerns are adequately addressed. In turn, HR can suggest that company leaders hold virtual office-hours where employees are encouraged — but not mandated — to reach out with any questions or concerns that don’t need to be solely work-related. This instills a sense of assuredness that keeps everyone on the same page while navigating the crisis and helps identify employees who may be struggling more than others.

The process of creating a collaborative, open, and inclusive virtual work environment requires HR to actively listen and understand their employees. In order to successfully do so, leadership and HR need to be working in unison. A lack of collaboration at the top will trickle down across the entire company. In conjunction with company leaders, formulate diverse support plans, including an array of daily check-ins, weekly company-wide updates, and creative brainstorming sessions on helpful remote work tips.

How data can drive decision making

During the COVID-19 transition, it’s not enough to assess organizational health from an anecdotal standpoint. Instead, it’s important to make concrete observations based on workplace analytics that reveal where things are trending. Utilizing data as a developmental tool can help companies understand and form collaborative habits across various levels of the organization. You can use workplace analytics to answer the following questions:

  • Which teams collaborated together informally? (non-planned meetings)
  • Which teams had the lowest amount of focus work? (they need collaboration the most)
  • Which workplace environments created desirable collaboration patterns and lower health risk behaviors?

Ask employees to fill out questionnaires asking about specific factors that increased or decreased their productivity. Based on the findings, implement strategic outlines for employees to follow.

In reality, all companies are different, so there isn’t a quick fix for making a seamless transition amidst COVID-19. Our society has never experienced a pandemic of this magnitude before, and because of that, HR departments will need to continuously adapt on the fly. And that’s where workplace analytics can help. By measuring detailed data about all aspects of employee collaboration, companies can take the right steps to foster a healthy organizational culture for withstanding times of change.


Ben Waber Headshot

About the Author: Ben Waber (President and co-founder of Humanyze) received his Ph.D. in Organizational Science from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design. His book, People Analytics, was published by the Financial Times Press in 2013.