The flu season is upon us in the northern hemisphere, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting this week that the annual spike in influenza cases was just starting (later than usual) and that this year’s flu appeared to be hitting children particularly hard. While this year may not be as bad as last year, when the annual flu vaccine was only about 30 percent effective against the highly virulent H3N2 strain, which put large numbers of Americans in the hospital, the flu is a perennial winter health hazard, particularly in the close confines of a shared workspace. Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that this year’s flu could cost US employers over $17 billion in lost productivity. That’s not as much as the $21 billion it estimated for last year, but still would represent a meaningful dent in the economy:
Last year’s flu season sickened nearly 49 million people, 32.5 million of whom were over the age of 25, according to the CDC’s age breakdown of flu infections for the 2017-18 season. Last season was the worst since 2009, when that year’s H1N1 strain sickened an estimated 60.8 million people, with more than 40 million of those affected over the age of 18.
Challenger predicts 20 million workers could take four eight-hour days away from work due to the flu. Using the current employment-population ratio of 60.6 percent, and the average hourly wage of $27.48, the cost to employers could hit $17,587,200,000 over the course of the season.
Outside the workplace, your employees are increasingly accustomed to seamless experiences as consumers in a digital environment. In their “five-to-nine,” they are shopping, watching movies, ordering meals, and hailing rideshares, all with a few taps on their smartphones. This rapid evolution in the consumer experience stands in stark contrast to their typical experience at work, where most employees remain mired in tedious digital processes and often find themselves expending a lot of effort on low-value tasks. From their consumer lives, they know there must be an easier way to schedule shifts, fill out expense reports, or enter data into spreadsheets.
Organizations that find ways to replicate the seamless digital consumer experience for their employees at work stand to gain in employee engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity. At Gartner’s ReimagineHR conference in Orlando on Tuesday, Leah Johnson, VP, Advisory at Gartner led a discussion with Alexis Corbett, Managing Director and CHRO at Bank of Canada; Archana Singh, CHRO at Wiley; Stevens Sainte-Rose, Chief HR & Transformation Officer at Dawn Foods; and Melanie Kennedy, SVP Human Resources at American Water, where attendees learned about how these HR leaders have been addressing this challenge at their organizations. The discussion surfaced a number of key themes:
The employee experience is about meeting business needs. A seamless digital experience for employee isn’t just a nice-to-have feature for its own sake; like every other aspect of digitalization, it must be designed to address critical pain points arising from today’s rapidly evolving business environment. At the Bank of Canada, the digital transformation came about as the bank faced an unprecedented capacity challenge, Corbett said, which necessitated an improvement in their people’s digital capabilities as technology took on new roles in their everyday work. Similarly, Kennedy noted, one of her core objectives at American Water has been to get employees excited about technology coming into a very labor-intensive industry and making them more effective.
People-focused digitalization also generates value by enhancing employee engagement; Singh, for instance said her goal was to create a “wow” experience for Wiley employees in every interaction. In an age of transparency, Sainte-Rose added, customer experience needs to match the team member experience. As companies endeavor to improve value for customers, they must apply the same thought process on the inside. Creating a better employee experience in the digital enterprise is ultimately about getting the best out of your people and creating more value for all stakeholders.
New estimates from the US Census bureau, published last week, show that 8 million workers in the US are now primarily working from home, making telecommuting the country’s second most common way of getting to work after driving, displacing public transportation for the first time, Governing magazine reported on Friday:
Last year, an estimated 5.2 percent of workers in the American Community Survey reported that they usually telecommute, a figure that’s climbed in recent surveys. Meanwhile, the share of employees taking public transportation declined slightly to 5 percent and has remained mostly flat over the longer term.
The number of Americans telecommuting at least occasionally is much larger than what’s depicted in the federal data. That’s because the Census survey asks respondents to report how they “usually” go to work, meaning those working from home only a day or two each week aren’t counted. A 2016 Gallup survey found that 43 percent of employees spent at least some time working remotely. …
Those working from home at the highest rate — 11.7 percent — in the Census survey were classified as professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management services workers. Other industries where telework is about as common include finance, insurance, real estate, agriculture and the information sector.
Last year’s American Community Survey data also showed that the number of US employees working remotely was on the rise: An analysis of that data found that 2.6 percent were working entirely from home—more than the number who walk and bike to work combined. Other surveys last year and this year have also found more Americans working from home, particularly workers over the age of 55. Employers see this trend continuing for the foreseeable future, and many are changing their policies around flexibility and remote work in response to greater demand for these options from employees in critical talent segments. Most US companies, however, don’t have explicit remote work policies, a survey earlier this year indicated.
Wayne Hochwarter, a professor at Florida State University’s College of Business who specializes in organization behavior, conducted a field study this summer as part of an ongoing project on the anxiety-inducing effects of political conflict, in which he surveyed 550 full-time workers across the US about a variety of work-related issues, how politics are affecting their day-to-day interactions in the workplace. Discussing his findings at the Conversation, Hochwarter reports that he found evidence of heightened political stress, which correlated with negative workplace outcomes:
Twenty-seven percent of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that work had become more tense as a result of political discussions, while about a third said such talk about the “ups and downs” of politicians is a “common distraction.” One in 4 indicated they actively avoid certain people at work who try to convince them that their views are right, while 1 in 5 said they had actually lost friendships as a result. And all this has serious consequences for worker health and productivity.
Over a quarter said political divisions have increased their stress levels, making it harder to get things done. Almost a third of this group said they called in sick on days when they didn’t feel like working, compared with 17 percent among those who didn’t report feeling stressed about politics. A quarter also reported putting in less effort than expected, versus 12 percent. And those who reported being more stressed were 50 percent more likely to distrust colleagues.
Hochwarter’s field study relied on student-recruited sampling, so he acknowledges that his respondents may not be representative of the entire country; his findings are consistent with what other surveys have found over the past two years, as well as with the widely-recognized atmosphere of heightened division and polarization in American politics today, and particularly since the 2016 presidential election.
Significantly more North American employers are offering “Summer Fridays” to their employees this year, the latest data from Gartner’s Global Talent Monitor shows. A poll conducted in the second quarter of 2018 of more than 144 HR leaders in North America found that 46 percent of organizations were giving employees the option of leaving early, working remotely, or taking the day off on Fridays this summer—a jump of more than 30 percentage points from 2012.
Though some companies worry that summer schedules can have a negative impact on productivity, but as Gartner’s own Brian Kropp notes, “most companies have told us that with this benefit in place, they’ve found employees work harder earlier in the week because they know they have to complete their work before Friday,”
Summer Fridays won’t work for every organization, of course, or for every workforce, but Kropp outlines an alternative option too:
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has been consuming the attention of football/soccer fans around the world over the past two weeks and will continue to do so until the final match on July 15. The world’s most-watched sporting event, the World Cup has viewers tuning into matches from every country and at all hours of the day—including during work hours. Just as the Super Bowl and the National College Athletic Association’s Division I basketball tournaments have been demonstrated to cause a dip in productivity in the US, this quadrennial international event is bound to have an economic impact in many countries.
New research attempts to calculate just how big that impact is likely to be. Maude Lavanchy, a research associate at IMD Business School, and Willem Smit, an assistant professor of marketing at the Asia School of Business and an international faculty fellow at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, built a model to predict the productivity cost of the 2018 World Cup in a number of major countries based on how many matches were scheduled to take place during work hours in that time zone and how the expected outcome of each match (based on betting odds from UK bookmakers) would affect workers’ happiness—positively if their team wins, and negatively if they lose. The researchers outlined their findings in an article at Bloomberg earlier this month:
In all, we found that half of the 48 group-stage games could have economic consequences. Although such calculations are inherently speculative, they can nonetheless tell a useful economic story. And in this case, it doesn’t look good.
The digital age has its pros and cons for the workforce. Technology provides employees with faster, easier access to information and data. It also allows for greater personalization and more interaction between employee and employer. Yet the digitalization of the workplace does have its downsides. Consider smartphones, for example: They can be alternately distracting and distressing; they can create barriers to action like information overload and decision fatigue, as well as work-life balance issues stemming from an “always-on” mentality.
Some managers, frustrated with the ubiquity of these devices and their ability to distract employees, are banning phones from meetings or otherwise limiting their use in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal’s John Simons wrote in a feature last week. Simons points to studies indicating that executives and managers consider smartphones “the leading productivity killers in the workplace” and that the presence of a phone can harm people’s cognitive performance, even when they are not using or holding it. He also notes Google’s recent announcement that the next version of its Android operating system will introduce a feature enabling users to see how much time they spend on their phones, which apps they use the most, and how often the phone gets unlocked.
Our recent research at CEB, now Gartner, also underscores these downsides of technology at work. While solutions to help employees minimize time wasted on tech, like Google’s forthcoming Android time tracker, might be helpful, our research suggests that no technological intervention can have a meaningful impact on employee performance or the employee experience by itself. The limitations are striking, given the large investments organizations (and HR functions in particular) are making in technology to support employees. But the challenges employers face are human and organizational, not just technological—and the same must be true of any solution.