Business owner holds casual meeting with employees
Business as usual is anything but usual, from here on out. Small business owners owe it to themselves and their employees to re-evaluate and move forward in a new way. — Getty Images/PeopleImages

The pandemic has changed everything in business, and there’s no going back. The seismic shift goes well beyond offering curbside delivery or work-from-home perks. Old ways of running a company — focusing on common metrics and mantras like performance, perseverance, health and safety — are no longer sufficient for creating a successful workplace driven by motivated and productive people, according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Exhaustion, stress, grief, disillusionment and uncertainty are widespread among U.S. employees, the report states. Meanwhile, consumer preferences and buying behaviors are undergoing permanent shifts.

To thrive in this new environment, business owners must forge “human organizations” that nurture positive emotions and connections between people, and prioritize people and their needs and talents for organizational success, the report concludes.

Acknowledge the unique pressures on small businesses

Some 75% of employees report symptoms of burnout, according to other research. The big challenge for any business owner amid all this turmoil is to step back, analyze all aspects of the business, and take the time to really listen to employees’ deep and often hidden concerns.

“While small business owners might have greater opportunity to show compassionate and supportive leadership, they are equally likely to get busy and miss the opportunities,” said the report’s lead author, Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey. “First and foremost, take stock of the pressures your business and people are under, and then give yourself and your people the space to share and understand how the organization is doing.”

Employees in a small or family-run business are apt to have strong feelings that it can’t operate without them, that everyone is counting on them, De Smet pointed out.

“This line of thinking often leads the employee to believe they can't possibly take a break or a mental health day,” De Smet told CO—. “Even if you have a small, tight-knit organization where you know your people well, you still need to create space where it’s okay to ask for help.”

Even if you have a small, tight-knit organization where you know your people well, you still need to create space where it’s okay to ask for help.

Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company

Get seriously curious

Your investigation into employee well-being needs to dig deep, looking for signs of exhaustion and stress.

“Get curious and ask questions — not only about how things are going right now, but also consider sustainability going forward,” De Smet said. “Leaders often uncover that things are working OK for now, but that people report they do not think the current pace is sustainable. When you start asking questions along the lines of what do employees miss about times pre-pandemic, what feels hard right now, and what have we lost as we've been working more remotely, you will likely uncover a number of challenges.”

Successful companies in “the new normal” will put people first, by making sure they get real time off, skills training and an opportunity to shape the organization’s way of doing business. This means you, the business owner, must embrace the need for adaptability and resilience, and make sure your company’s purpose is stated and regularly communicated.

“When everyone is clear, not only on what the organization is doing but also on why it’s doing it, it’s easier to strategically prioritize, to identify which work can be delayed, which meetings can be skipped, and for which decisions ‘good enough’ is actually good enough,” De Smet and his colleagues write.

Be optimistic, within reason

One key way a leader can develop a more resilient company: express bounded optimism.

“Display inspiration, hope and optimism that’s tempered by reality,” the report states.

Example: Don’t frame the pandemic as temporary, feeding employees false hope that everything will soon return to normal. Instead, express acceptance. Acknowledge that things won’t go back to the way they were, but that your company will be better than before.

If all this seems a tall task given limited time and resources, consider that size is on your side.

“Smaller size often means more social cohesion, less structural complexity and less formalized bureaucracy—all of which can help smaller organizations connect and respond more quickly and more humanly,” De Smet said.

To be blunt, you’ve got little choice, according to the McKinsey report, because the pandemic is merely a catalyst accelerating changes already underway.

“This is a good time to take advantage of a forced break in habits, routines and ways of working to leap into the future in an intentional way, rather than settling back into old habits in unintentional ways,” De Smet said. “As others seize this opportunity to move ahead into the future, you might be left behind if you don’t.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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