The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the way we live and work. And as Felix Salmon reports for Axios, it’s also going to fundamentally change the foundation of our economy like no recession that has come before. “The pandemic is striking directly at the heart of what has historically made America stronger than almost any other global economy — our awesome productivity,” he writes. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom predicts productivity drops within companies of five and even 10%. “These falls are not surprising,” Bloom says, “but are absolutely massive.”
The reason it’s not surprising is because productivity is not just about technology. It’s also about people. And right now, people are stressed out of their minds. “People are living at work,” Deloitte’s Abby Levine says. “That has a physical, emotional, and mental impact.” In fact, a survey released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 40% of adults reported experiencing mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression.
This is why we need to widen the discussion about what life and work are going to look like after the pandemic. We know the old model isn’t coming back — it was already breaking down when the pandemic hit. But what that “new normal” will look like isn’t inevitable. We have the power to shape it ourselves, and build a new and better normal based on how humans really operate and what makes us thrive.
Steep productivity drops are not inevitable. Nor are burnout and mental health problems. But to avoid them, companies will need to do more than just put in place organizational strategies and efficiencies for collaborating remotely or sharing office space safely, with things like contact tracing, agile shift management dashboards, tech-infused elevator protocols and vibrating social distancing apps. Safety is obviously the priority. But to truly navigate the kind of constant change and disruption that will define our future, companies need to pay as much attention to the human element as they do to advanced technologies.
The World Economic Forum published a paper in July entitled “Digital Transformation: Powering the Great Reset.” But those who think that the “Great Reset” can be powered exclusively by digital transformation are missing the fact that there can be no “Great Reset” unless people are able to hit the reset button within themselves.
That starts with giving people the tools they need to support and nurture their own well-being and mental resilience so they can operate from a place of strength and navigate change in their daily lives. This was always important, but now it’s imperative. And if companies don’t prioritize these human values and make them a core part of their culture, new technologies that enhance safety and productivity, however impressive and necessary, will not be enough.
In times of crisis, uncertainty and turmoil, like the ones that we are going through right now, our inner resilience is our most important resource. That has to be the bedrock on which we build our new normal. Companies realize that qualities like focus, empathy, collaboration and inclusion are essential to win the future. But we can’t simply flip a switch and turn those qualities on. To access our creativity and ability to innovate in the middle of uncertainty and chaos around us, our immediate emotional needs have to be met first. We can’t create and implement new solutions for the future if we are struggling to simply get through the day.
We all have treasures inside us — amazing insights, original ideas, needle-moving solutions to previously unsolvable problems. Those treasures are the building blocks of productivity. But we can’t tap into them when we are as anxious and stressed as most people are right now. And that’s because of how we’re built. Yale neuroscientist Amy Arnsten studies how our brains respond to stress. When we’re faced with a threat, our brain’s prefrontal cortex — the region that governs our “higher functions,” like our ability to focus, think critically and make decisions — actually shuts down. The release of stress-related chemicals make our more “primitive brain systems” more dominant. These are the more reactive, impulsive parts of our brain that protect us from harm — from a danger immediately in front of us. But when the danger persists for months, it becomes much harder to operate from the more thoughtful part of our brain from which creative decisions are made.
That’s why creativity is hard to flourish when we’re in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode. We can’t be empathetic, inclusive, open to new ideas and see alternative perspectives when we can’t see past the next hour. Real inspiration, breakthroughs and deep, sustained focus can only happen when we’re in the calm eye of the hurricane — when we’re recharged and engaged, not at the mercy of our survival instincts. That’s when the creative rather than reactive parts of our minds can come to the surface.
Thriving — both professionally and personally — isn’t about requiring the external world around us to be exactly as we want it to be. It’s about creating pathways of connection to our inner resources, those treasures inside us that enable us to handle whatever the external world throws our way. Ultimately, all technology is about humans and what the technology allows us to do. So does it allow us to be our best selves, and unlock our uniquely human qualities? Does it augment our humanity, or diminish it?
A company is only as resilient as its people. If employees are anxious, reactive and burned out, every business metric — from productivity to attrition to customer success — will be affected. That’s why people need to be at the center of whatever re-entry plans or digital transformation strategies companies are formulating right now. And for all businesses, small and large, focusing on the upskilling and reskilling of their employees, it is more important than ever to include the human skills of resilience and stress management in the upskilling.
Sure, it’s great to use cutting-edge online teamwork software, create virtual stages for presentations, build customized workflow systems, optimize distributed workforces, have the latest in video meeting technologies and all the other marvels that are now more critical than ever. But what about the humans using all those optimized workforce systems? Are the humans optimized? We can see them showing up in the “participant list” of our video conferencing dashboards, but are they bringing their whole selves to work? And how much of their wisdom, empathy and creativity are showing up with them?
In some ways, what’s going on is a category error. Technology has focused so long on trying to create human-like A.I. and machine learning that we’ve forgotten that humans are actually not like machines at all. Humans can’t just flip a switch and operate at peak performance.
That’s not to say technology doesn’t have an important role to play in maximizing the human factor. Indeed, paradoxically, technology can even help us erect boundaries with technology — especially barriers to protect us from our addiction to our phones, social media and all the distractions that sap our attention and drain our productivity. Technology becomes truly game-changing when it helps us build resilience and works to augment our humanity.
So what can you do to make sure digital transformations in your organization are human-led? Creating tailored ways for companies to do just that is the core mission of Thrive Global. Here are six examples of tools and strategies Thrive has created in the past year to help companies build resilience, both for organizations as a whole and for their people, whether they’re working in the office or remotely:
1. Measure mental resilience and emotional well-being
To give people the support they need, we first have to understand where they are and what they’re struggling with. We need to understand more than just operational data that businesses have traditionally measured, and look beyond lagging indicators, like units shipped and sales numbers. The mental resilience and emotional well-being of employees are the true leading indicators of business performance. That’s why at Thrive we’re building a Mental Resilience Dashboard to help companies measure and manage the factors that allow their employees — their most valuable resource — to be their best, most productive, most creative selves.
2. Take a whole human approach to well-being
So much of the conversation around building resilience and navigating the return to the office focuses on physical safety. That’s obviously the first priority, but what’s left out of so many discussions is our mental and emotional state as we step forward. At Thrive, we have four interconnected journeys that empower people to make this just as much of a priority: Recharge, including the importance of sleep and taking moments throughout the day to reset and prevent stress from becoming cumulative; Fuel, including nutrition, hydration and movement; Focus, helping us effectively prioritize, minimize distractions and set boundaries with technology; and Connect, all about improving our relationship with ourselves and with those who matter most, helping deepen our sense of belonging and interconnectedness with the world around us.
3. Create transformational change by helping individuals, starting with making just one better choice
The challenges we’re facing right now are huge. Adapting to new ways of working and living is daunting. People everywhere are drained and depleted. That’s why it’s more important than ever to focus on small actions we can take to build healthier habits — and the science makes clear that Microsteps lead to transformational change. At Thrive, Microsteps are small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build new habits that significantly improve your life. By making our Microsteps too small to fail — for example, by remembering three things we are grateful for each time we wash our hands or brush our teeth — we can begin to build a new and healthier way of living and working. There’s nothing wrong with aiming big — but we can help ourselves by starting small.
4. Create systems and technologies that allow people to course-correct in real time
Neuroscience shows that we can reduce stress in just 60 seconds. At Thrive, we’ve created Reset, which allows people to create a personalized guide that can help them tap into their sense of perspective, gratitude and calm during stressful moments. Reset comes pre-populated with a variety of images and sounds that we’ve chosen to help people return to center. And for the optimal experience, users can create their own Reset guide — with the photos, quotes and sounds that bring them calm and joy — to help them de-stress and hit Reset.
5. Pay attention to your people on the front lines
We all have a new appreciation for the idea of frontline workers. But the category goes beyond healthcare professionals, delivery workers and others who have served as critical lifelines during the pandemic. All companies have frontline workers — those serving as brand ambassadors, representing the company and directly interacting with customers and clients. What those serving on the front lines often need most is a way to reset in real time. One example is call center workers. They’re dealing with constant stress, and don’t always have the luxury of stepping away when they need to. That’s why Thrive created Thrive Calls.
Thrive Calls puts science into practice by helping call center operators de-stress in the moments they need it most — without taking more than a minute of their time. After a long sprint of back-to-back calls, a 60-second Thrive Call will be triggered. It might be a 60-second breathing exercise, a quick moment for stretching, or a reminder to focus on something you’re grateful for. It’s an easy, integrated way for frontline workers to take a moment for themselves so they can reduce stress, improve focus and recenter to better solve problems. Companies can also choose to bring in machine learning to time the Thrive Calls to come after particularly difficult customer interactions.
6. Use the power of story
Stories are how we make sense of our world. We think in narrative, we dream in narrative. It’s stories that truly move us — stories of people overcoming obstacles, building healthy habits, or just making small changes that over time will have a big impact. That’s why it’s so important to hear from others about their challenges and successes, and to put a spotlight on role models at every level of an organization who can inspire others. As human beings, we don’t just want to move from A to B, we want to be part of a meaningful story. This understanding is at the heart of our work with Walmart. Powered by inspirational success stories from over 230,000 people, Walmart and Thrive have created Thrive ZP, which connects participants to a community where they can share their stories, support each other and celebrate success. I’m inspired every day by the stories people share — by making just one better choice and sticking to it, they’re changing their lives for the better and tapping into inner resources of strength and resilience they didn’t know they had.
We’re at one of those moments of deep discontinuity — when one system falls away and another takes its place. The pandemic sped up our future, accelerating trends that were already forcing us to come up with a new definition of productivity built around what we know allows people to reach their highest potential. As we reopen and re-enter, we need to reimagine and rebuild the relationship between employees and companies — and at the heart of that is helping employees rebuild their relationship with themselves. Creating the conditions for people to operate from a place of strength, calm, empathy and resilience should be on the list of every company’s plans for both the short term and the long term. Without also prioritizing the human factor, digital transformation and external productivity tools, no matter how sophisticated, will never be enough.
Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.