Q&A: Building a resilient workforce

In today's global economy, marked by intense competition and drive to innovate, how do organizations foster an engaged and high-performing workforce? What is the best way to maximize human capital?

The key is a resilient workforce, says Walter McFarland of global consulting firm North Highland People & Change. McFarland recently worked with a team from North Highland and Harvard Business Review to issue a survey on this concept of workforce resilience. The survey report, Building Resilience From Disruption, was compiled based on feedback from executives at nearly 500 companies reporting $1 billion-plus in annual revenue. In this Q&A with SmartBrief, McFarland shares what the report found about how to develop, nurture and maintain resilience. The conversation has been edited for space and brevity.

What are the traits of a resilient employee? Is this "capacity"?

A resilient employee is able to perform well under stress, learn continuously, and keep work and life balanced. Resiliency takes several forms. During an upswing, resilient employees are able to take advantage of market opportunities that help a company grow. During a downturn or industry disruption, resilient employees are able to remain flexible and work through challenges to help a business survive or redefine itself for changing times.

We define capacity as the resources and creativity an individual needs to work, to accomplish his or her goals and to contribute materially to the present and future success of an organization. Beyond the knowledge and skills required, this definition also includes the energy and resources needed to maintain a sense of buoyancy while floating across rapid sea changes. Also important is maintaining a strong emotional intelligence and degree of wellbeing that will help change fuel innovation.

Complicated hierarchies can lead to a breakdown in resilience, according to your research. How can companies dismantle these hierarchies?

Organizational complexity decreases resilience by imposing a confusing — and stress-inducing —hierarchy on employees. Two-thirds of survey respondents (66%) complained of too great organizational and procedural complexity.

Complicated hierarchical organizations can also obstruct collaboration, team empowerment, flexibility and autonomy by overburdening employees with processes that don’t directly support these efforts. Almost three-quarters of survey respondents (72%) complained that excessive multitasking and an overload of meetings are common.

The key to smashing hierarchies is by finding ways to increase cooperation and information flows. De-siloing and leveling hierarchies also diffuses decision-making among a larger population, creating a wider set of organizational leaders.

An example of this in action is to make sure that no single individual holds all the information for a given project or workflow. By organizing work teams to use a central information repository (e.g., secure network server, work management platform such as Slack, etc.) access to information and responsibility for completing tasks becomes more spread out, giving responsibility to all team members.

Another way to break up hierarchies is by examining how a company’s corporate headquarters services other branches. Sometimes it makes sense to cluster offices into regional groups which can help make a large company seem smaller and more manageable.

It seems like we're putting the responsibility of developing resilience on companies and employers. Shouldn't the employee assume some responsibility for this as well? Where's the balance?

Employees have a responsibility to self-engage. Teams become more engaged as individual members make the effort to do so.

Set expectations for how employees can contribute to a company’s overall resiliency. Ongoing education, trend monitoring and proactive workflow assessment are three ways that employees can work beyond standard expectation to help their organization prepare for and deal with market changes.

Two-way mentoring is named as a way to foster resilience. What does this look like in real practice?

The traditional model for workplace mentoring often pairs a more experienced individual (the mentor) with a newer employee (the mentee). However, the practice of two-way mentoring realizes that the most benefit can be gained from following a multidirectional model.

In practice, a more experienced employee may share institutional knowledge, tips learned through years of experience and practical skills needed to accomplish workplace success. In return, a less experienced employee may share tips on using technology, new suggestions for workflow and bring different attitudes and values.

Beyond linking employees from different generations, organizations can benefit from encouraging mentoring across departments. This may include interaction between employees taking over comparable jobs and between veteran leaders and newly minted managers. The passing on of institutional knowledge is especially important for organizations that have long-tenured employees and want to ensure that the heritage of a company is shared.

The benefits of resilience to employees are clear: stress management, enhanced learning and improved work-life balance. But what are the advantages to the organization?

Organizations that have a workforce that can thrive in an environment of continuous change are poised to create real competitive advantage. They are not only able to adapt faster, cheaper and better than their competitors, they are also able to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities and see breakthrough performance increases. In a resilient workforce, continuous change ceases to be debilitating and becomes fuel for continuous performance improvement.

What can companies do to foster a culture of resilience?

A resilient culture values its people, transparency and authenticity above hierarchy. It is not defined by silos but by experimentation, clarity and respect.

Our research revealed six factors that determine an organization’s success at promoting resilience:

  1. Getting employee buy-in
  2. Rewarding and recognizing employees
  3. Smashing hierarchies
  4. Harnessing automation and digitization
  5. Nurturing and retaining talent
  6. Mentoring employees and leaders

Stress, rapid change and the need for repeated transformations will continue to define the environment of organizations large and small. Initiating programs and processes that encourage resilience is the easy part, however; sustaining them can be trickier and must be recognized as strategic — as a source of competitive advantage in order to succeed.

Walter McFarland is an executive leader within North Highland’s People & Change practice. Based in Washington D.C., McFarland focuses on building the firm’s talent strategy and development expertise, as well as developing client relationships. He is co-author of the book “Choosing Change.”