Andrew Duncan describes how organisations must develop an empathetic approach to encouraging employees back to the workplace
This is the third article in my series on ‘Building back better’, and I want to conclude with a topic that is at the forefront of business dialogue right now: returning to the workplace and the implications on employee well-being.
Organising future work arrangements, and attending to inevitable anxieties about those arrangements, will require leaders to start putting mental health on a par with physical health.
Individuals may fear the next chapter of work will mean reduced autonomy and an unsupportive environment, as well as facing ongoing safety concerns about catching COVID-19.
This increased stress will have tangible effects on workplace outcomes, including productivity, absenteeism, and employee satisfaction. As we plan enduring changes to our operating models, we must prioritise supporting our people both in and out of the workplace.
Those organisations that put a keen focus on these topics, and engage in an open dialogue with their staff, stand to elevate their credibility and strengthen their position as a truly reputable workplace and one that genuinely puts employees at the heart of their culture.
There is no one-size-fit-all solution to re-entering the office; leaders deciding how to organise work should make more nuanced choices that reflect the needs of both employees and company. Global research tells us 87% of leaders around the world say they will allow more flexibility about where, when and how people work — a 38% increase from April 2020.
With a hybrid model, the importance of communication in the transition stage cannot be overstated. Employees need to be given clear expectations of when they are expected to work remotely and when they are expected in the office.
For example, in late 2020, Dropbox announced a “Virtual First” strategy, in which remote work will be the day-to-day default for individual work, complemented with collaborative work at their studios.
Communicating these new policies at the earliest opportunity can help manage any anticipatory stress and allow employees to plan for changes to childcare options and health needs. Organisations that choose a “wait and see” approach risk frustrating and isolating their employees.
Prioritise psychological safety
There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of psychological safety in the post-COVID-19 workplace, particularly as we redefine what constitutes acceptable in the new normal. Psychological safety is defined as an environment of protected vulnerability in which employees feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being marginalised.
In the new workplace, leaders will need to build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindsets, and behaviours for employees regardless of their location. This can be done by moving away from the traditional ‘command and control’ leadership style of the past to a more consultative approach, which has been shown to promote psychological safety.
A change in culture starts from the top, with leadership modelling and reinforcing the behaviours they expect to see from their team. For management, consultative leadership includes understanding each team member’s preferred working style, from level of autonomy to ways they like to engage with others – empowering them to control how they work regardless of location.
Explore new digital solutions
Gartner research shows that organisations can boost employee discretionary effort by 21% by providing holistic well-being support. Health benefits no longer mean basic health insurance plans; new offerings on the market range from prevention chatbots to meditation apps and virtual psychotherapy.
On the emerging tech side, organisations are exploring the use of wearables and biometrics to collate data from a range of sources; for example, employees may use their smartphones to self-report their mood, while their smart watch tracks their heart rate and skin temperature. Indeed, in April, Microsoft patented a biometric ‘wellness insights’ tool for workers, which generates an employee “anxiety score” based on data such as blood pressure and heart rate.
Of course, such tools will inevitably raise concerns about workplace surveillance, so employers would be wise to consider privacy concerns around personal data to ensure they don’t cause more harm than good.
Ramp up training measures
According to a survey by Citrix, 82% of employees believe they need to hone their current skills or acquire new ones at least once a year to maintain competitive advantage. However, as organisations dealt with the immediate shock of COVID-19, many paused their employee’s progression and training, leading to lower engagement and demotivation.
The effects can clearly be seen in the so-called ‘great-resignation’ of 2021, as record number of people expect to leave their existing jobs this summer. In response, organisations will need to prioritise upskilling and reskilling to attract and retain the talent they need to grow their businesses.
Prioritising training is also critical to support groups that might have been marginalised by the pandemic: underprivileged women—those working lower-wage jobs, and minorities—as well as single parents, who may have been loaded with additional tasks such as healthcare for elderly relatives, childcare, and education.
Find (and live) your corporate purpose
COVID-19 reminded us that people are at their most motivated when they can connect their work contributions to a greater purpose and mission. Therefore, as organisations plan their return to work, leaders should take this chance to define their corporate purpose, and to envision how it can be reflected across every team.
Importantly, when establishing and communicating their ‘north star’, senior stakeholders must be wary of making corporate purpose ‘just another initiative’; if the aim is insincere and unaccompanied by tangible action from the top, then it is destined to fail.
There are several ways business leaders can make authentic purpose part of their culture. Some companies use internal scorecards to track the commitment of employees to organisational purpose. Others embed purpose metrics into the performance assessments of their leadership team.
If done well, the payoff is high; when employees feel their purpose is aligned with the organisation’s purpose, benefits include stronger engagement, heightened loyalty, and greater advocacy.
Returning to the workplace is not a simple overnight switch. Employers must recognise that different employees anticipate and experience on-site work differently, and there is a significant risk of decreased productivity and employee satisfaction if they aren’t supported during the transition.
Long-term, organisations will likely continue to evolve their operating models and workplace culture to prioritise the mental health of their most important asset: their people.
Andrew Duncan is a Partner and UK CEO at Infosys Consulting
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com