The New Shape Of Work: Inspiring A ‘People-First’ Corporate Culture

By focusing on flexibility, inclusion, and employee well-being, organizations can inspire a culture that nurtures a more resilient workforce.

There’s nothing more critical to the health of a business than the health of its people. Amid the cataclysmic shockwaves sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the psychological fallout has been felt by workers around the globe. A recent survey conducted by Sapien Labs and published by the World Economic Forum revealed that more than a quarter of respondents were at risk for clinical-level mental health challenges. As we experience the aftermath of this life-changing pandemic and witness employees struggle with isolation, loneliness and working in the ‘new normal,’ organizations worldwide need to rise to the challenge of making mental health management both an ethical imperative and a strategic priority.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., and this year’s theme was suitably designated as “You Are Not Alone.” The charge is clear: now more than ever, organizations should focus on inspiring a “people-first” corporate culture that embraces its workforce holistically and puts inclusion and well-being at the center of the new shape of work.

Harnessing the power of flexible work arrangements

The pandemic has called into question how, when and where we work, reshaping the very concept of a workplace. For the most part, the largest work-from-home movement ever has been a surprising success, illuminating the adaptability of humans.

Pre-pandemic, executives believed only 45% of the workforce was adaptable to a new digital world of work, according to Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends report. But that belief has been shattered: today, more than 90% of employers report that productivity has stayed the same or improved with employees working remotely, and according to our global flexible working survey, 82% report they will implement flexible working at a grander scale post-pandemic.

But in terms of mental and physical health, today’s flexible working model has not been without pitfalls for employees: on average, they are working three hours longer each day, and 41% of have reported experiencing new or increased pain in shoulders, backs or wrists since working from home.

A people-first framework delivers value and reaps all the benefits of remote working, such as sustained engagement, heightened productivity and expanded talent pools. Leading organizations will combine the best of the pre-Covid era with the digital models that are reshaping work today, rethinking how various roles can flex and offer more life-stage flexibility. By innovating and creating new hybrid work solutions, organizations can better support their employees’ careers, health and financial aspirations.

Driving holistic DE&I to instill a sense of belonging for everyone

The health disparities of Covid-19 and recent, albeit not new, acts of racism and violence have exposed and intensified the disadvantages faced by many minority groups, and shed light on the fact that identifying and addressing a diverse range of stakeholders’ unique needs will be key to providing accessible, inclusive mental health and well-being solutions.

For example,  according to data from the US Census Bureau, anxiety and depression symptoms tripled in Black and Latino communities last year, spiking after the murder of George Floyd. And the pandemic’s disparate effect on intersectional groups is also evident: in the US, women and people of color comprise a large share of the service-sector workforce and thus are disproportionately impacted by pandemic-induced business closures. The 2020 year-end unemployment rate for adult Black (8.4%) and Hispanic/Latino (9.1%) women was higher than White males (5.8%) and the overall unemployment rate (6.7%). Furthermore, people with disabilities suffered greater job loss, with 1 in 5 dismissed from employment compared to 1 in 7 in the general population. This imbalance is not only widening the wealth gap, but also widening the well-being gap.

In the ‘Great Reset,’ organizations have an opportunity (and, frankly, an obligation) to place diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) at the heart of business rebound and recovery. In a soon-to-be-released report from Mercer and the World Economic Forum, A Revitalized Vision for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI): How Businesses Can Embed Social Justice in Their Workforce, we explore a holistic change management and communication framework that requires the active involvement of leadership in challenging workplace inequalities and fostering an inclusive environment where all employees are engaged and feel a sense of belonging. These shifts will also ensure employers are more informed on how to address mental healthcare gaps and disparities.

Embedding humanity in the future of work

The pandemic uprooted daily life and fundamentally transformed value systems. Homes became offices and schools, and our reliance on the intersection of humans and technology took on new meanings in our day-to-day lives. Despite being more physically distant, we have become even more connected, providing an inflection point to the notion of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and humanizing the world of work in ways we have never before seen.

Out of necessity, many organizations have focused on reactive measures to deal with employee health and well-being. Now, there is an opportunity to tackle the root causes and focus on how jobs are designed and experienced. A positive health and mental health strategy should permeate the whole organization, and not be just an add-on. We know that work can be a very positive experience and contribute to a person’s sense of purpose and meaning, and so it’s important to design work that is healthy and reinforces that experience for all.

Related, during the height of the pandemic, many organizations also made people-first decisions: increased employee communication on safety protocols and redefined workforce priorities to help their employees feel better supported.

By focusing on flexibility, inclusion, and employee well-being, organizations can continue to inspire a “people-first” corporate culture and nurture a more resilient workforce that reflects the new climate of responsibility—and shapes the future of work.

As we enter into the next phase of managing through the pandemic—reopening and rebuilding—organizations who embrace a more comprehensive view of their responsibilities to both employees and society as a whole will reap the benefits and thrive.

Martine Ferland is President and CEO of Mercer and Vice Chair of Marsh McLennan. Mercer is a $5 billion global leader in redefining the world of work, reshaping retirement and investment outcomes, and unlocking real health and well-being.