At the beginning of the pandemic, CEOs were forced to make difficult decisions to protect both employee health and the company’s financial health. As variants become less severe and patience for Covid-19 restrictions wanes, CEOs have a new set of challenges to overcome. Taking into account what we’ve learned about how work gets done and what employees want from the workplace, leaders must figure out how to create a productive and unified workforce without sacrificing company values or employee well-being. Finding opportunities among the challenges can help shape evolving culture and productivity needs. Here are three areas that CEOs need to embrace:
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
A lot of organizations are touting a commitment to company values and employee well-being, but it’s not enough to issue an internal memo or press release. People are burnt out and most organizations are navigating a tight talent market to fill job openings. Continuing to ask employees to do more with less—or requiring them to come into the office “for the sake of company culture”—isn’t going to foster a thriving environment.
You need to be willing to do things differently to show people that you are prioritizing their well-being and your company values. Find ways to allow for flexible work hours with reasonable parameters to allow people space to take care of “life maintenance” or squeeze in a mid-day walk to reset. Create more space by working with employees to decide what projects can and should be re-prioritized, paused, or even canceled. Consider taking inspiration from Brené Brown, who recently announced that this summer her team would be pausing all social media activity and all employees are required to take four weeks of paid vacation. While this may seem extreme, research clearly demonstrates that levels of burnout are drastically high—and you can’t expect to get the most out of your workforce if they are in this state.
Focus On Building a Unified Team
It can be challenging to create meaningful relationships and interactions in a virtual or hybrid environment, especially as we click from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. But you can still foster a sense of belonging, even without in-person interactions. Just because employees are remote doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on physical reminders. Just like a team uniform, there’s something powerful about consistent visuals. Consider investing in company swag that can be sent to employees’ houses or use creative virtual backgrounds. Another approach is to create informal times to connect. When we’re in back-to-back meetings all day, there’s no time for “water cooler” talk. One way to combat this is to intentionally carve out time at the start of meetings before diving into action items. Or, periodically set up meetings without an agenda—the “virtual water cooler.
Beyond these tactics, building a strong culture is best done by getting employees involved. People want to feel a sense of ownership over their work environment. Ask volunteers to raise their hand to come up with solutions to help you tackle this challenge or consider creating some friendly competition around key strategic initiatives. I was recently discussing this with a Director of ESG, who was struggling with varying levels of buy-in across different offices around their sustainability efforts. By shifting from a mandate to an office versus office competition, the “groan” of doing something new turns into a fun, collective effort.
Establish Guidelines Rather Than Hard-and-Fast Rules
It’s likely unrealistic to think most employees will work remotely forever. As you craft your policies around the return to on-site work, base these policies on principles rather than hard-and-fast rules. Organizations that are mandating a return to office “for the sake of culture” are risking increased attrition, as many employees view this as an excuse to monitor their productivity. Instead of requiring people on-site three days a week, for example, outline the types of meetings that most benefit from in-person collaboration. Or, if someone has a day full of client calls—meaning, they won’t have any time to “walk the halls” and connect with colleagues—that likely doesn’t warrant a commute to the office. Furthermore, it’s critical to invest in modern technology that allows for flexibility when in-person participation isn’t possible (like when someone is recovering from Covid-19).
While the complexity of navigating a “post” pandemic work environment can seem overwhelming, it also presents CEOs with an opportunity. You have the chance—in this unique moment in time—to reimagine how work gets done, how your teams interact, and the expectations you set. Investing in company culture and employee well-being should not conflict with productivity and achievement of business outcomes. In truth, it’s quite the opposite.