Embracing humanity of employees key to long-term engagement heading into 2021

O.C. Tanner research helps organizations navigate the new realities of a post-pandemic working world

Embracing humanity of employees key to long-term engagement heading into 2021

As organizations across industries address the new realities of a post-pandemic working world, including how to engage remote employees, Meghan Stettler, Director of the O.C. Tanner Institute, hosted three powerhouse female panellists — virtually of course — during HRD’s HR Leaders Summit.

Stettler, who specializes in knitting together key sentiments and perspectives across the table to identify strategies for workplace culture success, looked polished and professional onscreen. Throughout her career, Stettler has interfaced with dozens of leading CEOs and diplomats across the world, as well as addressed over a million viewers as an award-winning journalist — but when one panel participant shared that her team often jokes the pandemic is “brought to you by sweatpants,” Stettler laughed and admitted that under her desk she was wearing her work-from-home uniform as well: sweatpants.

“This pandemic has allowed us to be human – to better understand, appreciate and value the complete individual, not just who they are eight hours a day,” Stettler says, noting she was inspired by her fellow courageous panellists to embrace the humanity of her “business on top but lounge on the bottom” outfit. 

COVID has changed how we connect, how we communicate and where and how we do our work, Stettler says, and while many companies initially tried to fill the gaps with bandaid solutions, we’re now entering a whole new phase where remote work is sticking around for the long haul — there is no “when things go back to ‘normal’” anymore.

“We need to reimagine how we're engaging a remote workforce during these unprecedented times, and our research indicates that leading with empathy while prioritizing communication, wellbeing and regular recognition can create meaningful connections that allow people to thrive and do great work.” she says.

Cindy Bush, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cineplex at the time of the discussion, says her team quickly let go of formal wear — the “corporate face” many put on to head into the physical office — and try to be flexible in other areas as well.

“First and foremost, let's acknowledge we're all human,” she says. “We have kids and pets and everything else wandering around, house deliveries — I think you have to acknowledge that life is happening regardless of where you happen to be sitting.”

Shalini Duggal, Chief People Officer at Centrilogic, says if she’s learned one thing during this time it’s that companies have to let people come as they are and that’s what Duggal is pushing for: acceptance and inclusion. That’s the ticket to long-term engagement, she says.

“Every day is a new lesson, but for me that was the big piece — have people feel like they belong, and it's OK when they're not OK.”

For Bush, it all comes down to the relationship employees have with their manager and being brave enough to ask for what they need in this unprecedented time. Trying new things, tweaking existing ones and experimenting generally have been critical as leaders help their people navigate this new path. With a team of over 40 employees under her, it really struck Bush how different their needs were.

“People with young kids, teenagers, taking care of parents, living alone — it’s about just being flexible and empathetic to what their needs are,” she says.  

According to research The O.C. Tanner Institute conducted at the beginning of the pandemic across major industries in the US, Canada and the UK, safety is no longer just about avoiding physical ailments in the workplace but “also about ensuring the social, emotional and psychological wellbeing of employees,” Stettler says. 

According to O.C. Tanner’s COVID-19 pulse survey, when employees reported they had achieved a successful work/life balance they were 63% less likely to be depressed, and communicating frequently and transparently is part of that equation. 

“In the absence of information, we often go to the lowest common denominator,” says Stettler. “Organizations that increased transparency since the start of the pandemic saw a 174% increase in trust in leadership and an 85% increase in employee engagement. In addition, weekly one-to-ones remained one of the strongest generators of great work, increasing perceived productivity by 67% and decreasing burnout by -33% during the crisis.”

On top of reaching out to remote employees honestly and frequently, leaders should also set clear expectations on what that communication will look like. Duggal’s team has been creating environments for people “whether they want to be more social, less social; whether they want to be on camera or don't” and moving into 2021, she’s excited about “accepting the normal of being OK with where people are in terms of their relationship with this remote environment.”

“Yes, we're worried about the business, the revenue, all those pieces — but none of that will exist without our people,” she says.

Some managers live by the rules while others have more “go with the flow” personalities, so Duggal and team try to help them reach a sweet spot between the approaches.

"Finding the small tips and tricks — using delayed delivery for emails sent outside of work hours, for example — and bringing it back to the middle has been something we've been focused on.”

For Lisa Brown, VP of Talent at Vidyard, there was a lot of time and energy put into recreating the company’s fun culture in the early stages of the pandemic — Motivation Mondays, Fun Fridays — but “we saw these things peter out a bit” as different teams found their own path.

“There's no one size fits all — every leader I talk to has a different style,” she says. “We try to encourage things like, are you meeting with your team? Are you creating the right opportunities? Do you have an inclusiveness where everyone feels they belong and are welcomed in the group?”

2020 has shined a light on the importance of our people, says Stettler, and now more than ever, employees want to be acknowledged and recognized.

“They need to feel our gratitude — that they are valued, on track and doing meaningful work,” she says. “While we understood recognition was imperative to thriving cultures before the pandemic, there was a dramatic difference between those organizations that continued to value and recognize their people in times of crisis, and those who did not.” 

O.C. Tanner’s research shows both engagement and the likelihood of great work increased by 47.4% when employees were recognized, but almost the opposite was true when recognition programs were cut or placed on hold. Stettler encourages leaders to identify regular opportunities to recognize to the great work happening and how their people uniquely contribute across everyday victories and above-and-beyond achievements. When done well, the odds of having an inclusive culture increases 17 times, among other culture outcomes.

Brown says “recognition is something we can all dial up a bit more,” and she recently sent her team a care package — a book, tea cup and cozy blanket from Indigo — which doubled as a message that’s it’s OK to put their feet up and take a break.

Bush also reached out to her team for a gratitude lunch, sending them money to order in food and eating together via Zoom. It’s simple, but doing informal things like that goes a long way, she says — and adds it’s also critical that HR professionals and other leaders take time to understand their own needs and “put their oxygen mask on first.”

As this rollercoaster of a year comes to an end, Stettler hopes organizations continue to place value on their workplace cultures as that’s truly the way to help employees thrive, do great work and deliver business results in a remote environment.

“2020 is more than a year of crisis,” she says. “It’s a year to seize opportunity, take action and accelerate change for a brighter future.”

Cultures where leaders embrace empathy, communicate frequently and transparently, prioritize social and emotional wellbeing and regularly recognize accomplishments show their people that they are seen, heard and valued — and organizations that are actively addressing their workplace culture shortcomings now are going to be the winners moving forward.

“This pandemic, as difficult as it has been, has allowed us to truly value the humanity of each another, and I hope that’s something that doesn't get lost in future endeavours.”

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