We are approximately one year into new ways of working due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, this means working exclusively from home, and dealing with the incredible challenges that come with that, while also navigating uncertainty and chaos no one has a frame of reference for.
Over the last year, one thing was crystal clear as I coached clients through issues like struggling to find work-life balance, building resilience, and becoming confident and effective leading new teams they have never met. Ensuring employee well-being, has never been more critical for businesses than it is now.
According to a recent study by Westfield Health, this is not just a health issue, but an economic one. They report that the impact of deteriorating mental health from COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions cost UK businesses £14bn last year, up £1.3bn from 2019’s totals.
I discussed this with Cressida Stephenson Managing Director at EdenChase Associates who have a strong track record partnering with clients to achieve a more diverse and inclusive workforce by using unbiased processes to help them find the best tech and digital talent for mid-level to senior management executive roles.
Cressida added that well-being is also a crucial consideration right from the recruitment phase, to ensure that as new employees are onboarded remotely, the focus is on “cultural add” which helps businesses achieve the best results, rather than cultural fit. Because as new employees are supported and empowered to add to the culture, the greatest ideas to navigate and innovate around challenges can be harnessed.
We decided to co-host an executive roundtable with technology leaders from a range of sectors including legal, engineering and management consultancy to glean more insights.
It was a facilitated discussion in which the leaders shared the challenges and best practices around employee well-being from their respective organisations. Here are 5 helpful tips for leaders to implement to ensure employee well-being that emerged from the insightful dialogue.
1. Put Your Own Mask on First
Employee well-being is now the number one priority to navigate these challenging times in which “we don’t work from home any more, we live at work” according to Nina Gratrick, Head of IT Services Watson Farley and Williams. Nina also added that “it’s therefore of utmost importance that we help our teams maintain their well-being, and a big part of that is modelling what that looks like for us personally as leaders, and making it OK for others to emulate.”
Other advice from the leaders around this included:
• Ensuring you have a supportive space and structure in place for yourself
• Using what was previously commute time for things like exercise and “reading without guilt”
• Doing whatever makes sense to ensure you maintain your own well-being in order to be your best to support the team.
All the leaders stressed the importance leading by example to show their teams that it is fine to have a life outside of work, and to temporarily disengage from work if needed to maintain well-being.
2. Let Your Team See Your Mask, and Help Them Put Theirs on Too
The next tip our leaders suggested was to help and encourage your team to “put their masks on” too. Some of the organizations represented approached this by hiring new custodians of employee well-being, whose roles involve developing new policies and initiatives to help employees.
All the leaders also stressed the need for flexibility due to the very real challenge that when implementing well-being strategies, one size doesn’t fit all. Each employee is different, with their own very unique set of challenges, experiences, preferences, family situations and commitments.
John Echavarria, Head of Technology and Programmes, at the Gap Partnership added “Give employees licence and access to change their working patterns. We also need to sensitively establish what conditions people are working under and allow people to change their working patterns as needed to reduce stress and boost well-being”.
For example, John tells his team not to feel obliged to accept every meeting offered if it adversely affects their well-being. He strives to intentionally create a balanced working environment, where individuals are not overburdened by workload, and are managed within the context of their current situation. He, and all the leaders in attendance also mentioned the importance of taking holidays and really being “out of office” even if you never leave home.
3. Manage Workloads More Effectively with Clear Priorities
A huge challenge all the leaders highlighted was the need to effectively manage team members’ workload to avoid overwhelm. Having eliminated the daily commute means there is often no clear start or stop time for the working day.
Many employees therefore feel the need to be “always on and accessible”. The leaders have also found that due to this perceived need for 24×7 accessibility, some of their teams are not taking their full holiday entitlement.
The best practice shared to combat this is to be clear on, and regularly communicate the priorities. Alex Gregor- Smith, Director of Enterprise IT Operations at Ocean Infinity said “it is counter-productive to overwhelm people with too much work, so it is crucial to give the team permission to focus on the important tasks and prioritise their workload.”
We agreed that as we have, and continue to live in very uncertain times, in which priorities can, and often change, another important best practice is to continually clarify, and clearly communicate priorities with your team.
4. Encourage Regular Mental Stretch Breaks
According to the leaders, one of the things employees miss most is those “in-between” work moments that boost a sense of belonging and community; such as meeting others for coffee or lunch, having a chat by the water-cooler, or taking a quick walk around the block chatting to others as you stretch your legs. In these days of numerous work focused video meetings, the absence of such “in-between” activities which John Echavarria likened to the mental equivalent of getting up and having a stretch, can be detrimental to employee well-being.
Intentionally creating such mental stretch breaks was the unanimous suggestion, and Nigel Lang, Head of Technology Services at Hogan Lovells, shared a fantastic best practice for this from his organization. Hogan Lovells have a Global Citizenship Community, where employees are encouraged to work on pro-bono activities completely unconnected with their direct work. The IT team use their global quarterly meeting to discuss these as a standing agenda. This provides a platform for people to connect and have access to other individuals across the business that they would never normally speak to. It also helps boost well-being by creating a positive minded community environment.
Nina Gratrick, also shared another “mental stretch break” activity at her firm; an organization-wide ‘virtual coffee morning’, to establish casual interaction across the international offices. It is completely non-work focussed allowing individuals to simply connect and chat with others across the organization in a way that encourages well-being for all.
5. Use the Chaos as a Catalyst for Change if Possible
While the pandemic and other disruption over the last year has caused chaos, and provided much reason for employee well-being to remain challenged, Nigel Lang shared an interesting suggestion of using the chaos as a catalyst for positive change as our roundtable drew to a close. Once the IT team’s workload settled after the beginning of the pandemic, Nigel decided to seize the opportunity to change ineffective processes. Working with one of his colleagues he instigated a new DevOps initiative to redress the balance, and help teams more effectively manage their workload, whilst enabling more control of the work pipeline, improving delivery quality and speeding up delivery cycles. This innovation has provided a real well-being boost to all involved and impacted.
It was evident from our interesting and informative discussion with these brilliant leaders that investing in employee wellbeing is important and necessary for every organisation. If it is ignored, it will be almost impossible to find a business strategy robust enough to overcome the employee burn out, and continued economic impact that will follow. As we head into more uncertain months, our hope is that these tips will help leaders better manage their own, their teams’, and their organization’s well-being.