Employee well-being has always been vital to the success of any company but the challenges of the pandemic have made its importance paramount. We were in a stress and burnout epidemic even before the pandemic began, and that’s only intensified. One result has been to elevate the role of CHROs and people leaders, who have played a pivotal role in maintaining company culture, morale and productivity during unprecedented times. As we begin to reopen the economy over the rest of this year, CHROs are acting as strategic partners with CEOs, mapping out how best to set up their organizations — and their people — for success. The challenges are many, but so are the opportunities. Here are 10 ways people leaders and CHROs can maximize their impact in 2021.
1. Adapt Your Onboarding Process to Create Real-Time Engagement
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink onboarding, as people enter — or re-enter — workplaces that have been reshaped by the pandemic. Instead of just being a one-time process, onboarding can be used to create a culture of real-time and continuous engagement. At Thrive, the core of our onboarding process is our Entry Interview, in which we ask new hires what’s most important to them in their lives, both at work and outside of work. For parents, it might be taking a child to school (or helping with remote school). For others, it might be logging off early one night a week for an exercise class. But the key is to keep this two-way engagement going with regular check-ins since our needs evolve over time.
2. Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First
There’s a reason why airline attendants always give the instruction to secure your own oxygen mask first. We’re much more effective at taking care of others — and taking care of business — when we first take care of ourselves. And this is especially important in challenging times. Unlike machines, for humans, downtime is a feature, not a bug. Early in the pandemic, Accenture Chief Leadership Human Resources officer Ellyn Shook told me she’d stopped taking her daily walks because of her rising workload. So she learned to reframe her thinking: instead of seeing her walks as self-indulgent, she came to see them as a way to make her a better leader. When we don’t take care of ourselves, she said, “we’re really no good to anyone: our employers, our families and our communities, and all three need us in a very big way right now.” And instead of keeping it to herself, she shared her daily ritual with her Accenture colleagues, inspiring others to follow her lead.
3. Make Sustainability Personal
Most companies have made sustainability part of how they do business, whether through sourcing, supply chains or reducing waste. But CHROs have an opportunity to take this macro trend and make it a little more micro, by connecting it directly to the way people live and work. Because as the science on how we think and make decisions under stress makes clear, when we’re burned out, we operate on short-termism and day-to-day survival, just trying to get through the day. We’re not just less able to create more sustainable habits, we’re also unable to think about the future, make the wisest decisions for the long term and come up with creative and innovative solutions to complex challenges. At a time when people need support in building sustainable habits and businesses depend on healthy, focused, motivated employees to succeed, CHROs can seize the moment and connect the dots.
4. Continue to Expand Well-being
According to a survey of HR leaders by Gartner, during the pandemic 64% of companies offered new well-being programs, yet only a quarter plan to continue them. But as people navigate the next phase of the pandemic — re-entering workplaces, for example, and building new habits and rituals to adapt — they’re still going to need well-being support. In Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index for 2021, employees rating their mental health as poor or very poor more than tripled over the previous year, and nearly half say their levels of stress are high or very high. And Frank Snowden, a historian of pandemics at Yale, said he sees a second, “psychological pandemic” coming in the wake of the first one. So if you’ve expanded well-being and mental health programs in the past year, that’s great. Instead of winding down, think of this as your opportunity to ramp up well-being support to make sure the new normal is also a better normal.
5. Nurture Hybrid Skills
Hard skills and expertise are always going to be table stakes, but to successfully navigate the new hybrid world defined by constant uncertainty, companies will need to also nurture the uniquely human skills of empathy, resilience, collaboration, team building and creativity. On the new season of my podcast, “What I’ve Learned,” Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff spoke about how he’s had to create a new way to run his company and support his people. “We have to enable important skills, like mental health skills,” he told me. “We have to unlock them to get people back to being productive and successful.”
One way CHROs can unlock these hybrid skills is by fostering connections in the office for hybrid workers. According to a survey by Boston Consulting Group, employees who feel connected to their co-workers are two to three times more able to improve or maintain productivity than those who don’t feel connected. So when hybrid workers come into the office, their time should be spent in ways that foster connection, interaction and team-building instead of simply recreating their workday at home. Instead, that time should be maximized to foster connection, interaction and team building. CHROs, with their instinct and passion for bringing people together, should relish this opportunity to get creative and think outside the box.
6. Use Crisis as a Catalyst for Change
The past year has been a crucible — a time of terrible trials and tragic losses — but crucibles can also be catalysts for change that would otherwise have been impossible. Amidst all the tragedy of this time, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how we work — and CHROs are on the front lines of that effort. When I was on the Digital HR Leaders podcast with Walmart Chief People Officer Donna Morris, she talked about how she’d been able to use this time at Walmart: “We’ve really started a movement here at Walmart in terms of all of our associates taking time for their own personal well-being. And that catalyst might not have happened if we didn’t have this crisis.” Donna Morris made well-being a company priority — with an emphasis on emotional well-being and resilience — using the crisis as a catalyst not only for new conversations but for action. “What’s changed is the pandemic made us all vulnerable,” she said. “And well-being is going to be at the forefront.”
7. Use Technology to Augment Humanity — and Productivity
Technology has obviously been a lifeline during the pandemic, but at the same time, much of that same technology is also fueling burnout. In Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index for 2021, rates of burnout were directly connected to how dependent workers were on their devices. The report also notes that though we put in an average of 213 hours more in 2020 than in 2019, the number of missed deadlines actually went up. That’s the productivity paradox: we’re working more, but getting less done. So even though technology might be managed across several departments, CHROs should take a hard look at how technology is being used and ask, is technology at our company being used to enhance productivity, or are my team members drowning in it?
8. Bring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the Forefront
In addition to the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, the past year has fueled an awakening around systemic racism and injustice. Organizations now face the challenge — and the opportunity — of actually moving the needle on DE&I. CHROs need to channel the passion and hunger for change into tangible action, creating workplace environments where everybody feels not only psychological safety, but a sense of belonging. It’s a moral imperative and, if you need an additional reason, a business necessity: sense of belonging has been linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days, according to research from BetterUp.This shift, from diversity initiatives and perfunctory HR campaigns to committing to valuing every employee in a whole human way — and letting people’s differences shape the organization — represents one of the ways CHROs can deliver immediate and lasting value.
9. Create a Whole Human Workplace, Starting at the Top
As chaotic as working from home can be (“Can you let go of your sister’s hair — mommy is on a Zoom!”), this past year has made it more clear than ever that we bring our whole selves to work — and that’s a good thing. CHROs should use this time to create a whole human workplace in which the way we communicate reflects the realities of employees’ lives. This could mean daily check-ins. Or starting every conversation with simple, direct questions, like, “How are you?” “How is your family?” “How can I support you?” Giving people time and space to share what otherwise might be kept private allows people to take their whole selves to work and realize their full human potential.
10. Use the New SEC Rule on Human Capital to Expand Well-being Metrics
In November of 2020, a groundbreaking new SEC rule went into effect. It requires companies to not only disclose how many employees they have, but also “any human capital measures or objectives that management focuses on in managing the business.” In 1975, 83% of the value of companies in the S&P 500 came from their physical capital. By 2015, 84% of that value came from their human capital. So the new rule is a welcome acknowledgement that employee well-being is a key driver of business performance. It also gives CHROs a great opportunity — and leverage — to expand and elevate ESG reporting and employee well-being metrics, which are increasingly and rightly seen by shareholders as crucial investment information.
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