Lauren Zajac of Workhuman: “Foster meaningful connections among employees”

Foster meaningful connections among employees. This has been critical since the start of the pandemic as companies are seeing their employees as more than someone who is just in the office from 9-to-5. We are in each other’s homes, sometimes seeing each other’s families. Work and personal life are intertwined. And while we are separated […]

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Foster meaningful connections among employees. This has been critical since the start of the pandemic as companies are seeing their employees as more than someone who is just in the office from 9-to-5. We are in each other’s homes, sometimes seeing each other’s families. Work and personal life are intertwined. And while we are separated by a screen, we have stronger reminders that the person on the other side is human. As we see the bigger picture of many employees’ lives now, it is leadership who must take this chance to humanize the workplace.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Zajac.

As chief legal officer, Lauren oversees all legal, regulatory, and compliance affairs for Workhuman. With more than 20 years of experience, she has served as legal counsel for a broad mix of high-growth public and private companies. Lauren serves as board chair for LeaderMom and is on the board of The Soul Project. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Boston College and a Juris Doctorate from Hofstra University School of Law.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

For so long as I can remember, I went around telling people that I wanted to be a lawyer, even though I really didn’t know what this meant. I truly enjoyed my years before Workhuman; being a part of the various teams and representing a client from the inside, which is how I describe the GC role. But it wasn’t until I arrived at Workhuman that I found an amazing confluence of the things that are most important to me; the work I love to do together with the practice of gratitude.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting story is the ongoing evolution of leadership that I have had during my journey at Workhuman. What is truly amazing to me is how watching effective recognition programs play out for our clients and using it to help lead my teams — has changed the way I lead and operate as the GC, as a leader and as a human. Leading a company that fosters a culture of recognition has allowed me to have a seat at the table in a way I never have before; has allowed me to become the most authentic leader that I can be and has allowed me to have strong bonds with my co-executives and other co-workers resulting in an extremely gratifying and satisfying work life.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As I mentioned above, living in the culture of Workhuman has allowed me to be more deeply connected to all of the parts of the company that I represent. I have been fortunate enough to be able to work with my product and strategy teams to help design and plan for the use of our technology to address bias, specifically unconscious bias, which may occur in the workplace. Being a female, making my way in the corporate world for the last two decades, this is something that I am passionate about solving and I’m excited that I can help drive Workhuman in its efforts to be part of the solution.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

During the pandemic, many employees have lost a vital source of connection and community in the form of their work family. Relationships are key to employee retention, and they have a drastic impact on overall employee happiness.

How often have workers felt a sense of loneliness and isolation since the pandemic began? According to the findings of a Workhuman survey, 42% said once a week or more often. And 10% said they felt lonely every day. This is another concerning finding because, according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact, costing the global economy an estimated 1 trillion dollars per year in lost productivity. Keeping a focus on programs that support social connection is the key to driving engagement right now.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Employees who are happy and engaged in their work are less likely to leave a company, and those who aren’t happy are more likely to leave. An unhappy workforce affects company culture and the overall employee experience, which undoubtedly impacts productivity and the bottom line.

Recognition and appreciation in the workplace (in the office and remotely) is critically important, especially as we enter a new year still working remotely. According to Workhuman survey findings, when remote workers were asked “What do you miss most about working in the office?” the top answer was “my colleagues.” While the world grapples with this pandemic, companies are facing increased loneliness and stress among their employees. New ways of working that cater to the whole human at work — and focus on appreciation and connection — will keep employees motivated and engaged through the uncertainty.

With fewer in-person connections, performance management needs to be ongoing and more collaborative. It’s never been more important to ensure a culture of frequent check-ins and feedback. Now, more than ever, employees need to feel appreciated, understood and connected to a company’s values, goals, and mission. Especially in a remote world, employers can take advantage of social recognition platforms that mitigate isolation and encourage social and emotional connections during a time of crisis when people need it most. Retention, productivity, and performance increase because employees know they’re part of a social fabric and connected to a community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an increased toll on the mental health of all employees. According to Workhuman’s employee pulse survey, 38% of workers experienced a form of burnout during the pandemic (for working parents, the number was even higher — 42%). Supporting employees will require management to be flexible and highly communicative and vice versa.

Organizations that deliver a positive employee experience through human workplace practices like recognition, feedback, and empowerment, see a significant impact on return on assets (ROA) and return on sales (ROS).

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Managers should take the following steps to improve their company work culture:

  1. Foster meaningful connections among employees. This has been critical since the start of the pandemic as companies are seeing their employees as more than someone who is just in the office from 9-to-5. We are in each other’s homes, sometimes seeing each other’s families. Work and personal life are intertwined. And while we are separated by a screen, we have stronger reminders that the person on the other side is human. As we see the bigger picture of many employees’ lives now, it is leadership who must take this chance to humanize the workplace.
  2. Prioritize being human-centered. Companies that took steps towards bringing more humanity into the workplace well before the crisis started have had a strong advantage. For example, those that had already invested in HR technology to maintain connections between employees and managers through recognition were better prepared to transition to remote work. Everyone else is now playing catch-up. Especially in a remote environment, leaders can promote connection through leveraging HR technology.
  3. Encourage employees to freely and frequently recognize the great work their peers are doing. Recognition enhances and lifts the energy levels and morale of individuals in an interconnected way so the people giving the thanks as well as the people receiving the thanks are lifted up and their relationships are deepened.
  4. Promote meaningful work. People want to work for a company where they feel like they can make a difference and have a sense of belonging. In fact, according to findings from the 2019 Workhuman Analytics & Research Institute Survey, workers across all age groups ranked meaningful work as most important– beating out all other options including positive company culture, compensation and perks, a supportive manager, and a fun team.
  5. Amplify the voice of your employees. Amazing work cultures built on trust don’t just spring up overnight. They come from asking questions relevant to today’s workforce and taking the right action. It’s against this backdrop — and a world of work that’s changing by the moment — that staying in tune with employees through tools like employee pulse surveys are more important than ever.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Work culture can be improved by prioritizing the overall employee experience and making recognition and gratitude a way of life. In a global research study conducted by IBM and Workhuman, The Employee Experience Index, employee experience is defined as: “A set of perceptions that employees have about their experiences at work in response to their interactions with the organization.”

The study identifies five dimensions of the Index. When employees have a positive experience in the workplace, they demonstrate a greater sense of:

  1. Belonging — feeling part of a team, group, or organization
  2. Purpose — understanding why one’s work matters
  3. Achievement — a sense of accomplishment in the work that is done
  4. Happiness — the pleasant feeling arising in and around work
  5. Vigor — the presence of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement at work

When these dimensions are thriving within an organization, the benefits are dramatic: better work performance (96% vs. 73%), significantly higher levels of discretionary effort (95% vs. 55%), and far greater levels of employee retention (21% vs. 44%).

In order to make a broader societal change in U.S. workforce work culture, more leaders and companies need to adopt a human-centered culture that emphasizes the connections among employees and the purpose behind their work. Doing so helps enable organizations to rebound with an engaged and resilient set of employees.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My leadership style is servant leadership. I believe strongly that the best leaders help to encourage leadership skills within their teams. Fostering growth on my team and career paths going forward is something I don’t take lightly.

Interestingly, recognition is the perfect tool to support this kind of leadership. Having led teams of lawyers for many years, I know that much of our work in the in-house capacity happens ‘behind-the-scenes.’ Being able to recognize those behaviors of my team that I think are most impactful to their growth, as those behaviors are happening, is an unparalleled mechanism to highlight important work that may otherwise go unnoticed. I have recognized my team members for the following behaviors just in the last quarter:

-Concluding a complex negotiation while protecting our Intellectual Property;

-Stepping outside of normal purview to help a team from another functional area plan a process;

-Going above and beyond to connect with other team members on a topic that would help all to increase their learnings; and

-Specific to the pandemic-remote work environment, graciously juggling new parenthood and work goals.

These recognition moments have drawn the spotlight to behaviors that are supportive of continued progress and are opportunities to shine that are seen by the whole company. Additionally, they create the perfect jumping-off point for check-ins and ongoing progress discussions that are meaningful by virtue of the fact that they reference a specific instance or interaction.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I began my career at Workhuman in 2008. At the time, my twin daughters were less than a year old and my son was 3. In anticipation of starting a family, I had moved out of a full-time role and began a consulting business supporting start-up companies in an outside-general counsel capacity. Through a strange series of events, I ended up on the phone with CFO of Workhuman, Steve Cromwell. He and I had worked together some years before at another technology company in the Boston area. Once we concluded the business we had that day, he called me back and he told me about this great company he was with and that they didn’t have a lawyer yet and wondered if I’d be interested. With three young children, I wasn’t looking for a role like this just yet but the idea — employee recognition — was interesting and appealing; as was working with my old friend again. We set up some time to meet the next week and the rest, as they say, is history. I am tremendously grateful to my Steve for introducing me to the place that has become a home for me and for the constant alignment and partnership that we have in helping to bring this mission to life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In the last few years, as my role has expanded and I have had the fortune of connecting with so many like-minded people; I have been afforded the opportunity to use what I have learned to help some important organizations on their path forward.

I currently serve as the chair of the board for LeaderMom, an organization that helps working moms achieve more fulfilling careers by addressing the real business problems of gender inequity and unwanted turnover.

I have also recently been invited to be on the board of The Soul Project a non-profit organization that celebrates women through vulnerability, soulful imagery and a supportive tribe — connecting women to other women one story at a time.

I am so grateful to be able to participate in this important and meaningful work that is so aligned with my beliefs and my passions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

— John F. Kennedy

As I explained earlier, being able to live in a place where my ambitions and goals are fueled by gratitude has been for me, a confluence of all that is meaningful to me personally. I truly believe that to be the best versions of ourselves and to elevate our leadership potential, we must start by being grateful for the progress we have made and we must embody gratitude on a daily basis. I am fortunate that I am able to do that every day within a community of kindred spirits and that together we are striving to make work more human.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement we’ve inspired with Workhuman is bringing humanity to the workplace. We want to pass forward the business impact of gratitude and inspire others. The data shows if you put human connection at the center of work, your people and your business thrive. It’s at the heart of what we do, and what our CEO Eric Mosley instills in our company. Workhuman connects teams and strengthens global workforces through gratitude, feedback, and celebration. And right now, and during a time when there’s so much distance between us, human connection is still the most powerful force in the workplace — and in the world. The broader inspirational movement is moving HR forward, changing the culture of work globally.

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