When the world changed in 2020 and employees rapidly became remote workers, no one could have predicted how long it would last. Likely many employers and employees expected they’d be back in the office and to their regular routines within a few weeks. As the pandemic settled in, however, organizations around the world reached for a playbook that did not exist. What leaders needed was one that could offer help in navigating this new terrain while fostering a supportive, safe, productive and inclusive workplace.
With this new reality, employees’ sense of control and safety plunged, clearly revealing the first step employers needed to take: Offer employees security, choice and flexibility, enabling each and every person to work in a way best suited for their unique needs. Balancing work life with home life can be a challenge, and now—more than a year into the pandemic—the effects of that balancing act on employees’ mental health have become a focus for many organizations.
In fact, according to an April 2020 study by Qualtrics and SAP, 42% of employees who responded said that their mental health had declined. And a Gallup poll across all demographics indicated a dramatic decrease in perceived mental health and life satisfaction to lows not seen since the Great Recession.
While many experts agree the tumult of the pandemic may remain until fall 2021, many companies are realizing the programs now in place to support employees’ health and wellbeing must remain as we look toward the future and eventually reopen office doors.
At the beginning of the pandemic, five leading tech companies—Palo Alto Networks, Box, Uber, Splunk and Zoom—formed the FLEXWORK Coalition, offering guidance and support to organizations around the globe as well as using their collective experiences to help create the playbook that didn’t exist. Although a clear vision of the future of work is in progress, these organizations insist that mental health and wellness support must remain a priority, even as offices begin to reopen and “regular” routines return.
In lieu of a playbook, keeping the following four priority areas in mind while planning for what’s next will help provide a culture that fosters mental health and wellbeing:
Employees at all five Coalition organizations indicated that stability—the security of knowing their jobs are safe, they can pay their bills and their needs will be cared for—has been crucial for a feeling of wellbeing during this difficult year. The following from leadership can help employees continue having a feeling of stability:
- Offer employees the option to continue working remotely. Set expectations for when offices will reopen and what reopening will look like. Although many workers may be chomping at the bit to get back to the office, others may still feel hesitant. Giving employees an extended look at what’s next will help them feel more stable for what’s to come.
- Offer wellness stipends or in-office wellness programs. Employee stipends for wellness services, including mental health, fitness programs and more, allow employees to continue with, or seek out, the services that suit them best.
- Help with financial concerns. Many companies have access to financial planning resources as part of their benefits packages and are implementing and making services available to help employees with their finances, including retirement and debt-payment advice, budgeting assistance, etc.
Among other issues raised by the pandemic was that of inequality. People of color and those in certain socioeconomic groups have suffered disproportionately. Discussions of diversity and inclusion became paramount in 2020—and were long overdue. Employees who saw these efforts redoubled were more likely to be satisfied with their work, so employers should concentrate these efforts in the workplace as well.
- Deploy and strengthen employee network groups. ENGs are affinity groups within organizations that help facilitate support, allyship, cross-functional learning and connection within and across populations. They might include groups for Black, LatinX, LGBTQIA+, Asian, women, veterans or other employees who may be looking to share concerns or educate others in the workplace.
- Support employee-led, grassroots allyship. Empower employees to become trained to lead allyship discussions in an effort to combat racial injustice and actively become an antiracist organization.
The importance of trusting your employer cannot be overstated, especially during a time when we’ve found ourselves at home, separated from colleagues and managers. Creating a safe, trusting space for employees should not be relegated only to remote work. Here are some ideas for doing this:
- Develop formal and informal discussion groups. Whether for professional or personal concerns, small group forums offer safe spaces to grow, share ideas, express concerns or just bond. They provide a safe haven where employees feel known and heard.
- Prioritize accessibility and responsiveness. Managers should work to remain in close touch with employees and frequently check in. How is everyone feeling? Are there concerns with safety, career development or expectations that should be addressed? Companywide, this can be done through surveys to better understand employee sentiment and needs, and then find ways to address them.
- Make meetings count. Scheduling a meeting just for meeting’s sake isn’t an effective use of time and may lead employees to feel micromanaged. Instead, take a hard look at how your workplace handles meetings and whether they can be scaled back to enhance productivity. For example, some companies are assigning a “no internal meetings” day to help employees have the time to get their work done.
Knowing that an employer is invested in your personal and professional development as well as in their community can boost job satisfaction. To reap the rewards of a productive, engaged, loyal workforce, companies should seek ways to give back. For example:
- Encouraging and supporting giving back: Look for ways to help employees feel good about themselves and their work. Setting up relief funds that the company matches can encourage employees to identify local community fundraising opportunities.
- Internal recognition programs: Is there a way employees and managers can recognize their colleagues’ hard work and commitment? Seek opportunities to frequently give employees pats on the back.
In light of the pandemic, many organizations working at a distance have shifted their ways of working—moving to employee choice and fostering supportive environments where everyone is inspired to do their best work and feel a sense of belonging from anywhere. And we foresee this continuing long after office doors reopen.
What’s your company doing to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of your employees? If you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation here.