My husband and I work together. He is the CEO of Mutant, and I am the Strategic Director – and including our time working alongside each other as journalists back in New Zealand, we have worked in the same office for about 12 years. When I tell people this, the reaction is usually, “Oh god, I could never do that”.
Truth is, we didn’t know if we could either, but we always had one thing that worked well for us. At the office, it was all business (so much so that many employees didn’t realise for a long time that we are married), but at home, work talk was largely off the table. In order for our professional relationship (and marriage) to survive, we had to identify boundaries and put the work talk away while eating dinner or hanging with the kids.
But guess what? COVID-19 had other plans, and throughout lockdown and beyond, we were thrust into the same house together 24/7. Boundaries be damned!
Like all other households around the world, we have had to readjust our expectations, boundaries and ways of working to accommodate this so-called “new normal” (it’s just “normal” now, right? Can we put this phrase to bed already?). When home and work collide as they do right now, there’s very little distinction between the two. How can you have “work-life balance” when everything is one and the same? Your office space is your breakfast bar and your meeting room is whichever room the kids aren’t playing in. Sure, now we have a home office set up, but it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a fundamental shift in the employee experience.
As employers, thanks to working from home or hybrid models, we are probably more involved in the lives of our staff than ever. We’ve met partners and pets on Zoom calls, heard or told stories about struggling to work and teach kids at home, and helped people through loss and tragedy. We’ve had staff take more mental health days, be open about their personal struggles, and share what’s working for them (and what’s not).
Interestingly, the research seems to support the premise that supporting employees more in their personal lives leads to higher happiness levels and more productivity. A Gartner 2020 study found organisations that focus on employees’ life experience as a whole see 23% more staff reporting better mental health. Interestingly, it found a 17% increase in the number of employees reporting better physical health, too. On the business side, there was also a 21% increase in the number of high performers identified, compared to companies that didn’t offer the same level of “life” support to staff.
I find this fascinating. On one hand, I’m sure most employees don’t want their bosses more involved in their lives – but then again, in order to find a dynamic that works for both the wellness of each individual staff member and the business, you’ve got to be able to communicate with each other. And that means getting somewhat involved.
I’m not talking about invasive questions and inserting yourself into personal matters where you’re not wanted, but rather leading from the front to create change in your organisation that provides staff with a feeling of security. Leaders always say things like, “we’re like a family here” – and it’s probably always been a bit of a lie. But now? More true than ever.
As a business or a leader, I think there’s a few things that can be done to provide a better overall experience for staff as we move ahead into 2021:
Support for mental health:
Without a doubt, this is the main one. But beyond official programs or access to therapy, it’s about ensuring a culture where employees feel comfortable asking their bosses for time away to deal with their mental health. It also means employers need to lead by example – taking their annual leave (and staying away from work!) and announcing they’re logging off early some days, if necessary.
Taking a stand:
Whether it’s on political, cultural or societal issues, employees highly value a company that takes a position on various topics and debates. Doing this humanises the organisation and truly showcases how it values its people – as people. In fact, one study found 87% of employees worldwide want companies to take a public position on societal issues relevant to the business. And 74% said the company should take a stand even if the issues aren’t directly relevant to the business.
Focus on gender equality:
This pandemic has been shown to exacerbate the gender wage gap, as more women are either let go or choose to leave jobs out of necessity. In fact, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study found women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable during this pandemic than men’s jobs, and that women make up 39% of global employment – but account for 54% of overall job losses.
A Gartner study also found that managers tend to have a bias towards those who work in the office, believing them to be higher performers. Although this might be changing during the pandemic, it’s easy to see how men – more likely to work from the office as women take on the share of household duties – will be more highly rewarded for doing so. If you want to provide the best life experience, do your research here and recognise the disproportionate impact this pandemic is having on women all over the world.
Flexibility is less about geography or location, but rather time:
I know that personally, as a working mother, this is something I need. The autonomy to choose working hours is a huge part of happiness and engagement for staff. Some of my best work is done at 8pm after my children are in bed, which means I might be offline for a couple of hours when they get home from school. At the end of the day, we should be concerned with output and productivity, rather than policing that all employees have their butt in their home office desk chair from 9am.
Managing staff in 2021 might be the hardest it has ever been for leaders. Bringing heightened levels of empathy and vulnerability to the way you lead will be new territory for many (but hopefully not too many), but making sure your staff are well supported and loved – yes, loved – during these weird, weird times is key.
And the only way to do this, is to focus on their experience as a whole – not just when they log on that day.
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