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Being an HR professional these days is not easy. The events of the past 17-plus months have been uniquely daunting. Recent research found a 70% increase in stress-related leave per user in HR teams — the sector ranked third on the list of those suffering most, just after healthcare and government/international affairs.
It’s hard enough to complete the practical tasks and keep the plates spinning. Add to that the need to ensure the safety, security, productivity and connectivity of a workforce while under siege from a pandemic and its economic and social impacts. How about managing abruptly redistributed teams on unfamiliar digital platforms or in workplaces that don’t feel safe or, in some cases, sufficiently staffed? Or transmitting a sense of humanity across video calls, reassuring an anxious workforce that the organization is committed to doing the right thing — and knows what the right thing is to do? And managing to stay on top of employee individual needs with endless emails, texts, slacks, IMs?
Don’t forget the need to make sure the flurry of exits that happened over the course of the pandemic are filled by well-qualified, skilled people — who now have to be onboarded to a transformed workplace. Or getting new hires integrated quickly into a workforce likely still adjusting themselves to new realities. And gracefully shift to remote recruiting in the worst conditions.
So what do we do?
Employee Experience: Face It, Redefine It, Advocate For It
Now is not the time to set aside employee experience. I’ve had conversations with HR teams grappling with C-suite directives like “Do what’s most important right now.” Some are wondering if that means maneuvering through this next wave of the pandemic by conducting triage — and setting aside efforts to boost employee experience until we get back to “normal.”
My advice: No offense against the C-Suite, but backpedaling on employee experience now is a move that belongs in the shoot yourself in the foot category. Employee experience remains a critical factor in engagement — but if it seems more complicated, it is. Yes: labeling all that it’s taken to sustain ourselves and our loved ones during a pandemic and get our work done as “employee experience” feels like an understatement. But that is indeed what people — employees — are going through.
The numbers don’t lie here, either: the correlation of recent employee experience to declining employee engagement is a big tell. Last month’s Gallup report found a drop in emotional well-being and employee engagement — and a corresponding plunge in GDP. Some 7 out of 10 employees say they’ve been having a tough time not just at work, but in life. Only 20% report feeling engaged at work — the other 80% are either actively disengaged or just not engaged (which is bad enough). The cost to the global economy is US$8.1 trillion in lost productivity, which is almost 10% of the entire GDP.
Business-wise, employee experience is a big factor. To make it real, it needs to be calibrated to employee well-being — a realm that extends outside the workplace in certain ways. But experience-boosting initiatives that are relevant and meaningful to the workforce right now are critical to improving engagement and retention. It’s time for HR to make its case to keep employee experience front and center.
Connect Well-Being To Employee Experience, Because They’re Integral
Well-being is such a key part of working now — and should be addressed within the framework of the overall employee experience. Integrating well-being initiatives and the commitment to boost employee experience is just a smart move. But we understand wellness differently now. For one thing, the concept went from a series of more or less fixed points to a moving target — with people’s most basic health at risk and their lives so radically changed, there’s a lot more at stake.
I’ve been asked why I don’t use the term “work-life balance” and the reason has always been the same: it’s a myth. Balance means either/or, a see-saw between one and the other. That’s not the way work, or life, happens. Before the pandemic we were already struggling with not having enough time to work and too much work to take care of our day-to-day lives. With the pandemic, any semblance of boundaries went out the window along with our commuter bags. But even work-life integration as a concept needs a reboot. We’d been extolling the importance of better work/life integration before the pandemic, but we now know just how hard that is to achieve without intentional interventions. It’s still a porous boundary.
As for wellness itself, we were already on the way to revamping our concept of wellness. Expanding benefits packages to include mental health and revamping benefits offerings to address a diverse employee population at varying stages in life was a welcome evolution. But in retrospect we were still thinking too granularly. Dividing up aspects of wellness in order to better address each one is fine — divide and conquer is certainly an effective strategy. But the problem is what happens in a crisis: you lose the bandwidth to proceed down that checklist.
That’s one good reason we saw organizations caught short come March of 2020: they hadn’t yet gotten to that other aspect of wellness. Take digital wellness: Organizations that had not addressed digital wellness found themselves with obstacles including accessibility, communication, workflow, diversity and isolation. Moreover, having been through the pivot to remote and hands-off transactions, digital wellness can’t just be about making sure people unplug — and the approach could be counterproductive. It’s about ensuring true digital democracy and equity — and closing the digital divide among your own workforce.
Seen through a longer lens, wellness is really about the sum total of the workforce’s ability to cope, adapt, grow and thrive; to weather a crisis and stay productive; and the employer’s ability to develop resilience in individuals as well as the entire organization. I don’t see companies offering boilerplate resilience packages, but I do think resilience is going to become a hugely important factor in how we provide wellness offerings to our workforce. And resilience is a key aspect to a great employee experience: when employees feel the organization’s ability to anticipate, to flex, to adapt, and to protect its people as well as its interests; they also feel the leadership’s resilience; the manager’s, and their own.
Preempt The Next Crisis By Making Clear Decisions
A very recent survey by SHRM of 1,000 HR pros reports that half of U.S. organizations are concerned about the Delta variant — and while half is better than less than half, I’m troubled that it isn’t nearly all. The CDC just reversed course on masking indoors in some states, counties and cities — even for vaccinated people. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t reach herd immunity — we wind up with cases spiking, and please for vaccines at the last minute, when it’s too late.
The good news is that 50% of HR professionals say they will encourage their employees to get a booster shot — if there is one, and it looks like there will be. The bad news may be that encouragement isn’t enough. This may be the point when tough policies need to be enacted to mitigate more risk — as just happened with Google, who is mandated employee vaccinations and postponed reopening until October, for the moment. What happens when we bring people back to work and we can’t protect them from each other? What does that do to workforce cohesion?
I find glossy announcements from organizations about reopening somewhat jarring right now, to be honest. Business must go on and work must continue and employees need to keep making a living, and those are common denominators — but people need to be safe — that’s a fundamental, legal employer responsibility. Now that we’re facing the Delta variant — and the next one that inevitably follows, we have a choice here. And what we do or don’t could have a tremendous impact on our workforce. And that’s a part of employee experience now, including how we handle employee well-being, and where HR can really step up right now.