Brian Doubles is the president and CEO of Synchrony. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I was wrong.
Before the pandemic, I never would have thought remote work was a viable option for Synchrony’s entire workforce. There were too many potential complications: technology challenges, productivity issues, inertia.
But then we went ahead and did it. As the crisis worsened last year, we moved our workforce home to keep them safe. And we were pleasantly surprised to see that productivity met or exceeded previous targets.
After a company survey revealed that 85% of our 16,500-person workforce wanted some form of work-from-home model even after the pandemic, we gave everyone the option to work remotely, either full or part time. And employees can still come together for meetings and cultural events at one of our physical spaces when they want or need to. This will allow us to retain the personal connection that’s so important to our culture while providing the flexibility employees crave.
Today, I’m a true believer in this new way of working. I am convinced that in the post-pandemic world, flexibility (combined with fair pay and great benefits) is the new currency. It’s the foundation of a more engaged workforce and a competitive advantage.
The pandemic represented an inflection point for how people think about their careers. Those who could work from home took the time to reassess their priorities and what it meant to have balance. They looked long and hard at their commutes, and at what they sacrificed during those endless car and train rides: time with family, time to relax, time to get in shape, time to give back to the community.
If businesses want to stay competitive, their leaders must create an inclusive environment where all their employees can thrive. And that means moving past the old paradigms and implementing a cultural transformation.
Here are some good places to start:
Role model flexibility
Cultural change starts at the top. Seeing senior leaders, including the CEO, adopt flexible practices such as working from home regularly, gives employees “permission” to do it themselves and infuses a new mindset across the company.
Our leadership team has committed to working remotely a few days a week to demonstrate flexibility — reinforcing that it is acceptable and even encouraged to embrace flexible work options. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We want all employees to believe that when we say flexibility is your choice, we mean it.
This kind of flexibility doesn’t just happen, though. It requires technology investments that enable remote work. More importantly, it requires an infrastructure of another kind — of trust and communication. I believe that when leaders give employees their trust, their team will deliver for the organization.
Support career growth for all
For many companies, ours included, certain roles were expected to be done in certain locations. If a business leader was in a specific city, for example, we assumed that people on that team should be there too. That is outdated thinking.
The pandemic proved that nearly every job could be done from any of our geographic locations. We are providing our people with more career opportunities at every level by allowing most of our open roles to be located in any area we do business. It will help us cast a wider net to identify diverse talent. As businesses seek to attract and retain the best talent, broadening the talent pool helps build more diverse teams, which fuel innovation.
Create inclusive meetings
During the lockdown, we noticed that meetings held via video teleconference saw more participation than in-person meetings did. Attendees who usually kept quiet tended to speak up when they were online. As a result, the discussions were livelier and more productive. So, we will continue to offer a virtual video option for all meetings.
To ensure people feel included and heard during hybrid meetings, leaders should seek continuous feedback from their teams. It’s also important to have good facilitators who proactively engage participants in discussion.
More generally, leaders should work to drive inclusion throughout the company. This means constantly looking for ways to elevate marginalized voices, eliminate unconscious bias and invest in diversity — for example, through programs that provide leadership development opportunities to members of underrepresented groups.
Engaged employees drive better customer experiences and ultimately strong business results. One of the ways to deepen engagement is by prioritizing the mental health and well-being of employees and their families — it’s every company’s responsibility. And it is critical to the success of a thriving business.
At the start of the pandemic, we began offering employees time off every week to care for themselves and their loved ones, and to do what makes them happy beyond work. For example, we launched “Flexible Fridays” to prevent meeting fatigue. We encouraged employees to avoid morning meetings on Fridays and take the afternoons to unplug from work. I take advantage of this by catching up on work in the mornings and spending the afternoons with my two young daughters.
And for those in roles where Flexible Fridays isn’t an option, we created other flexible work options to meet their needs. We will continue to do this, along with extended mental health counseling and other resources.
One of the great lessons we learned during the pandemic is that with the right tools and the right culture, we can create a more flexible workplace — and that means happier employees, great customer experiences and better outcomes.
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