Alexi Robichaux is the co-founder and CEO of BetterUp. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As the CEO of a company that provides leadership coaching, I struggled during the pandemic to find the balance between the positive impact our products and services could make in the world, and managing my — and my employees’ — exhaustion. It was clear that it was “go time,” but many of us had very little “go” left. Our ability to deliver on all the good we wanted to do in the world was being limited by our own need for well-being.
Today, one of the most common questions I hear from business leaders is: “What can my organization do to help people through this change?” We’ve all been hit with so much change over the past year and a half that people at all levels have been jolted into rethinking their priorities. We’re all asking hard questions about how we spend our time at home and at work. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are ways organizations can be more understanding and foster an environment where their people can thrive.
Focus on well-being
We seem to be in a “great awakening” when it comes to mental health, but well-being doesn’t just mean “not ill.” It means feeling confident, optimistic and able to show up fully in your work and life every day. When we’re mentally fit, we have the energy, grace and space to grow and reconnect with everything we love about life.
Suboptimal mental health, even if it doesn’t reach the level of clinical mental illness, can still have far-reaching, disruptive effects. Our research shows that 55% of the workforce is languishing, or feeling stuck. However, when employees who are languishing feel supported, their productivity can improve. As leaders, we can buffer the impact of suffering and prevent burnout before it even gets to that point.
Leaders should reframe work to intentionally provide meaning and purpose. When workers feel that their work is highly meaningful, they are less likely to want to leave their jobs.
During the early months of the pandemic, BetterUp donated coaching to health care workers. Supporting those on the frontlines deeply impacted our employees, who were personally experiencing stress, anxiety and change. Our team found a renewed sense of purpose and positivity even with this additional workload, and this helped to transform morale and performance internally.
Walk the talk
One surefire way to disengage employees is if the organization’s stated values don’t match up with the day-to-day experience of working there. If we as leaders say that we care about managing burnout, fostering inclusivity and investing in people’s growth, we need to put policies in place that show those goals are prioritized. A company that says it is focused on productivity shouldn’t embrace a culture of meeting-heavy days that don’t accommodate for downtime.
For example, at BetterUp we’re all about prioritizing personal growth, so we have four paid “Inner Work” days each year when we all step away to spend the day unplugging in nature, taking a class or spending time with loved ones. Additionally, employees get five paid days a year for volunteering. Giving back to others is sometimes the best way to reconnect with ourselves.
Reimagine the role of the middle manager
So much of the conversation has been centered around the hybrid, remote or in-person work model, but the truth is that if you’ve been building a company in the last 10 years, this has been something we’d all eventually have to face — with or without a pandemic. In a knowledge economy, location doesn’t matter as much as having managers who can create a locus of inclusion, culture and performance.
With remote work, managers no longer have the ability to use in-person cues like seeing someone at their desk or seeing them working late at the office to be able to tell if they’re working hard. So we have to change the role that middle management plays as they wear multiple hats of leader, project manager, coach and, increasingly, even something akin to a “therapist” to their teams.
Mid-level managers, who typically lead two-thirds of an organization, have a disproportionate influence on the organization’s culture. It’s crucial to enable middle management to be the catalysts for positive organizational change — whether it’s through targeted development programs or through improving lines of communication. We need to equip people managers to be stewards of our values, and empower them to create those boundaries for themselves and their teams.
Avoid the echo-chamber
If we learned anything from this last year, it’s that you can’t just replicate your company’s old policies in a new environment. In-person processes don’t map directly onto a fully remote world. The most successful organizations created new practices that took advantage of the possibilities afforded by virtual environments.
Chevron, for example, offered Coaching Circles, which are group coaching experiences led by a BetterUp coach. With Coaching Circles, Chevron was able to support 7,000 employees from around the world with highly relevant topics — like resilience, peak productivity and finding balance — even during the height of the pandemic. (CNN is also a client of BetterUp.)
There obviously won’t be one right answer that will please everyone, but by listening to a diversity of perspectives, you can avoid an echo-chamber that will only alienate your workforce. We know that not feeling in control is one of the major causes of burnout. As executives redesign work for a post-pandemic world, one of the most important things they can do is to approach redesigning work in a way that invites their employees to participate, thereby bolstering their sense of agency and control in the work environment.
Ultimately, the pandemic reinforced the importance of talking with people — not talking at them. Honoring the humanity of your people and taking their perspectives to heart can make a workplace where people are empowered and have the agency to co-create the organizational culture. If you speak openly about well-being, listen to your team’s needs, and then take concrete action to address what they tell you, you’ll be well on your way to not just weathering this pandemic but emerging on the other side better and stronger.
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