This is a guest post from our partner Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE).
Prioritizing empathy and communication will help you connect to the needs and perspectives of your workforce.
About three years after the onset of Covid-19, the pandemic’s far-reaching effects continue to alter the way we approach work. Almost overnight, Covid changed the way both employees and employers view work, and as a result, new needs and expectations for employee well-being emerged. For companies striving for stability amidst an uncertain economy and historically low unemployment, ensuring employee well-being is a critical necessity.
“Getting and keeping employees could be more difficult for companies, as there is no surge of applicants coming to the rescue,” says Paul Todd, group manager for operational excellence at Georgia Tech’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership. “Demographic trends and immigration policies combined with robust manufacturing growth will continue to put a premium on good people. To attract and retain those people, the successful employer must be the preferred choice in terms of culture, opportunity, compensation, and benefits.”
Understanding Your Workforce
To care for employees well, it’s important for organizations to understand and empathize with their individual feelings, needs, and perspectives.
“Over the past few years, people have experienced change in varying levels on a variety of different fronts. From Covid, to financial, health, and societal, everything has changed,” explains Hilarie Warren, director of Georgia Tech’s OSHA Training Institute.
“The lens that we need to look through when considering how people can arrive at work and give their best centers around knowing we’re not all the same.”
Covid-19 added a layer of complexity to workplace safety while also introducing a mass increase of remote work into the equation. With 66% of the U.S. workforce utilizing remote work at least part of the time, employers have to consider a new range of questions for workplace health and satisfaction, while remembering that everyone has a unique set of preferences and needs.
To think inclusively, proactivity is key. By frequently asking for employee feedback, companies can adjust to meet employee expectations before they rise to a breaking point.
“In today’s workplace environment, the ability to give and receive feedback is key to interpersonal and organizational effectiveness,” says LaTrese Ferguson, director of Workplace Learning and Professional Development at Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE). Doing this is not only an effective workplace best practice but also contributes to employee well-being in itself by demonstrating that employee voices are being heard.
In order for this to happen successfully, however, organizations are required to cultivate conditions of psychological safety.
“In a psychologically safe environment community members feel comfortable speaking up and bringing their whole selves to work without fear of judgment or punishment,” says Ferguson.
“People are encouraged to ask questions, provide disconfirming information, and offer innovative ideas without fear of negative consequences. Organizations have to make this a priority and take deliberate actions to cultivate this way of being into the day-to-day practices of the organization.”
Communication in the Future of Work
Creating and reinforcing an inclusive and empathetic culture is the first step to promoting employees’ well-being. With the knowledge that their organization cares about their well-being, employees feel safer and more content in their workplace.
However, particularly in distributed workforces, the successful alignment around goals and priorities depends on clarity. As employee needs have shifted and increased, effective communication is all the more imperative. A recent survey of manufacturing and warehouse employees asked respondents for the most effective ways that employers can improve workplace safety, and three out of the four top recommendations centered on speedy, transparent, comprehensive communication. With ever-advancing technology and noise, however, effective communication requires a thoughtful approach.
“Considering our post-pandemic era, effective communication is more of a challenge now than ever, even with our advanced collaboration tools and technology,” says Chris Carter, academic program director for project management at GTPE.
As experts estimate up to 70% of communication is nonverbal, virtual meetings, email, and chat are simply not enough to build deep, shared understanding.
“While it might not seem modern, embracing in-person, face-to-face communication practices often produces more meaningful results,” says Carter.
When in-person contexts are not an option, such as for large-scale announcements, organizations can still accomplish clarity by meeting their audiences’ expectations for timeliness and content. When communication is a priority, organizations can increase stability, trust, and productivity among employees.
The New Work-Life Balance
Another important aspect of employee well-being is flexibility. After Covid introduced remote work into the workplace, the topic of work-life balance, specifically regarding work location policy, has been thrust center stage. In a 2022 Forbes study, respondents revealed that “work-life balance” was the second most important priority in their jobs, following closely behind financial stability.
There are benefits to both remote work and in-office work, and employees have different opinions on which is better. A survey by Harvard Business Review found that, on average, managers tend to think employees are slightly more productive in the office, while individual contributors responded that they are more productive at home. In another survey by Pew Research, 64% of respondents who have transitioned to working from home since Covid say they now can now balance work with their personal life more easily. While at the same time, 60% now feel more disconnected from their co-workers.
Considering both pros and cons of remote and in-office work, organizations will need to take creative, flexible approaches to effectively support employee wellbeing. Whether that’s a hybrid model, a shorter workweek, or another solution, clear communication on the rationale behind the approach is essential to ensuring employee buy-in and satisfaction.
“If we’re pushing for hybrid or full return to work, the ‘why’ has to be explained and reasoned empathetically,” says Warren.
“If companies are not prepared to explain the benefits both to the organization and the individual worker, they’re going to a hard time selling return to work.”
Across all aspects of employee wellbeing, expectations have changed dramatically over the past few years, reminding us that the social contract between employers and employees is an ever-shifting ideal. To care for employees well, organizations must remain vigilant.
“When you’re actively prioritizing safety—figuring out the root cause of an accident or risk and taking action to change the system to mitigate or prevent it—employees read that as a level of psychological safety,” says Warren. “Moving beyond finger pointing and instead investing in real, effective solutions provides long-term payoffs for both employees and organizations.”