I’m writing this post on March 22nd. The specific date matters, because by the day – if not the hour – our reality seems to shift as the Coronavirus Pandemic changes everything. Perhaps the workplace is one of the pillars of modern life most affected. Of course, for many the workplace is a hospital or doctor’s office, grocery store, water or power plant, or another essential location where workers don’t have the option to work remotely. To all those people – thank you.
But for those of us who can work from home, an extreme experiment has begun very suddenly, and on a massive global scale. While tech giants like Oracle, Apple and Google were some of the first to urge all employees who can to work from home to do so, it’s now the norm, if not a requirement. Banks are installing trading equipment in employees’ home offices. Lloyd’s of London has closed its underwriting room for the first time in its 330-year history. Universities have moved to online learning. Netflix yesterday held its first video conference table read for an upcoming production. Things that might otherwise have been piloted and cautiously integrated are suddenly mandates. It can feel overwhelming, even disorienting.
So at a time of such uncertainty (and, let’s be honest, anxiety), how can you harness the power of your remote workforce? Not just to ensure productivity, but to help your employees through this time. I’ve been working remotely for the past two years, and am exploring this and other questions in a Remote Working Blog Series over the coming weeks.
At the best of times, working remotely can be incredibly effective. It can even be fun. But there’s one major challenge. Loneliness. Soon after the invention of the computer, thought-leaders of the time predicted that we would all shortly be working from home. It did not happen. A 2016 study in China gave employees at a travel agency the option to work from home. 50% volunteered to take part. At first, it proved a huge success with high employee engagement, productivity, and reduced costs from reduced office space. But when the initiative was rolled out to the whole company it ultimately failed because of one major complaint: loneliness. For the same reasons, shared work spaces such as WeWork have seen success in recent years alongside the rise of remote working in the US. In the words of my hero Brené Brown, “We are hardwired to connect with others.” That’s why even in the perilous times of a global pandemic, we must fight the very human instinct to find comfort in being physically close to others.
None of us know how long we’re going to be working in these new ways. And loneliness poses very real risks to productivity, creativity, engagement, and ultimately the mental health of your workforce.
So my advice to employers at this time is to over-communicate. With your internal communications and realigned culture, make loneliness the enemy. Make health and happiness the goals. Business maintenance and productivity cannot follow without these.
How do you do that? The human brain is a complex thing. But it helps to think about the things that matter to us. The things that help us to feel healthy and happy. So here are some tips, aimed at promoting different aspects of employee wellbeing.
1. Be social As someone who has worked remotely for two years, let me tell you what I miss most: random office interactions. Chatting at the coffee machine. Morning catch ups with my team. Yes, even those awkward moments in the elevator making small talk about the weather with the guy who sits on the third floor and you can’t remember his name. Recreate those moments. I encourage you to turn on video for work talk and meetings, but make some rules about times when there must be “no work talk”. Schedule regular catch ups to check in on how everyone is doing and talk about what you’ve been streaming, any anxieties people have, good things that have happened, strange things that have happened, and – yes – even the weather.
2. Encourage physical health OK, OK, it’s not your place as an employer to mandate an exercise schedule. But there is a direct link between physical activity and mental health. And right now some of us aren’t sure what to do when our favorite workout class shuts down (I miss you, Orangetheory!), or you can’t go to the gym or play in your regular sports league. What can you do as a community of employees? Coming together to take on a running challenge, taking part in a video yoga class, or checking in on everyone’s Fitbit steps are all ways you can unite your people while giving them a healthy outlet. Camaraderie and team-building should follow. Have your people post their workouts or results on a social or internal channel. Build a community that gives people a meaningful and healthy resource.
3. It’s an emotional time There’s no point in ignoring the very large and scary elephant in the room. We’re all feeling new kinds of stress right now. I’m currently wondering how my work schedule now includes the care of my 9-month-old baby. I know I can make it work and Havas will support me to do so, but I’m definitely feeling more emotional than usual. As an employer, you must acknowledge these emotions. Help your colleagues to work through their feelings, because productivity and wellbeing can be real struggles otherwise. Managers should regularly check in one-on-one with their people. Remind employees of any additional support that is available. Allow people to be vulnerable and honest by creating a culture where they feel they can be. That can start with simply asking people, “How are you feeling today?”
4. Over-communicate In times of uncertainty, give people more information than they need. Reduce anxiety by not letting them wonder or worry about anything they don’t need to. Be honest, be clear, and be informative. I recently read a paper about the 1918 Flu Pandemic (yes, it’s been a time of unusual reading choices) which showed that cities in the US where social distancing was best observed were those where communication was constant, clear and above all honest. At times that might mean telling employees that you simply don’t know the answer. But don’t be afraid to say so – anxiety creeps out of the cracks in communication.
5. Celebrate the good times COVID-19 might feel all-encompassing right now. But, good things still happen. Work projects continue and get completed, new business can still be won, people successfully navigate new work styles and learn new things, acts of kindness are everywhere. Call out your employees who have done a great job, shared a success, or just done something nice for a colleague. Right now would probably be a good time to thank your HR, internal communications and operations teams. If you don’t already have an internal recognition and reward initiative in place, start one today. Give your people a platform to thank and congratulate one another.
While times are strange, there are so many simple things we can do to make them less so. And remember – nobody is single-handedly responsible for their organization’s culture. It’s a living thing. Turn some of these ideas over to people or groups within your business and let them get involved setting exercise challenges or virtual Friday night office drinks.
Most importantly – stay home, stay safe, and wash your hands.
Director of Creative and Strategy - Havas People North America
Recently, there was a short article in the Wall Street Journal regarding the monitoring, tracking and data-mining companies are doing with their employees. It’s a natural response to be alarmed, but in my humble opinion this isn’t anything new. The tools to collect employee data and Large Company Corp’s ability to interpret that data have evolved, but the act of making sure your employees are using their time on the clock effectively, efficiently collaborating, and/or not breaking the law has been happening for a long time.
Stoking some nervousness around the potential police-state you’re working in makes for a great story and cute animation, but there is another way to interpret organizations having all this data that errs much more on the positive side. One that relates to our thoughts around the ‘Consumerization of the Employee Experience.’ The move by companies to treat their employees (and their data) with the same intent as brands do. Personalizing, customizing and aligning the working experience to the individual’s expectations (stated or unstated).
Interestingly, there was a recent post on the app, Fishbowl, about a similar situation where IT flagged to a manager that their newest hire was actively searching for jobs a month into their new role and on company time - the manager was looking for advice on how to broach this with their employee. Not surprisingly a large number of comments on this post were about the IT team’s actions (most employers make it quite clear that they are monitoring you and make you sign a contract in acknowledgement - IT is just doing their job). But there were also a handful of comments directed to the manager trying to understand what may have caused the employee’s unhappiness in their new role, asking why they wouldn’t use this information from IT to turn what might be a negative experience into a positive one.
That’s the key shift that employers, managers, leaders in companies need to make and need to prioritize. If we only use this new, rich employee data to contain, monitor and homogenize our people, we’re creating a terribly unbalanced relationship that fundamentally has no trust built into it.
However, if we use this data in ways to anticipate wants and needs, address nagging issues, build better processes and enhance experiences, we’re showing our people that they can trust us with their data, that we understand them on an individual, human level, and that we care about their experiences and well-being.
March was a particularly jam-packed month for us at Havas People, as a whole host of events dropped into our calendar across the globe. And with a multitude of events, comes the opportunity of gaining further, fresh insight into the changing world of work and technology.
Our team in the UK were delighted to experience UNLEASH for the first time, followed by the annual Changeboard Future Talent Conference, while our team in the US attended both Workhuman and HR Transform. Additionally, our Managing Partner Danni Brace flew out to Singapore to complete the final leg of the Havas NextGen course - a year-long leadership journey that brings together 50 of Havas’ high potential leaders from across the globe and challenges them to become more team-centric, strategic and future-focused.
So on reflection of our particularly busy end to Q1, we thought we’d pull together the top insights that got us inspired last month. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
Using technology to embrace humanity
At this year’s Changeboard Future Talent Conference, speakers talked through their methods of using technology to support the growth of their businesses. One speaker who impressed our team was Lucy Winkett, a Rector of St James’s Church. She was inspirational, engaging and funny. During her talk, one of the questions she asked the room to consider was “who are we at work?”. She encouraged everyone to think about who they think they are, and who others perceive them to be. She then spoke about the ways in which human interactions can make our work fairer and explored how technology can help us to build a future which embraces humanity, rather than isolating us.
So what exactly does it mean to embrace humanity? Albeit from different perspectives, both UNLEASH and Changeboard reinforced the fact that we are human beings not human doings. “Who we are” is not defined by our activities but by our beliefs. Not being robots is our gift, our USP. We are not machines. People are not to be optimized but to be experienced. Quite often, we don’t need personalized experiences, we just need personal experiences. Now that we have robots we have to retrain humans how to be humans, to embrace creativity, complexity and empathy – to become less like robots than ever before because we can never be better robots than robots. We need to reinvent the value chain with people being the differentiating factor, and so people working in HR/talent have a real opportunity to be the new meaning-makers.
Vulnerability is not a weakness
Across the globe in the United States, Workhuman keynote speaker Brene Brown built on this idea of ‘being human’ as she outlined how vulnerability is a vital piece of developing a strong workplace culture. “If you set up a culture within your organization where there’s no tolerance for vulnerability, no tolerance for failure - then there’s no room for innovation, productivity, or creativity” she said. When people are in an environment where they feel they can bring their whole selves to work, they feel more connected to their organization and a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is vital to building successful teams and businesses. It also builds trust among employees, managers and leads to better work outputs.
Engaged employees drive business success
Moreover, at HR Transform we once again heard a spin on how employees are often the determining factor between successful companies and ones that never reach their full potential. Employee engagement is driving business through human capital. Successfully building an employer brand and engagement strategy aligns a company’s culture with its brand. This creates an authentic experience and allows you to easily train employees on brand purpose and what role they play in delivering on that brand. Investing in your people is the key to business success, and if you put a promise out there, it’s vital to ensure your people are ready to deliver on it.
And it seems the final module of NextGen did a pretty great job of raising awareness of all these factors across our wider Havas community.
The module focused on leading through a disruptive and ever-changing environment with a lens on the importance of building your organizational culture and talent to drive your strategy. One quote that particularly resonated with Danni came from Vishnu Mohan; ‘Customers will not love a brand until an employee loves it’ – and at that moment there were a few ‘aha’ moments across the group at the realization of why Havas People’s specialism existed within a comms group such as Havas. If you don’t invest in creating a positive employee experience why would you think your customers are going to have a positive experience themselves – your brand isn’t a thing in isolation it is the sum of every individual you employ – if they enjoy where they work your brand is more likely to succeed.
So what has attending these events taught us? It’s confirmed that building a culture that embraces the true essence of humanity - one that puts trust in people’s strengths and supports them with their flaws - allows them to make meaningful connections with the organizations they work for. And the result of this? Meaningful experiences for your customers too, and an inevitable improvement on your bottom line. Which is exactly why we do the work that we do, across the entire people agenda, here at Havas People.
In a digital world our offline gestures matter even more
Like most of you, the number of conversations I’ve been having recently about Artificial Intelligence and where the digital world is heading has to be approaching the high triple digits. It seems to be all anyone wants to talk about and, fortunately for me, is an extremely exciting subject to explore.
The implications AI holds for our lives is really outrageous and when you start to drill that down to how it may impact talent strategies in the future – the possibilities are quite endless – Alexa voice applications, Chatbots, personal office assistants - I could go on and on. In fact, I’m sure I will in an upcoming post!
But what I’m really thinking about right now is how these digital enhancements to our lives are going to further highlight the importance of offline, real world actions.
Recently we’ve been growing our team in North America. We posted the opening and an algorithm sent us a ton of relevant applicants. Relevant based on a data framework aligned to “what” we were looking for and not necessarily “who” we were looking for. For our role the “who” was just as, if not more, important than the “what.”
Of course we scheduled phone interviews and in-person conversations to learn more about the people we were talking to. Nothing groundbreaking there, but we now knew more about who they really were and could begin to determine if they’d bring the right attributes to our team and fit the tight-knit group.
Had we been using a video interview platform we may have been told by yet another algorithm how trustworthy and honest our candidates were. If we were hiring a high-volume role, we may not have had the luxury to vet our candidates so thoroughly and would have relied even heavier on an algorithm to influence our decision.
In this instance our algorithm identified a high-potential candidate, we took things offline to understand them better and then the candidate did something all job search advocates recommend but few searchers do – they sent a handwritten thank you letter after our first telephone interview!
This was someone we knew we wanted to hire from our first conversation, but this extra level of attention and care shown really put them over the top. If we were stuck between two good candidates, this would have made the difference. Had we automated the entire process, well then we would never have gotten the letter in the first place.
In a world where it’s easier to ‘click and do’ then ‘think and do,’ this extra offline effort really stands apart.
Tim Middleton, Agency Director