Are your employees needing more personal attention and accommodations at work than they used to? As we transition out of the pandemic, many leaders are finding it very challenging to deal with employees’ emotions and individual preferences. These leaders wonder why they can’t simply be definitive about expectations and guidelines, while people do their work “like they used to,” without fussing. Some leaders even resent what they think of as catering to each employee’s tastes and needs when they feel that no one has catered to theirs—they’re just expected to perform.
The reality is that people have always fussed—although not always to their bosses—when their working conditions were unsupportive of their real lives. But now, societal shifts have made some of these difficulties more concrete on both sides. Happily, many organizations are tailoring circumstances to help support employees through rough patches, and gaining the benefit of a more committed, motivated work team. If you treat your organization’s transition out of the pandemic like any other business problem, look for common factors and communicate clearly, you can get the job done without stressing over every employee every day. Start by focusing on these six crucial influences on organizations and work life.
Long and short-term costs and benefits. As with any major shift in organizational life or functioning, the transitional period will likely entail more considerable cost, learning and accommodation. If you make the upfront investment of thoughtful planning and coordination, you’ll eventually realize the rewards of retention, productivity and long-term progress. Merely explaining to your people that you’re working to address their needs—and that you’ll include them in the process—will help buy time to figure things out. Meanwhile, facing the new reality directly will help you take careful and comprehensive action rather than making piecemeal stop-and-start attempts and recoveries that can be time-consuming and expensive. These efforts are worth it to reduce the impacts of attrition that are affecting so many organizations.
Ongoing generational adjustments. The Millennials are full adults now and Gen-Z is beginning to make its way up the employment ranks. It seems like only yesterday Boomers were shaking their heads and commiserating, unfairly and often inaccurately, about how difficult it was to coexist with Millennials. The reality was that learning how Millennials worked best and adapting to those tendencies quickly was more effective for Boomers and Millennials alike; just because we’re familiar and comfortable with a particular way of working doesn’t mean it’s the only smart way to do things. Let’s not make the same mistakes by stereotyping Gen-Z—instead, start integrating all generations and help them appreciate and engage each other’s strong points. Addressing generational differences will make a healthier and more supportive work environment and remove barriers to getting the work done—particularly when initiatives are complex or the best course is unclear.
Impact of mental health, mental illness and neurodiversity at work. The pandemic has made it okay for people to say they aren’t okay, at least for many in managerial and knowledge roles. The presence of anxiety or ADHD, as just two examples, can determine how people work, along with the kind of structures and support that can help them be most productive, from flexible scheduling to triaging priorities. Being open to understanding what accommodations or leeway people need will also enable both employees and leaders to anticipate when team members are likely to perform at their best. Being specific about assignment requirements and deadlines, as well as providing optimal working conditions for autistic people, including remote work or private workspace with sensory inputs like individually controllable lighting and noise, lets everyone be more effective. Plus, recognizing that sometimes people have bad days helps neurotypical people too.
Helpful effects of strong work relationships. Positive work relationships play a key role in fostering employees flourishing—leading to greater job and life satisfaction. Anyone who’s had the benefit of a “work spouse” has had this experience. It behooves leaders to provide intentional opportunities for relationship-building among team members and take the time to get to know team members beyond superficial pleasantries and inquiries about weekend activities and family.
Importance of maintaining identity at work. People want to be known as the individuals they are. Leaders need to support this differentiation rather than assume that everyone is alike or discount employees who are not what leaders are “used to” in particular roles or as colleagues. Creating supportive communities at work, such as Employee Resource Groups and Special Interest Groups, can help employees find sources of comfort and support as well as a sense of belonging. Whether these groups provide identification based on race, gender and sexuality or hobbies and interests, they create a forum for expressing a sense of self and having confidence to be themselves.
Support for household needs. The pandemic highlighted the extent to which employees’ daily work life and careers are affected by their living situations. Families with children need childcare, households with ill people need other forms of in- or out-of- home care and people who live in shared space may not find their housing suitable to remote work. All of these factors can lead to job attrition if the needs are not met. While leaders can certainly offer emergency accommodations or permit and provide resources for more remote, hybrid or flexible work, organizations can design longer-term, sustainable solutions by partnering, pooling or sharing resources with other organizations to create care situations such as local child- or eldercare and coworking spaces. These approaches can ease the pressures on your desirable talent by reducing time spent in care situations and providing peace of mind because their loved ones and dependents are in safe and developmentally appropriate environments.
Value of leadership attention. If you don’t currently have a consistent rhythm of town hall meetings, staff or team meetings, and one-on-ones, now is the time to start. Careful structuring of group meetings and get-togethers is crucial: first, to communicate the information and guidance that people need to do their jobs well, and second, to solicit employee feedback on what is and isn’t working in the environment, business processes and relationships. Similarly, demonstrating interest and care on an individual basis has significant and long-lasting payoffs. For example, Doug Conant is famous for using handwritten notes to express everything from congratulations to gratitude. Even something as simple as leaning in closer to the camera during a Zoom meeting can foster stronger connection.
It’s easy to think of employees as congenial work-delivery systems. It can be stressful to switch to considering them as distinct individuals with different and potentially competing needs. But talent will be increasingly hard to find and keep, so leaders’ ability to adjust to societal changes and adopt practices that support employees more effectively will benefit everyone. Recognizing the business value to these shifts and incorporating the lessons from them will enable organizations to hire and retain a broader range of individuals and skillsets—just what leaders need to strengthen their businesses’ futures.