The pandemic has accelerated a number of ongoing workplace transformations, significantly the shift to remote work.
In many cases, this sudden shift has enabled employers to understand and learn about their employees to a much greater degree, as they have seen inside their homes and listened to their struggles navigating the pandemic and other issues of 2020.
According to Virginia-based Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, these changes have contributed to a new and much more humane deal between employers and employees, one in which workers are people first and employees second.
In a recent Smarter With Gartner article, Kropp argued that the three key dimensions of this new deal include driving performance through flexibility, creating a shared sense of purpose, and building deeper connections. These things are great for employees, he said, but what has made them stick is the realisation that they’re also great for employers.
“You as an employer are rewarded by having more productive and engaged employees who are higher performing at the end of the day,” Kropp said. “Employees and employers win by pushing down this path.”
If you’re a team manager or department head looking to increase engagement and productivity by deepening employee relationships, try these five tips recommended by experts.
Ask employees what they want. The best way to find out what your direct reports want out of their working relationships is to ask them.
“By having that mature conversation, you’re actually giving your employees a voice and showing them that you're willing to listen and hear what their aspirations are,” said Tony Sacre, the CEO of Bentleys Network, a full-service accounting and advisory firm with practices across Australia and New Zealand.
Sacre added that you may realise during these conversations that some employees are not interested in having a deeper working relationship with you, and that’s OK.
“Don't force it on them,” he said. “There will be some people with whom you develop really deep connections, while others will want to keep work and life separate. Embrace the fact that everyone is different.”
In your regular one-on-one sessions with staff, make an effort to understand your team members holistically, by asking them how they’re balancing home and work, how they would like to develop in their careers, and what kind of support they’re looking for from company leadership.
Some employees will have a lot to say, but for those who don’t, just make sure they know that you’re there if they ever want to talk.
Humanise yourself. When connecting with employees, it may help to humanise yourself so your team feels more comfortable opening up to you.
“When you're the most senior person in the conversation, there is an onus on you to take the first step.” Sacre said.
Sacre recommended offering four or five details about yourself to get the ball rolling and show them that you’re willing to display some level of vulnerability. Make sure that what you are sharing is genuine and honest.
Another way to encourage employees to open up is to reduce the formality of meetings.
Aubrey Joachim, FCMA, CGMA, global trainer in strategic finance transformation, based in Sydney, recommends holding agenda-less meetings two or three times a week where team members can talk about anything at all. Meetings with no fixed agenda and casual chats are more conducive to deepening relationships, he argued.
Offer radical flexibility without sacrificing social connections. When the pandemic forced many companies to go remote, there was a concern that productivity would plummet, but for most organisations the opposite happened.
According to Gartner, organisations that shifted from a 40-hour, in-person workweek to one of radical flexibility, “where employees have some choice over where, when, and how much they work”, reported that 55% of their employees are now high performers, compared with 36% with the traditional model.
Giving employees that flexibility can be a way to support them holistically because it allows people to schedule their lives in a way that works for them. If they need to take a couple hours off to pick up their kids from school or visit a loved one, they can easily make up that time later in the week.
Not to mention, if you don't embrace this idea of radical flexibility, you're going to have an incredibly difficult time retaining employees, Kropp argued.
It’s clear that offering flexibility, when possible, is good for employees and employers, but the trick is making sure your team isn’t losing out on the social and emotional connections they would typically have through work.
If your team plans to continue working remotely in the future, make sure you’re scheduling regular virtual happy hours and coffee chats, or meeting in the office once a week and holding team get-togethers when the pandemic has subsided, as a way to maintain workplace connections.
Choose a relevant issue to support as an organisation. As you get to know members of your team, you may discover some things they’re passionate about and issues they’re concerned with. And while you can’t get involved with everything, it might be worth choosing a relevant issue to support as an organisation or as a team.
“Consider what societal issues make the most sense for your organisation to be involved in, and put your energy, budget, time, reputation, and resources toward those things,” Kropp said. “Don’t just say they're important, actually do something about it.”
For example, Bank of America decided in 2018 it would no longer lend money to gun manufacturers that make military-inspired guns for civilian use. And in the summer of 2020, the bank committed to donating $1 billion over the next four years to combat racial inequality.
If you’re a smaller company without the resources to commit to major projects, consider ways you can help your immediate community, perhaps by donating time, money, and expertise to organisations your employees care about.
Showing a real commitment to solving social issues can help create a shared sense of purpose for your entire organisation and increase morale and engagement across the board. Take your time considering and developing your company’s purpose and values, understanding that it’s not something you can hash out in an hour.
Work to create great life experiences for employees. And when employers make an effort to support the whole employee, everyone is better off. According to the Gartner 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey, employers that support their employees more holistically report a 21% increase in high performers.
If you’re looking to holistically support your employees, you should aim to create great life experiences for them in ways that you can reasonably impact as an employer. Consider how you can support the people who work for you in their personal lives, in their families, and in the communities where they live.
“There are so many creative ways to support your employees as they’re juggling all these different things going on right now,” Kropp said.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.