I was recently asked what did I feel is most vital to advancing employee experience and workplace wellbeing? In considering the question I thought about one of the common questions author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss often asks his podcast guests – what are you doubling down? Before I share my thoughts it’s worth noting the context that they were built.
I received my first people leadership award close to twenty years ago. I can still remember that moment and I have held onto the glass plaque that was handed to me by one of my all-time favourite leaders during my career at IBM. It was early in my leadership journey but I had learned from my childhood experiences of moving frequently the importance of making new connections at the start of each school year. This taught me how to quickly find ways to relate to others by being very observant and a good listener.
As I continued down my journey of leadership I found myself continually being triggered by the lack of fairness I observed within groups. I was never a person afraid to speak my mind so I did my best to use my voice for others who did not feel safe to do so. I’m sure I got it wrong a time or two but the intention was there to advocate for the voices not heard. Finally, as a coach, I learned the importance of gaining clarity on the goal. Establishing what success looks like. As a consultant, I would frequently get so caught up in trying to solution that I would forget to make sure I knew what problem we were trying to solve. I learned this again from many leaders who graciously reminded me to pause and ask that question. What problem are we trying to solve? For whom? And what are the key criteria for success?
So what am I doubling down on for employee experience and workplace wellbeing?
The Short Answer
- Increased emphasis on developing and nurturing EMPATHY and PERSPECTIVE-TAKING at all levels
- Overrotation of worker voice and equity in the design of any initiative
- Establishing a clear north star on what success looks like, evidence-based resources to address gaps and an efficient data collection and measurement system to track progress at the team level
The Long Answer
My experience has shown me that in our desire to simplify the complexity of the challenges in this space, we forget the human experience. One of the reasons we simplify is we have the need to scale and create consistency – which are important pursuits. I think the most common mistake is trying to design from a top-down approach versus figuring out how to do it really well within a team and creating systems that make it easily replicated, and improved upon, across diverse teams where sometimes the only common denominators are they are humans that work for the same company.
We need to create better systems for people to thrive and there will always be exceptions that will require continuous adaptation and new learning to those systems. The pandemic taught us that we might all be in the same crisis but not everyone is having the exact same experience. Hence making those adjustments and fine-tuning the employee experience is best done at the team level.
To advance employee experience and workplace wellness we need to advance empathy and perspective-taking within leaders and teams. And no matter how good the system may be at some level things like distance bias will begin to degrade our ability to do those very well. Wherever we can bring the decisions and actions that most impact employee experience and workplace wellbeing down to the team level then we can have the greatest impact. And by team ideally sizes of 10-12 within self-managed units of around 150 people. That’s the ideal but you work with what exists.
The goal is to establish a framework for overall success, a blueprint and measurement system for progress that can easily be adapted and implemented at the team levels. Further, we provide resources that at the team level can be implemented by the leader and/or employee directly. Research continues to show that individual managers influence overall motivation as much as any organizational policy does. But managers need the resources to support the work they need to do at the team level. This includes the time, the skill development and various levers (e.g., reward systems, job design, workload management, culture, etc. ) to address the employee issues.
One example to emphasize this point is burnout. Burnout is widely reported as a significant issue in most workforces and has been an issue for quite some time. However, the solution for addressing burnout can be extremely different depending on the person and the context of their situation. People can have symptoms of burnout because they are bored or not being challenged. They can be burned out because of pressures at home versus at work. They can be burned out because they are a person that appreciates order and process and they are working in a department that is constantly changing and chaotic. And of course, they can be burned out because there are too many demands within their job or responsibilities. Or they are working in a culture of toxicity that creates a constant stress on their nervous system.
The point being the reason for burnout for one person will be different than the reason for another. And to truly address the root cause of burnout may therefore require different solutions. But it always starts with empathy and perspective-taking. Then a clear framework that managers can leverage to help identify what might be contributing to the increased stress leading to burnout. And resources for that leader, person and sometimes team to address the impact of the increased demands. The more resources available to easily access that could be applicable to all sorts of symptoms and root causes will inevitably be challenged and need to continue to build and adapt as we learn more about the needs of the people. But the process to identify those needs and the ability to be nimble in reacting is crucial to success. The levers managers can pull to address them, and the “local” strategies that can boost motivation despite organizational constraints are key.
One final point that has been made by numerous research studies for at least the past two decades. Managers are crucial to advancing employee experience and workplace wellbeing. And yet time and time again I see organizations not appreciating the burden that managers are placed under and not providing them the extra support needed to do the role effectively. Regardless of what you might choose to do to advance these initiatives, if it does not include a solid plan for supporting managers, which likely includes a close look at workload, increased coaching and increased reward system as a start, then your plan will never fully achieve its full potential.
For more information about the framework that I most recommend or examples of levers that can be used by an organization to have the greatest impact on employee experience and wellbeing, reach out and I would be delighted to share.