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The silver lining in the COVID-19 thunderstorm

The global upheaval caused by the pandemic was met with unprecedented government support and an equally unprecedented shift in political and business discourse. For the first time in recent memory, government and business leaders (at least the good ones) put protecting people’s lives over protecting financial growth. Business leaders stopped focusing on the bottom line and prioritized staff well-being over budget; they went to great lengths to keep employees employed and mentally supported.

What’s the most surprising outcome of this shift in focus is that productivity and “the bottom line” didn’t suffer. As it turns out, happy and healthy employees produce happy and healthy returns. It’s for this reason that I’m certain that the workplace will get better, at the very least, in the following four ways.

1. Adaptable leadership

Any leader who simply “gave up” during this time and refused to embrace technology and the new way of doing things is simply out of business. Leaders will have to adapt quickly. This means that bosses will have to be forgiving while also supportive so their leaders have the ability to make decisions and quickly course correct.

Errol Samuelson, chief industry development officer of Zillow Group, is an example of a leader who not only swiftly adopted a new way of operating, but he also anticipated it by ensuring that “Zillow was one of the first companies to announce an extended work-from-home option for our thousands of employees.”

While many of us fumbled with the transition, Zillow gained a competitive advantage because it had already figured out how to balance Zoom calls and workload. As Errol notes, Zillow was able to quickly meet their “employees’ changing needs and redefine the future of our workforce.” Such foresight, focus on ensuring that employees are supported and willingness to try new models is reflected in the ethos of Zillow. Anyone who has followed Zillow’s ascent in the industry knows that its adaptable leadership and its employees swiftly change course when an approach isn’t working. It’s because of this adaptable leadership that the Zillow team is able to produce impressive outcomes and outsized returns.

2. Flexible work schedules as a method of inclusivity

As numerous work-from-home studies prove, employees don’t need to be monitored to be productive. In fact, it’s the opposite as flexible schedules and work-from-home models just make sense. Jed Walentas, owner of U.S. investment company Two Trees Management, considered office expectations as impractical, even before the pandemic: “If you’ve got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” he asked in a New York Times interview. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”

Prior to the pandemic, Leesman, a firm that measures employee experiences, interviewed 700,000 employees from 4,800 companies to determine if the workplace is actually a place of productivity. The results reflect something we all knew to be true but couldn’t back up with data: 40 per cent of those interviewed asserted that their workplace did not enable them to be productive. While the office will still be in existence, it will be a place that you attend only when you need to interact with several employees, such as a brainstorming session. However, the real “heads down” work should be done from home (assuming children are back in school) as home is free from colleagues interrupting to “chat” (read: complain).

An added benefit to adaptable work schedules is the fact that it allows employees to better integrate their personal lives with their work lives. This will open the door for mothers who simply continue to have more familial responsibilities than their male counterparts (this isn’t always the case but is mostly true) and for those who are economically marginalized.

For example, low-wage employees cannot afford to live close to expensive city centres and must commute. These commutes are long, exhausting and they certainly eat into the mental well-being and energy levels of the employee. It follows, then, that less commute time as a result of an adaptable schedule will result in the better well-being of the employee and will free up time and energy to deliver on work expectations.

This new way of getting work done will force leaders to relinquish control. This isn’t a bad thing. As CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada, Don Kottick, says, “Fear of not controlling the employee no longer is conducive to getting things done. Great leaders empower and support their team when they do their best to make decisions, even if those decisions may not have the desired outcome.” Invariably, he says, empowering people ultimately leads to better work cultures and results.

3: Virtual meetings democratizes the workforce

Everyone despises Zoom calls…. or do they? Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs observes in his Fast Company article that “the virtual setting has democratized meetings.” Managers report that a greater number of employees participate in exchanging ideas. “Shy or more junior employees are finding it easier to speak up in a virtual meeting, where glimpses into the domestic settings of their co-workers can be more equalizing than the formal setting of a conference room.” It is safe to assume that more voices and more construction solutions from varying perspectives will catch blind spots and will result in better outcomes.

Errol Samuelson further points out that “[t]here is incredible potential with this new model: The ability to build a skilled, diverse workforce that is now free from the limits of geography, and partially untethered from the traditional, physical office setting. We’ve also realized that the future of work is anchored in a shared mission, not a shared place. In Zillow’s case, that mission is working with our agent and broker partners to reimagine real estate to make it easier than ever to move from one home to the next.”

4: Health and wellness becomes a productive company’s secret sauce

While energy-efficiency certifications, touchless entrances and superior HVAC systems are important to maintain the health of the staff, the best leaders know that health and wellness begins with the mental state of the employee and not with office designs. Angela Dunham, COO at OJO Labs, pays close attention to the person behind the resume and takes proactive steps to ensure that every OJO employee stays healthy. For example, she noticed that OJO employees were not taking time off from work. She was concerned that people would burn out. In her investigation as to why nobody took a breather, she learned it was because their peers and leadership weren’t and they didn’t want to let anyone down. So, the leadership team shut down the office for one week to give people time to rest and recharge. What resulted? Better employee loyalty, better employee retention and even better creative output and productivity. But wait, there’s more.

Since we all now peek into the lives of our colleagues via video calls, an astute leader would’ve noticed that many of their employees have children and are stretched balancing them and work. Angela did. She noticed that employees were torn between their calls, video conferences and work and prepping the family for the week on Monday mornings, not to mention during the lunch hour when children had to be fed.

Angela’s desire to protect the company from collective burn-out led her to implement a no-meeting block on Monday mornings and from noon until one. As someone who has sheepishly wolfed down lunch during a Zoom call, this decision sounds like a dream.

She also integrates the lives of people into their workday by holding events that include employees’ families such as virtual live music concerts once a quarter. Not to mention the collective effort that she and all of the OJO leadership made to get water to their colleagues in Texas during the massive power outage. It’s the concern for people and their well-being that will be here to stay because it’s the right thing to do and because it produces results. Take OJO as “Exhibit A”. Their employee retention, productivity and engagement is unbeatable. No wonder Angela was named one of the most innovative human resource leaders in 2021 by Business Insider and that OJO consistently is named “best workplace” by a variety of independent organizations.

The belief that “people only go the extra mile if they feel appreciated and recognized” was reaffirmed by Carol Leaman, Axonify co-founder and CEO. In an interview with Alexander Rink on growth and culture, she declares that “without a doubt, how employees have felt at Axonify has led to the company’s historical and future success.” Carol has built Axonify on a culture that respects and supports the mental health of her employees by reinforcing respect in every interaction. Relying upon her “EQ-leadership” style, and inherent sense of the connection between how people feel and the work they do has translated into a stellar company culture (4.6-star rating on Glassdoor, 98-per-cent CEO approval rating, 89-per-cent employee satisfaction, named as a Best Workplace for Women and recently named as the No. 7 on the Best Places to Work Canada list), with equally impressive results across her customers and product. That kind of culture translates into real results, across the company’s products, customers, and ultimately the company’s recent US$350-million valuation.

The pandemic has shone a bright light on what we’ve intuitively felt but couldn’t always articulate: how we feel does affect what and how well we do. If there’s one silver lining, it is that mental health and well-being is no longer a stigmatized topic and that adaptability will be the ultimate solution – in fact, encouraging leaders to be adaptable can be the secret sauce to any company’s success.