Wellness and wellbeing have been on the radar screen for a long time and it’s a rare business leader who couldn’t recite why they are important. But a year later—after the beginning of the pandemic—there have been big changes to the work we do and how we do it. As a result, leaders and companies must think in new ways and implement expanded and creative solutions to support wellbeing for the future of work.
Key companies in a variety of industries are making great strides in wellness, and their approaches can inspire us to take a deeper, broader approach to a familiar topic. I spoke with senior leaders from Wiley, KPMG, ServiceNow and Monster, and they shared plenty of new ideas—helpful for consideration across all kinds of organizations, industries and businesses.
Wellbeing is important for employee happiness and fulfillment, but it’s also critical for business results. It’s a logic train: When employees are more content and engaged, they provide more (discretionary) effort and positive organizational outcomes ensue. But as the best leaders know, it’s wise to focus on wellbeing not just as a means to an end, but as its own goal—because it’s the right thing to do.
Starting with Culture
It may be tempting to take a scattershot approach to wellness programs—just doing a bunch of good things for people. But a truly successful system must begin with the bigger picture of culture—the norms, values, assumptions and shared belief systems within an organization. Without culture as a true north for wellbeing efforts, companies run the risk of having a disconnected jumble of tactics which are ineffective—or worse—inauthentic.
At Wiley, culture is a starting point. Danielle McMahan, Chief People Officer for Wiley, says, “We put together a team across the organization from facilities to HR to other leaders to think about how to get really intentional about creating community and culture.” KPMG also takes a planful approach to culture. Says Tracey Keele, Advisory Partner and Culture Co-Lead for KPMG, “We don’t let our culture just happen. We focus on making sure we’re really clear about what good looks like, what we believe and what we expect, and then actively reinforcing, nurturing and sustaining our values and culture, measuring it over time and course-correcting.”
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A strong, constructive culture creates context for innovative wellbeing solutions and approaches.
Employee expectations are changing and as a result, creative solutions, new approaches and innovative responses are the name of the game. Unfortunately, all employees won’t take advantage of programs to support wellbeing, but sociological literature finds wellness programs have value even if they’re underutilized. Why? Because of the messages they send: that companies value their people and provide resources to support them. Of course, selecting the right resources and ensuring people can leverage them is best, but even if a smaller proportion of employees use them, they still have tremendous value.
Parenting, Caregiving, Mental Health and Physical Health
I like to say that sometimes the tactical is the strategic and wellbeing approaches make this point. When companies provide tactical support, they ultimately demonstrate cultural values and pave the way toward strategically including people and removing barriers so they can contribute more effectively. Wiley and Monster both provide access to teaching and tutoring resources to support parents who are facilitating learning with their children, for example. And both companies offer the use of Care.com for employees providing care to elders or who need backup or emergency childcare. Similarly, KPMG has provided enhanced parental and caregiver support.
Wiley, Monster and KPMG are also offering apps to help employees with things like mediation, sleep, education or online therapy. Wiley offers education and coaching to support financial wellbeing, and Monster links employees via an app to encourage healthy eating, exercise and participation in physical challenges.
Community, Connections and Engagement
For a sense of wellbeing, people also need community and connectedness—and they need the opportunity to engage. Companies are recognizing the importance of connections and are focusing on ensuring people feel a sense of belonging with their colleagues—encouraging leaders and team members to check in regularly with each other and be intentional about building relationships. They are seeking to develop the habit of reaching out and making connections. Keele provides evidence for this approach, “We’ve been getting very intentional about how we build trusted relationships within our organization and with our people, and getting in the habit of regularly connecting and checking in with each other, driven out of a need to connect with each other.”
A sense of community can also be built through supporting each other in challenging situations. Monster has actively created opportunities for people to connect within groups related to particular interests or circumstances. Claire Barnes, Chief Human Capital Officer for Monster shares, “We launched two more employee resource groups. One was for parents and caregivers…to share stressors and strains, but also ideas…and to be a support to each other.”
Another approach to wellbeing involves engagement. Wiley leverages a Global Ambassador Program which involves volunteers to engage, provide feedback and identify challenges that need to be addressed related to wellbeing and culture. Says McMahan, “We’re using this as a bottoms up resource to help us think about how we engage our colleagues around these different programs to drive utilization, and be our eyes and ears on the ground to make sure we’re offering things that actually solve problems.” In a similar vein, KPMG has a network of culture champions. Says Keele, “[Culture champions] play a role in shaping the organization from a cultural perspective going forward. Champions have the opportunity to roll their sleeves up and get hands on…involving them in solutions and the experimentation process.”
The workplace is an important opportunity for people to come together, connect, build relationships and nurture networks. A sense of belonging isn’t created just by being with people, but when employees have a common sense of social identity and positive mutual dependence—and being together face-to-face, engaged together on tasks is one of the most powerful ways to provide for community, connection and social capital.
Celebration, Recognition and Performance Management
Another element of wellness is celebration and recognition. KPMG’s program of Compassionate Candor is an example. It fosters feedback, challenging conversations, openness, compassion and storytelling. The intention is to ensure people feel valued and have the opportunity to grow and develop. Keele shares details, “[Compassionate Candor is] is all about the intersection of caring personally and challenging directly and learning how you provide feedback to each other. We’re also really doubling down on how we show appreciation for each other and amplify stories of how our people make an impact.”
Celebration and recognition matter significantly, but it’s really about feeling like we matter—and like our contributions make a difference. Keele says it best, “When you feel valued and see your impact, you feel better, you have more energy and you want to be doing those good things you’re getting recognized for. It’s another way to reinforce our culture.”
Wellbeing is also evident through integration in performance management systems. Wiley provides an example. Says McMahan, “Wellness is starting to get integrated with all talent processes.” She recommends to employees they, “…lean into the performance management process, do the check in with your manager, make sure you’re clear about the goals you’re setting and then make sure you’re reprioritizing and if you require flexibility because of your situation…have the candid conversation with your manager.”
Leaders are key to performance management systems working well, and must be empowered and enabled with the right skills to provide empathy, offer support and achieve business results. KPMG is developing leaders to ensure they are equipped to support employees with empathy. Says Keele, “[The focus on ‘cultivate’ in our framework] is all about growth, development and enablement. We are focused on making sure our leaders are equipped as they deal with their own personal and professional challenges, and also carry the weight of their team members’ challenges.”
Career development is also a part of a holistic approach to wellbeing. People need feedback about their performance today, but also about how they will grow through the organization. Gretchen Alarcon, VP and General Manager for HR Delivery for ServiceNow, expands on this idea, “[We must consider], how we can help employees feel supported today along with giving them opportunities to grow and develop in their career.”
Flexible Work and Avoiding Burnout
Flexible working is also part of the wellbeing solution. This can include the hours employees work—or how companies handle the hours they can’t. Wiley adopted a policy where employees didn’t have to use vacation time or personal time if they were sick, and KPMG offered paid leave for employees impacted by coronavirus. As the pandemic abates, they are considering how they’ll take flexible working forward in support of the future of work and the return to the office.
Companies are also paying attention to the ‘panic productivity’ that has been created by the pandemic—where people are working harder than ever based on stress and anxiety. Wiley has identified ‘hyper-productivity’ as a challenge and a risk for burnout. Says McMahan, “As you go into a hybrid hyper-virtual world, this concept of being hyper-productive and work-life integration and the lines getting blurred, will continue. So we need to put practices in place to support [the hyper-work].” KPMG is taking a fresh look at work which can be high-pressure and identifying what’s feasible, clarifying what matters most and giving people permission to talk with leaders about their challenges. Explains Keele, “We ask a lot of our people but we’re taking a fresh look at it.”
Time off, time away and space to breathe are also solutions in the wellbeing toolkit. In response to concerns about all kinds of exhaustion and stress, Wiley has been testing ‘no meeting Fridays’ or ‘happy Fridays’ where employees can make a choice to take half of the day off. McMahan explains, “[It’s about] how you incorporate flexibility so you can help people with wellness.” In a similar vein, Monster is paying attention to people’s stress. Barnes says, “We also looked at things like how the stress of the pandemic is affecting how employees are living and working.” As a result, Monster is making ‘self-care days’ available as part of a PTO (paid time off) entitlement, encouraging employees to turn off for a day.
Tools and Technology
Tools and technology are also part of a holistic look at wellbeing. In particular, ‘digital burnout’ is a problem in which people feel fatigue after collaborating in front of a computer all day with cameras on. The tools we are using weren’t designed for the way we’re currently working. This mismatch causes exhaustion. Alarcon says, “There’s a sense we’re always on—and on camera—and these tools aren’t aligned with where I need them to be, and that’s what leads to digital burnout. We’re trying to think about what tools people are engaging with, and how can we help. When they’re asking a question or need service, can we make sure it’s happening in the environment they’re choosing to use, rather than having to go someplace else to get the information they need.”
Technology can help—meeting the employee where they are with the tools they prefer. For example, at the end of a meeting, an employee might have the opportunity for a 5-minute tutorial on effective meeting practices, rather than an hour-long session months later. Says Alarcon, “We need to think about how we provide information in the flow of work when they need it, or ideally, right before they need it.”
Wiley has also given thought to digital tools and technology to support work-life integration and how they can leverage new resources as they emerge. Says McMahan, “We’re now going to need to create an environment internally where we have these digital tools and capabilities so people can manage their work-life.”
The Little Things
Small things can also make a big difference. Consider meeting duration: Some companies are seeking to adjust work norms Monster has updated their settings for meeting invitations, so they default to 25-minute and 50-minute meetings, rather than the typical durations. Says Barnes, “When you’re working from home, it’s very easy to go back-to-back-to-back in meetings and not to have any opportunity to stand up, get away from your desk, go and get a drink, get some fresh air, stretch, be away from your screen, and it’s not good for us.” KPMG is encouraging leaving five minutes open at the top and bottom of the hour. The intention is that people have a few minutes between meetings to grab coffee or take a breath. Says Keele, “The idea behind it is to start to shift the norms and shift how we show up.”
Solutions abound and there is no one-size-fits-all. Every company’s approach must match its culture and situation. But overall, the best solutions are strategic, holistic and integrated into the fiber of the organization. They must also evolve—given that what works today may not work tomorrow. The best companies are keeping wellbeing central to their efforts and ensuring they’re putting people first for the benefit of their employees and business.