by Gael O’Brien

The pandemic changed the work, family and social patterns of our lives. It wreaked havoc on business operations with closings, layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs. Normal became a memory except for continuing pay disparities: 2020 CEO compensation had “some of the biggest pay packages on record”  as worker median pay rose 1.9%. For many, it hasn’t felt “we’re in this together.” The workplace as we knew it is changing. It offers opportunities for do-overs.

COVID-19 provided time for self-examination. One outcome is more people quitting jobs than at any time in the past 20 years; 4 million quit in April 2021. Employees wanted better jobs, pay, benefits and greater purpose in work. The employee exodus indicates that for those leaving, their workplaces were lacking. At May’s end, 9.2 million jobs were open and 2.5 million people had filed to become entrepreneurs. In response, companies are increasing salaries and offering very large sign-up bonuses to attract new employees.

The exodus of former employees, influx of incentivized new employees and ongoing labor shortages add new challenges to the old. The agility, resilience and genuineness of a company’s culture is now even more important. COVID-19 has exacerbated problems of workplace identity, what fuels employee engagement and longstanding income disparities. It’s time for leaders to reassess how well connection, purpose and trust are operating in their companies.

A new paradigm

I loved the title of a recent Atlantic Magazine column, “A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over.”  It reminds us that when our normal is turned on its head, rather than trying to keep it going, we can evolve something better. We can evolve the best of what a workplace can be.

For starters, it’s clear that flexibility matters to many employees. Over 40% of employees working remotely indicated in one survey they’ll find another job if their employer doesn’t continue offering long-term remote options. Pressure is on resisting CEOs to see the workplace differently, finding a balance of in-office, hybrid and remote options. Workflows will be different: some companies have hired remote work directors and a chief hybrid work officer may be next.

The office has traditionally defined the workplace’s physical and psychological identity. A little bit (or not at all) like Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Some leaders feel strongly the presence of people together in the office environment fuels collaboration and culture However, just being together in a space doesn’t generate collaboration or healthy culture.

What shapes a workplace

What does shape a workplace (office or remote)? How CEOs lead — because it impacts whether trust can be experienced, if community feels real and if collaboration occurs. A leader’s “why” and “how” and the way they cascade throughout the company define the outlines of what’s possible wherever employees work. If the “why” connects the leader’s purpose, company purpose, values and what’s at stake, employees can link it to how they do their work.

According to Gallup, “…only 41% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for.” Surely companies want to change that trajectory? If so, workplace engagement will increase, especially for millennials — the largest generation in the workplace — who want purpose influencing how work is done.

A leader’s “how” delivers on the “why.” Led by able managers, it can foster employees feeling seen, supported, paid equitably and linked to purpose (their own and the company’s). How leaders and managers continually communicate to employees wherever team members are builds engagement.

Effective communication depends on asking questions. Returning to offices can cause employees anxiety. Finding out their concerns and ways to address them result in better outcomes. SHRM’s survey tool for returning to the office suggests what companies might ask their employees. Managers, who’ve reached out regularly to ask individual team members how they’re doing, help shape a caring workplace without borders.

The power of connection

It’s important for leaders to foster connection. Prior to COVID, Cigna identified “the loneliness epidemic” affecting workplace employees which I wrote about here. A way to decrease loneliness is through culture. A report of 2019 data indicated: “Employees who feel they share goals with their colleagues are almost eight points less lonely than those who don’t feel that way.”

A March 2021 survey of remote workers indicated 85% felt their managers were responsible for connecting them to their company’s culture. Eighty percent said senior leaders were as well. Over half the managers surveyed working remotely said “they feel more pressure to maintain company culture now than before the pandemic.”  People are waiting for the connection to be delivered, a great opportunity.

Will leaders choose to model and mentor creating genuine connection with employees to support culture, purpose and more collaboration? The payoff includes increased productivity, retention and developing future leaders. A recent article “What Does It Take to Build a Culture of Belonging”  speaks to the emotional connection culture can create. It identifies four criteria that enable employees to feel they belong at work when they are:

  • “Seen for our unique contributions
  • Connected to our coworkers
  • Supported in our daily work and career development
  • Proud of our organization’s values and purpose”

Belonging may not seem high priority. And yet, the great employee exodus this year suggests it’s a relevant way to invest in employees for their benefit and the company’s. New commitments, I’ve written here, are wakeup calls to create what’s possible.

 Challenges to “we’re in this together”

In marking the next phase of workplaces, building or repairing trust needs to be constant. For example, many CEOs publicly pledged not to do layoffs during the pandemic. But, then they did. For those affected companies, it’s important managers keep monitoring employee sentiment, answer questions fully and establish better trust.

Given the gap between lowest median worker wages, new hire incentives and CEO compensation, many employees may be angry. The Institute for Policy Studies identified that 51 of 100 S&P 500 companies with the lowest median worker wages bent rules to raise 2020 CEO compensation. Of the 51companies, 16 were in the red, some laid off thousands of employees and some CEOs didn’t meet goals. Nonetheless CEO compensation increased 29% over 2019 (averaging $15.3 million) and median worker pay averaged about $28,187 – 2% lower than 2019. High pay disparity is also evident in the 100 highest paid CEOs in FY 2020.

Leaders likely accept their board-set compensation as appropriate. However, in a pandemic, the ever-increasing disparities raise even more questions about how a leader leads and if employees are valued. The outcome often impacts employee commitment and performance. Especially if the lowest paid workers aren’t yet at least making $15 an hour. Clearly CEOs can drive that change faster.

It’s taken several years for companies to increase the lowest paid hourly worker salary. Many companies have; others are slowly trying. Essential workers, according to Brookings, represent about half of all workers in low paid jobs, many not reaching $15 an hour. It’s a critical issue that checks all the boxes, alienates employees and raises legitimate questions about why CEOs aren’t doing more.

A workplace is about people and how a leader leads. The shortage of workers is a wakeup call for CEOs. Companies that will enjoy sustainable success are learning how to navigate the future of the workplace so employees can say “we’re “in this together.”

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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