Why Employee Care Is the Key to Post-COVID HR Success

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At the risk of stating the obvious, COVID-19 is changing everything.


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It is the black swan event, exposing the inherent flaws in our system and forcing leaders everywhere to reevaluate whether the way we manage our teams is the best way or merely the way it’s always been.

If this sounds bleak, consider that COVID also presents an opportunity to reset. This dark moment in our history has given us a chance to shed the outdated ways of the past and forge a better path.

This is certainly true of the world of work. Take the most obvious example of remote work. This was a practice that had taken root in the start-up world but was far from mainstream before the lockdowns began.

Fast-forward 2 months, and we are in the midst of the greatest work-from-home experiment in history. Employers are learning the extent to which teams can be productive away from the office. Consequently, they’re beginning to rethink how much of that expensive office space they actually need.

Likewise, our collective pandemic experience has made another workplace idea exceedingly relevant and thus has accelerated its adoption: Employee Care.

As we emerge from the pandemic and return to a new work reality, Employee Care will only increase in importance. It will be the new standard by which company cultures are judged. And because it will determine your company’s ability to recruit the best talent and keep your existing employees engaged, it will have an outsized impact on company performance and profitability.

For these reasons, adopting an Employee Care framework becomes the most pressing task for employers and their people teams as we return to the workplace.

What We Mean By ‘Employee Care’

To be clear, “Employee Care” isn’t a buzzword. It’s an ethos that prioritizes employee health, safety, and well-being above all. It connects company success and employee well-being, and it should be a beacon that guides your decision-making as you optimize your company culture for a post-COVID world.

I define Employee Care as the extent to which companies optimize for employee health, safety, well-being, and quality of life.

At SnackNation, we’re integrating the Employee Care mind-set into all our organizational planning and letting it guide the way we return to a post-COVID workplace. Here’s how to make Employee Care the foundation of your culture, in both the short term and the long term.

Immediately Prioritize Safety …

The most immediate concern when employees return to offices will be the safety of their physical environment.

This will be the first big Employee Care test. Team members who have been practicing strict social distancing for months by this point will be justifiably anxious about returning to any kind of public space.

HR and People teams must have a plan to ensure the safe return of their employees. This will necessarily involve hand sanitizer stations, company-supplied face masks, and social distancing protocols.

It will mean packaged food and snacks instead of bulk items and directional flows and distancing guidelines on the office floor. It will also mean that offices are at less-than-full capacity. In fact, a recent survey of our national member base showed that most plan to only have 25%–50% of their workforce in the office at a given time when they do return.

Communicating these policies—and the why behind them—will be key. But saying the right things will only get you so far. The key is to consistently back up words with actions and connect those actions to your values.

… Then Focus on Trust

Demonstrating a commitment to employee safety is also the first step toward building the foundation of Employee Care—trust.

The importance of trust in the Employee Care framework can’t be overstated.

For years, business and HR leaders have been inculcated with the idea that they must enforce accountability or risk a dip in productivity. It is this mind-set that gives rise to the micromanager.

In part, the office became a means of keeping tabs on employees and holding them accountable. As long as they were in the office working for their 8 hours, managers were doing their jobs.

But presence and productivity are not synonymous. The office provided a false sense of control. As we enter a more dynamic, “work-from-anywhere” workplace of the future, this feeling of control is gone.

Trust must be bilateral. Managers have to both create trust and learn to trust.

Trust is built over time from a combination of communication and action. While it does not require perfection, it does require honesty. Managers must consistently act according to company values, back up words with actions, and always explain the why behind decisions. When you do make a mistake or need to change course, you must address it head on.

Trusting your employees is simpler but much harder. For many, it involves unlearning the mind-set we’ve been conditioned to adopt. It requires vulnerability and a voluntary loss of control. And it can be scary.

If this is you, you have to engage in real talk with yourself and fellow leaders. If there are trust issues, investigate why. What are the fears underlying the lack of trust?

Ironically, the key is to expect more out of your team, not less. It’s funny—people tend to rise or fall to the level of your expectations. If you expect your people to take advantage of a lax environment, they will. If you give your team power and space to optimize their quality of life along with the expectation that they will strive to do the best work of their lives, more often than not, they will.

This is the essence of Employee Care.

Manage the Whole Person

One unexpected effect of quarantine is that it has made us all more empathetic.

Mass remote work policies mean millions of us have brought our work home with us, and in so doing, we have also brought our homes into work.

Our living spaces are suddenly present and visible for our colleagues and employers in a way they weren’t just weeks ago. We hear kids in the background of Zoom calls. We see cats walking across desks or dogs bursting into rooms. We catch glimpses of parents, grandparents, significant others, and roommates. It’s a constant reminder of the things outside of our jobs that give our lives joy and meaning.

And it all adds up to a better understanding of each other. We have deeper empathy for our individual circumstances, familial and otherwise. With this knowledge comes the opportunity to integrate the personal into the way we manage.

In practice, this means acknowledging an employee’s personal aspirations and placing the person on equal footing with his or her professional ones. It means being more gracious and accommodating and focusing on results rather than time spent at a desk or hours worked. It also means combining personal goal-setting in our professional goal-setting exercise.

The best way to think about this is to give your employees agency and space to design a way of working that optimizes their quality of life while still hitting key performance indicators (KPIs) and fulfilling your company mission.

Again, this doesn’t work without a great deal of trust. Your employees must trust that you care about their well-being and their personal growth and success. You demonstrate this by supporting their personal goals as much as their professional. Likewise, leaders and managers must trust that their employees are willing and able to do great work while balancing the many priorities of a rich life.

Perhaps the most important point of all is that the entire concept of Employee Care rests on the belief that happier, healthier people make for better team members. Managing the whole person might seem like a radical departure for folks who believe that in order to get the most out of our people, our people have to give more and more of themselves.

But this concept begins to make sense when you accept the premise that a more well-rounded employee who leads a rich, full life outside the office is also a better employee. These are the people who are more likely to step up and be there for a teammate or put in the extra effort to deliver an exceptional customer experience. These are the people who make your business better.

Adopt Perks That Adapt to a Fluid Workplace

The future of work in America will be fluid. The office will still play a vital role, but it will be more of a perk than a necessity. It will continue to be a source of connection, collaboration, and innovation. How, when, and where people work will be much more purposeful.

Because we will be returning to a fluid situation, a culture founded on Employee Care principles becomes even more important. The in-office experience and the work-from-home experience are inherently uneven, so creating a more consistent, cohesive employee experience becomes paramount.

The job of the HR leader will be to adopt perks and develop programming that can bridge this divide. This is precisely what inspired our Work-From-Home Wellness Boxes and the reason we’ve seen so much success with them. Perks like these that can be scaled not just up as a company grows but also across a diverse and dynamic situation can become the connective tissue that holds your team together.

For our organization, Employee Care isn’t just a guiding principle for the way we function internally. It is a foundational concept for the brand and product we put out in the world—the way we solve the most pressing problem for our customers.

In effect, we’ve transitioned from a workplace experience company to an Employee Care company, and we’re here to help organizations and people everywhere do the best work of their lives, no matter how, when, or where that work takes place.

Sean Kelly is the cofounder and CEO of SnackNation, a provider of better-for-you snacks, coffee, and other workplace essentials for the office and remote teams. SnackNation serves more than 5,000 member offices in all 50 states.

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