Author: Rhonda P. Marcucci
Happy New Year! Has there been a time when the world was collectively happier to see one year end or more hopeful for better things in the year ahead? I don’t think so. There’s no doubt that 2021 brings some challenges—a carryover of 2020 issues yet to be resolved along with some new ones. But kudos to the millions of employers that found ways to overcome the big hurdles associated with COVID-19 while balancing organizational wellbeing with employee wellbeing when the two sometimes seemed at odds.
Unfortunately, many of these same organizations were too busy reacting to the unexpected and the unknown in 2020 to focus on 2021. But it’s not too late. While some uncertainty remains, especially around the long-term economic impact of the pandemic, vaccines offer a light at the end of the tunnel. Now is the time to formulate a people strategy that acknowledges the uncertainty while focusing on the organization’s big goals—whether targeting recovery or big growth.
2020 brought a lot of change to the workplace, much of it long-term, if not permanent. While COVID-19 is a big contributing factor, it is not the only one. Social justice issues, the economy and workplace technology have changed how we think about people management. You can’t just slap a “January 2021” label on the 2020 plan and expect it to deliver. The workplace is significantly different than a year ago and, to succeed, your 2021 plan must address today’s challenges and opportunities.
New year, new organizational wellbeing challenges
About five years ago, HR began to shift its focus from wellness programs to employee wellbeing, expanding the emphasis on physical and emotional wellness to include career and financial health as well. This new lens acknowledges the whole picture of what employees deal with every day, both at work and at home. It further raised the awareness and interest in employee engagement, personalized benefits and workplace culture. Driving this shift was a broad recognition and consensus that employee wellbeing leads to organizational wellbeing. This means more productivity, less absenteeism, better attraction and retention rates and more—all of which drive organizational goals and an improved bottom line.
With that in mind, the New Year is the time to consider employee wellbeing issues and address associated challenges in your 2021 people strategy. Following are five points we believe will be highly relevant this year. While none of these are new, all have gained importance due to the events of the past year.
- Emotional Wellbeing. If you are reading this from your home office, then you know that a remote workforce will continue for some time—at least until COVID-19 vaccines are widely available to all. While employers learned that at-home workers can be productive, they also found that isolation, combined with the stressors of the year (from toilet paper shortages to homeschooling), creates significant levels of emotional distress for many workers. While things may be improving, don’t discount the importance of support for employees' emotional wellbeing, whom you now only see in a 2x3 video conference square.
- Engagement and Collaboration. Employers and employees alike have embraced the benefits of remote working (cost savings, increased flexibility, fewer distractions, etc.). A 2020 Gallagher survey found that 86% of employers expect to retain their work-at-home policies after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a remote workforce calls for tools to support employee engagement, communication and collaboration—with team members, managers and the organization as a whole.
- Workforce Diversity. The ongoing spotlight on social justice issues has employers taking a hard look (some for the first time) at the make-up of their workforce. In a December 2020 commentary, the Vanguard Group called upon companies to increase the diversity of their boards and staff, noting that the company "may vote against directors at companies where progress on board diversity falls behind market norms and expectations" and "may hold nominating committee chairs or other relevant directors accountable." The Vanguard Group is just one example of corporate America taking the initiative to address inequities. Aside from being the right thing to do, research shows that more diverse companies make better decisions and have better outcomes.
- Financial Wellbeing. While U.S. unemployment rates have fallen from their recent peak in April 2020, there remain millions of unemployed workers, along with those whose hours have been reduced or who have been furloughed. In response, many have taken money out of their 401(k) funds or borrowed from other sources to cover living expenses. Workers living paycheck to paycheck is not a new phenomenon, but COVID-19 shined a bright light on the situation. Financial wellbeing is no longer about being able to retire on time; it’s about surviving today. Employers that offer creative solutions in support of financial wellbeing will be rewarded with employees who are more productive in the absence of financial stress.
- Career Wellbeing. A workforce comprised of individuals who enjoy what they do and have opportunities for professional growth is key to organizational wellbeing. Employees with a high level of career wellbeing are more likely to thrive overall. A year ago, in a tight labor market, employers pursued competitive strategies to attract and retain top talent. Those energies have shifted to strategies that accelerate the upskilling or reskilling of their existing talent pool (which may be smaller now). This trend is aided by the rapid pace of development and subsequent adoption of new tech that enables organizations to manage tasks that don’t require a human touch. The result is that employees can focus on more strategic work that is meaningful to the organization and more personally fulfilling—creating a stronger sense of career wellbeing.
There’s HR tech to support you
If developing a new people strategy to respond to these five areas feels overwhelming right now, take comfort in the fact that there are lots of tools in the HR tech market to support your efforts. Further, you may already own some of these tools, so it could be a matter of optimizing what you already have, versus investing in new solutions.
While technology can be the solution, it’s important to remember that technology is a “how,” not a “what.” (Read more of my thoughts on this topic in a previous article). Start by setting your goals and laying out a strategy to reach them and then identify the tools that will help get you there. A trusted advisor or HR technology consultant can assist you with this process. Contact us today to learn about Gallagher’s services in this area.
You may need to re-define what is “normal” for your organization. Remember, a lot has changed—including, possibly, organizational or financial benchmarks. Your people strategy may need to start from a very different place than it did a year ago. Perhaps the pandemic pushed you to get off paper for employee benefits enrollment, or maybe you’ve implemented new collaboration tools to empower a largely remote workforce. Whatever it might be, don’t retreat and return to old processes. Move forward and explore additional functionality that will support your people strategy and deliver on organizational goals.
A final word to the wise: do your best to remain flexible and agile. Change is still happening, and you can still expect the unexpected in 2021. Employers that can quickly respond to change will be the winners when it comes to managing workforce wellbeing.