Marc Emmer is president of Optimize Inc. and an author, speaker and consultant specializing in strategy and strategic planning.
While there has been a lot of banter about the future of work in recent weeks, much of the narrative has been about where employees will work, office safety, collaboration software and so on.
Before the onset of the pandemic, many of us were engaging in a different conversation. As the talent war took form, we were consumed by discussions about building culture.
My consulting firm has the opportunity to work with dozens of teams every year, and I can offer insights based on data collected during the pandemic:
• The companies that had strong workplace cultures outperformed their rivals in 2020.
• The behaviors and habits that great companies leverage to create culture were largely cast aside as companies spasmed in their reactions to Covid-19.
What evidence do we have, you ask? Among almost all our clients, those who practiced such habits grew double digits in a year when global economic output was predicted to shrink by more than 5%.
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Throughout the year, we conducted employee engagement surveys with many of these clients and benchmarked against the same clients from the year before. Time and time again, we saw the same pattern. Even the best of companies had lost sight of one of the things that got them there: a focus on employee and career development.
It seems like a contradiction that companies with strong financial results would stop investing in people. It was as if companies had built up such goodwill that their employees gave them a pass. They also didn’t have much choice in the matter, as their career options were limited. But our conclusion based on data is that employees remained engaged and satisfied, even though career discussions took a back seat to more pressing matters.
This behavior is not unexpected if you consider the underlying psychology. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, companies protected themselves and took their employees out of harm’s way.
Headed into 2021 and beyond, it’s time for leaders to change the narrative back to the practices that we know are required to build and preserve culture.
Restate Your Mission, Values And Vision
This is the perfect time to reset and reinforce your purpose and where you expect to go from here in your long-term vision.
Recalibrate Goal Setting
While many of our clients still set three- to five-year goals, many executives resist being held to any long-term deliverables. The process of goal setting needs to happen more often during times of uncertainty. Long-term goals are still valid and valuable, but they should be reevaluated every quarter.
Execute A Feedback Loop
The methods by which many companies are providing feedback to their employees is completely broken. During the pandemic, conversations with employees became almost entirely operational. The focus was on short-term problem solving, such as how to make sure employees had the appropriate protective equipment.
Over the last few years, there has been movement away from traditional performance reviews to regular one-to-one meetings on a weekly or monthly cadence. The problem is that by increasing frequency, managers are often sacrificing depth. As many companies froze salaries last year, managers were even more apprehensive about conducting career discussions.
While we still believe annual performance reviews are useful, not all managers see it that way. If you have moved to more regular feedback, set expectations and provide tools so managers are still having career conversations and employees have a learning plan that informs them on the most valuable skills acquisition.
Promote Tours Of Duty
It wasn’t long ago that many employers paid hiring bonuses out of desperation to find young talent. As the unemployment rate declines, demand for labor will shift once again. For millennials, a tactic that works well is to ask them to commit to a “tour of duty.” This requires a shift in mindset where the employers ask workers to give them their all during a two- to three-year tour. The employer then commits to helping the employee with career progression, even if that means them leaving for another company. As the old saying goes, “The only thing worse than an employee who quits and leaves is an employee who quits and stays.”
Recommit To Training
While employers need to recommit to training, the focal point might change. Earlier last year, many companies pivoted overnight to new software tools with little forethought or training. Many people are still having trouble organizing information and acclimating to collaboration technology. It may be time to bring everyone up to speed on desktop skills and the like.
As our economy begins to emerge from the pandemic, it’s time to get back to the rituals that companies used to promote culture and provide an environment where people can be the best version of themselves.