The pandemic, wildfires, and Portland protests created unprecedented complexity for this CEO of an HR consultancy. Here’s how he engaged and empowered his stressed-out employees.
Earlier this year, we held our semi-quarterly all-hands meeting. As I often do, I incorporated a live poll into my company overview, so I could gather and reflect back to the company employees’ thoughts on a key issue. For this meeting, the question was personal: what word would you use to describe how you are feeling right now?
When I opened the live poll and the team anonymously texted their answers, the word cloud showed a mix of emotions: “exhausted,” “excited,” “anxious,” and “hopeful.” But one word eventually overpowered the others: “overwhelmed.”
I knew our team had been under significant strain, personally and professionally. The COVID-19 pandemic had no end in sight, tensions around the election were escalating, our country was grappling with systemic racial injustices, and there were raging, uncontrollable wildfires affecting the communities where our employees worked and lived (Portland and Silicon Valley).
As the word cloud was forming, and our employees were openly sharing their experiences, I wanted to ask each person why they chose the word they had texted.
But I didn’t. Instead, I did something I wished I hadn’t. Once the word cloud was formed, I advanced the slide to our KPIs: revenue, retention, net promoter score, etc. And in doing so I forgot a key lesson I’ve learned as CEO: for a company looking to build a great business and culture, there’s no more important “key performance indicator” than the well-being of its team.
The next week, I wrote an open letter to our employees committing to meet with any employee who was willing to answer the question I had failed to ask. I wanted to better understand from our employees how they were experiencing the challenges 2020 had delivered—and what we as a company and their business leaders could do to help.
From both these conversations and prior experience, I’ve learned that managers and business leaders have a role to play in helping their employees navigate times of crisis. Often this role is assumed to be tactical—for instance, keeping employees focused on the task at hand or more closely monitoring their performance. But 2020 has taught me that we best engage and empower our employees in times of crisis when we establish and continuously reinforce connections between employees and themselves, each other, their work, and their communities:
CONNECTION TO SELF
Help employees understand and process their fears, hopes, and concerns. During times of crisis, we experience a wide range of emotions. Often business leaders try to keep their teams focused and engaged by compartmentalizing work, and keeping emotions related to a broader crisis out of the workplace. But that can do more harm than good. The “wall” that may have once existed between one’s personal life and professional life is now at most a chain link fence.
Employers and business leaders will better engage their teams if they also help their employees find ways to understand and process their emotions. That doesn’t mean playing the role of therapist, but rather identifying, creating, and giving employees time for supportive outlets, like wellness workshops or individual counseling programs
CONNECTION TO EACH OTHER
Foster open and supportive communication within and across teams. As we’ve seen in 2020, during times of crisis many of our outlets for social connection—such as gatherings with friends and family, recreational clubs, churches, and kids’ sports events—are put on hold. This is heightened when natural disasters are in play. During the wildfires of 2020, our employees in Oregon and California, already unable to gather indoors due to the pandemic, were unable to even gather outside due to poor air quality. As a result, times of crisis can mean that people feel more isolated than ever.
Often one of the few institutions that continues to persist is work. Business leaders can support their employees by opening lines of communication between and among employees, who start from a common ground of shared experiences and values at work. For instance, hosting small group sessions or facilitating 1:1 conversations between employees, in which employees are invited to share their experiences and how they are overcoming challenges, validates what employees are experiencing and helps them draw support, strength, and community from each other. For decades, we’ve said “work” is not the place to discuss our personal lives, values, and experiences. Those barriers are falling now, and the silver lining is that when there’s a foundation of trust in place, companies can become communities.
CONNECTION TO MISSION
Anchor employees’ daily work in the “why.” When crisis strikes, our attention is pulled in many different directions, and we want to know that wherever we’re directing it at any given time is meaningful. It’s critical business leaders continuously reinforce the company’s and their teams’ mission and values, so their employees feel a sense of purpose in focusing their attention on their work.
The starting point is to have an aspirational and documented mission or purpose statement. Once that’s in place, start company meetings with the mission statement and how employees’ ongoing work furthers it. For instance, highlight customer testimonials or case studies that show the direct impact of the team’s work. And because impact can’t be overcommunicated, consider writing a regular message to employees, connecting company achievements or updates back to the mission and why it’s important not just to the company but to the broader community as well.
CONNECTION TO FACTS
Transparently and directly communicate information to employees, even when it is not good news. Times of crisis often bring daunting risks or painful decisions. For businesses, it can seem like the right thing to do is to shelter employees from bad news to “keep spirits up.” Discretion and thoughtfulness in communication is important, but so is candor. Communicating negative information in a crisis will prompt difficult conversations, questions, and decisions, but it will also build trust and can even motivate and engage a team.
The key is to plan the communication, prepare senior leaders and managers for how to discuss it with their employees, share the priorities and principles that will guide the company’s decision-making, and set expectations for how additional updates or information will be communicated.
CONNECTION TO COMMUNITY
Position the company as a vehicle for making a difference. In the face of crisis, we want to help those in need, and often employees feel they have to choose between their work and their community. Business leaders can engage and empower their teams, and help their broader community manage a crisis, by making their companies an outlet for—rather than a distraction from—giving back.
For example, corporate social responsibility programs that include paid volunteer time, flexible PTO, charitable sponsorships, and sponsoring employee investments in both nonprofit organizations and their local community businesses can give employees powerful outlets for making a difference.
Historically, the line between what we consider personal and professional has been stark. But in the face of compounding crises, that’s changing. As business leaders, we can foster environments and cultures in which employees feel included, engaged, and empowered, not just in their work but in each other and how they can make a difference in the world around them.
Nathan Christensen is CEO of the newly formed union between ThinkHR and Mammoth HR, companies that deliver HR services to over 300,000 small and mid-size businesses nationwide.
Originally published in FastCo.