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Q&A: Fostering an Engaged Workplace Culture for the New Norm

Feb 22, 2022

We recently had a roundtable discussion on how business leaders and HR executives can recreate their company culture in the wake of “The Great Resignation.” The talk included industry thought leaders in the Human Resources space, including:

LuAnn Heinen: As Vice President at Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to representing large employers on health and benefits policy, LuAnn leads the Business Group's initiative on well-being as a workforce strategy, working with large employers and health industry partners to advance employee, family and community well-being, and business performance. 

Chester Elton: Chester has been called “apostle of appreciation” by Canada’s Globe and Mail and a “must read for modern managers” by CNN. The #1 bestselling leadership author, he has spent the past two decades helping businesses engage their employees to execute on strategy, vision, and values. With Adrian Gostick, he is a partner at The Culture Works®, spending the last 20 years helping organizations of all sizes create workplaces where employees are engaged, enabled, and energized.

Adrian Gostick: New York Times Bestselling Author of "All In," "Leading with Gratitude" & "Anxiety at Work," Adrian is a partner with Chester for “The Culture Works,” writing and helping businesses build company culture and healthy work environments.

Tom Futch: VP at Freshly for Business, Tom has over 20 years of experience leading companies in the development and execution of sustainable growth strategies.

If you’d like to listen to the full roundtable discussion, check out the Employee gratitude and appreciation: The cornerstone of an engaged workplace culture webinar.

Q1: How do you create a company culture designed around gratitude?

Adrian Gostick: We put out a book called “Leading with Gratitude,” actually in March of 2020. Through this book and others we have worked on, we've studied more than a million employees throughout the world, and what we found is that one of the main accelerators of engagement is gratitude. And what our work has done is really tied in how recognizing and thanking employees can impact everything from employee engagement to productivity. It's sort of a no-brainer. We found there are really three steps in how leaders can show gratitude and that’s frequency, specificity, and timeliness. Gallup found that people in the most engaged workplaces felt praised and recognized every seven days. So, showing gratitude is not just once a year, this should happen on a regular basis. It also has to be specific and timely. Leaders can’t wait. How long does it take you to get in touch with somebody who's messed up? Like 30 seconds. How long does it take to get in touch with somebody who's done something right? So those ideas of frequent, specific, timely are really the building blocks for gratitude.

Chester Elton: And a lot of companies think they’re great at leading with gratitude, but that’s not often the case. We survey managers, asking "Are you above average in giving recognition?" And 70% say, “Yeah, I'm really great.” And then we survey their employees and it's like 23% who agree. So, there’s a deficit gap. We see leaders often say they wait for the big events. You know, that you've hit the quota, you've launched the new product or whatever. And yet it's those simple little things every day that actually build momentum. We have a leader that we love here at Avis Budget. He puts 10 pennies in his left pocket. And he sets a goal of 10 positive interactions, 10 little touches every day to show gratitude for the things that are going right instead of pointing out all the little things that go wrong.

Q2: When designing a new company culture built around gratitude, what factors should you consider?

LuAnn Heinen: I have had the privilege of working with our employer members and also their health industry partners. In fact, we have about 450 companies who belong to the Business Group on Health, representing around 60 million employees and family members. And one of the things that we're hearing really regularly throughout the pandemic is that our member companies are making listening, caring, understanding, and being flexible a top priority. And not every company would have said that pre-pandemic.

Adrian Gostick: What LuAnn is saying is exactly right. Flexibility is now the key. We've been thinking about the “Great Resignation” as more of a “Great Reassessment.” People are saying, “I don't want to be commuting for an hour each way anymore.” The organizations we're working with are really working hard to find ways to sort of lure people back into the office, but compromising to only around 2-3 days a week. But they are also saying that this in-person time, it’s going to be better time together, we're going to work more collaboratively. In the new work culture, we're not all working in parallel, but instead we're going to really collaborate and come up with the best ideas. So, you really have to find ways to get people back in that'll make it more interesting and improve working together.

Chester Elton: Yeah, I think the personalization of the workplace is really key. You know, we talk a lot about how great cultures start with “knowing your players.” You know what's important to them. I mean, I live in the greater New York area and commuting into the city can be soul-crushing. So what trends do you have to follow? You know, my son works at American Express and they've done a brilliant job of taking a look at the teams and asking: what can you do remotely? Now, there is great power in just getting together. I mean, I think we'd all agree on the benefits of getting in a room and whiteboarding stuff and. It's just more engaging. And so they, they are saying, look, we want you to come in at least once a week, you know, or maybe it's twice a month or whatever depending on your job. But this personalization and customization of the workplace by individuals and organizations, knowing their players and knowing their teams, I think is the new normal and the good companies do it.

LuAnn Heinen: Exactly! It’s about listening to employee needs and then continuing the listening through listening sessions and town halls to stay close to employee feelings about everything. And companies need to also offer managers discretion, giving them a little bit of freedom to help employees re-acclimate.

Q3: Where does leadership fit in when it comes to shaping your new company culture?

Adrian Gostick: The question is, do your senior leaders buy-in and what are they doing about this? Because as LuAnn's saying, it's a different environment with culture right now. When a lot of people are remote, we have to make adjustments to our culture. And shaping culture has to come to the forefront if we want to get the best of people. When you think about culture, it really is how we behave with each other. And it's amazing how many organizations really haven't thought through this. You know, they may have a mission and a vision, but really nobody knows what they are. The values really are so aspirational that people giggle about them. How we behave with each other, this defines a company’s values. And really when it comes down to the mission it’s who we are, vision is where we are going, and values are how we get there and how we accomplish our mission and vision. So those were really very simple building blocks. And whether leading a team or leading an organization, that's really where you begin.

Chester Elton: All of this when we talk about gratitude, appreciation, culture, and engagement, it comes back to leadership. And I'll tell you pre-pandemic, you know, we've been studying leaders for 20 years, right, Adrian. In the past, if you'd said, "Well, what are the attributes of great leaders?" You'd say, "Oh, visionary, great communicator, you know, inspiring, you know, paints the pathways forward to the promised land." And now it comes down to one word, and it's “empathy.” This empathy keeps bubbling up to the top. I've got an empathetic leader that allows me to feel safe to talk about tough issues in the workplace.

Adrian Gostick: In the past, “good” managers were seen as invulnerable, always knowledgeable, always in control. That actually creates more anxiety for people. We have to, as leaders, be a little vulnerable ourselves and say, "Yeah, I've been, you know, overwhelmed by this pandemic. My parents are this and that and the other. I’m struggling balancing helping my kids do remote school.'" All these things. It's okay to be vulnerable. In fact, we have to be.

Q4:You spoke about the importance of listening to employees. How can leaders create a ‘safe space’ that can both encourage growth and retain top talent?

Chester Elton: An example of great leadership is Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40. WD-40, you think that they're a part of P&G or something. No. They're their own company. And when Garry Ridge took over, they were about a $250 million American-based company. Well, he brought in this tribal culture and he says we're not co-workers or were part of a tribe biggest in a tribe, you defend each other, you celebrate together, you feed each other, you cheer each other on. And they have a philosophy that we don't make mistakes, we have learning moments. In fact, Adrian and I were at their headquarters. And they had 40 steps that you go up because they had 39 formulas that didn't work before they got to water displacement, the 40th formula. And they said we don't make mistakes. We have learning moments. This is a great example of a safe environment where you can experiment and fail and then talk about it. And does this work? Well, their market cap now is almost $4 billion. I mean, it's ridiculous. And by the way, they only have like 450 employees. So their profitability per employee is like, you know, Silicon Valley company level. And you talk to Garry about it and he said, it always comes back to your people. It always comes back to psychological safety, emotional safety, the ability to innovate and make mistakes without fear of retribution. So, yeah. Does it have an impact on your bottom line? We could cite 20 companies, where if you get the culture right and your people are engaged and they feel valued and appreciated, it absolutely impacts your bottom line. Absolutely.

Adrian Gostick: We started interviewing a lot of people in their 20s and they said, "We talk about our mental health in every conversation we have. But with you oldies, we never talk about our mental health because you guys just don't talk about it for some reason."  And they asked us, how do you fix something you don't talk about? Right now, we know that 30% of workers in North America have some form of anxiety disorder, 42% of people in their 20s. And yet, we don't talk about it. Imagine 30 to 40% of your people came in with broken arms every day, but we don't talk about broken arms. It's just silly. And so what we found is that we needed to start talking about this. And as we do when we go out and we do speeches and trainings. What's amazing is that in the end, it’s people in their 40s, 50s, 60s who say, “Me too. I have never been able to talk about it.” 

LuAnn Heinen: On that note, I had an interview with Mandy O'Neill, who's a researcher on emotional culture and how employees feel. And emotions have a big impact on your performance, your productivity, how you feel about your job, what level of pride, and acceptance, and how cared for you feel, and all that, you know, at work. I think it's really important and often goes unexpressed. We've also heard a lot of concern about burnout. And so we've done a bit of a deep dive into burnout. It turns out that what's really important is, people have to feel safe enough to talk about it. They need to be able to share with their teams when they're overwhelmed and have too much on their plate that they can’t get it all done. And then you need team members who aren't as full up to volunteer to help to take things on. You also need to restructure, look at things like moving jobs, flexing deadlines, etc. Yes, maybe an external deadline is not flexible. But internal deadlines that are self-imposed are flexible. And it's up to managers to work with the teams to make sure you flex where you can.

Adrian Gostick: That reminds me of our interview with Alan Mulally, who was really the savior of the Ford Motor Company when they were about to go bankrupt. He was CEO for about nine years. He came in and he said, “Leadership is about loving people.” And yet people said he had a backbone made of titanium, you know, the guy was dealing with a couple hundred thousand union workers. But, by the time he left him, they had a 91% employee engagement score. Leading with gratitude isn’t just warm and fuzzy stuff where you wear blindfolds and fall back into each other's arms and sing Kumbaya. No. This is about holding people accountable. But it's also doing it in a way that shows that you love them. One of the things that he talked about was thanking people every step of the way. When he had a meeting every week with his leaders around the world, he used to cheer and recognize them when they came in and said one of their projects was “in the red.” And the leader would admit, “I have no idea what to do.” He said, "That's great because we can help you when you admit it." And they would cheer and they would all celebrate. And when it moved from red to yellow, they would celebrate. When it moved from a yellow to green, same deal. He said, “You have to recognize every little step forward. Not wait for the big celebration when we finally hit the numbers.” He said they wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t celebrated each step along the way.

Chester Elton: And by the way, their stock increased by 1,837% under his leadership. I think that stock went from a dollar to $18.37.

Q5: Seeing the impact of having a caring culture, when it comes to wellbeing, what are some of the benefits you see trending?

LuAnn Heinen: We're seeing that the kinds of benefits that are on the rise right now are every type of mental health care, new categories of leave like caregiving and bereavement, and also inclusive family benefits. Family-friendly is a major focus and this can be around fertility and family forming parenting, childcare support, and meal assistance. Those are some of the big ones that we're seeing. In fact, a top trend that we're reporting is that well-being is bigger than anything else. Well-being is bigger than benefits is how we put it. Well-being and the employee experience are everything. If you're going to be caring and listening, and flexible, those are all opportunities for those touches. These are all ways of appreciation. I mean, it's not exactly appreciation, but it's-- if you understand what employees need and want, that's the way of showing appreciation.

Tom Futch: One of the things that excited me about joining Freshly is we know that nourishment, nutrition is such a foundational element to health and well-being. For example, do your employees have access to healthy meals? And it could be hard to access at home when you're working and have a busy family life. It could be at work when you're trying to balance out meetings and working late hours. We hear a lot from health care organizations in which their staff are on the front lines of this pandemic right now and are working around the clock. Whether on the front line or during a high growth period, how do you support your employees in the ways they need most?

LuAnn Heinen: And the people who are returning to the office now and getting ready to return. I mean, their number one concern is getting sick from a co-worker, a client, or something. But the number two, right up there is establishing new routines. How are they going to feed their family and walk their pets and those kinds of things. Anything you can do to make things easier, remove the friction. People are figuring out, how do I do all this now? You know, I'm not used to starting something in the crockpot at 7:00 am when commuting. There's also hardship loans, student loan counseling and repayment, and in the healthy eating space, it could be meal subsidies. Healthy meals at work or delivery to home. And those are super highly valued right now. These address social determinants of health, which is something that a lot of companies are really thinking about. It’s removing friction, removing barriers and obstacles that keep them from being their best at work. If they're not eating well, if they have food insecurity issues or income insecurity. It’s helping employees where they need it most.

Tom Futch: Leaders have to ask themselves: how do you support your employees during these times to deal with all the pressures that we're all dealing with, whether it's caring for their parents, their children, a family member who is sick. 

Adrian Gostick: We wrote a book this year called “Anxiety at Work,” and we were seeing lots of that. We're finding that almost a doubling in the level of anxiety among people in their twenties especially, who are taking this pandemic very hard. So this idea of workplace well-being and company culture are so important. And we especially have to think about people who are younger in our workforces, and the insecurity and anxiety they're facing right now. So I think that's one reason we're leaning a little heavily there. I think a lot of people are realizing their employees are suffering with this prolonged pandemic.

Chester Elton: You know, one last little data point, we found this through the research in writing “Anxiety at Work” was that 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen Z said they had recently left a job due to a mental well-being issue. And the fact is that people just aren't comfortable talking about it because of the stigma. So rather than talk about it or feel unsafe, or have that label put on them, they leave.

Adrian Gostick: It's also letting your people know what's available too. So often there's great benefits and they're just not publicized. You know, you talk about Freshly. I mean, I've had a long day at work. I come home. I have kids who I need to cook for. And instead, we can have a great meal prepared for us. Wow, you know, that goes a long way to telling me that my company cares about me.

Navigating the Next Era of the Workplace in 2022

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Q&A: Fostering an Engaged Workplace Culture for the New Norm