When the world first shut down in the spring of 2020, there was as much talk about dealing with the isolation and overwhelming uncertainty as there about avoiding the coronavirus. Not surprisingly, much of the focus was on career, as the daily routines of millions were upended overnight. The seismic shift to working from home has largely turned out to be a mixed bag – some people were thrilled at first, only to find that the dream of attending meetings in their pajamas was no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Others, however, found that they were more productive and less stressed and vowed to never go back to their workplace full-time. Everyone, from the mainstream media to spiritual gurus and psychologists offered various coping mechanisms, however, one dominant theme emerged: people should use the global pause to get off the hamster wheel and go within to assess priorities and the lifestyle changes needed to align with them. Indeed, it looks like many people followed their advice, with a record 33 million Americans, many of them in the healthcare and tech industries, leaving their jobs in the past year.
As we continue to unpack the causes and consequences of the Great Resignation, one thing is for sure – toxic culture is one of the primary reasons employees quit, even more so than pay and/or concern over their economic futures. While culture was always a factor in employee retention, the collective introspection caused by COVID certainty brought it to the forefront. No longer would people stand for an environment that made them feel ignored, unappreciated, or marginalized. Moreover, they were willing to hold out for companies that made them feel as if they were living on purpose and part of a team while also being recognized and valued for what they bring to the table as individuals. Such jobs used to be considered a pipedream, reserved for the lucky few; now they have become part of the evolving “new normal.” Any company seeking top talent and retention ignores this message at their peril.
Take the Temperature
The first step in creating a positive environment is to take an honest look at your current culture – the good, the bad, and the ugly – from the perspective of those who are immersed in it every day. Are your employees happy, or just tolerating their jobs until the day they can leave for a better opportunity? How have their wants and needs changed over the past two years, and what are the “must-haves” they feel will increase their job satisfaction and provide space for fulfilling personal lives? And, what, if anything, do they find lacking in the current culture or contributing to a sense of overwhelm? This is not just a mere exercise in intelligence-gathering, but a real opportunity for your company to level up. Take feedback seriously and begin incorporating whatever changes are possible. Not every employee will get everything they want, but your demonstrable commitment to change and creating a healthy environment will go a long way to earning their goodwill and loyalty.
Have you ever noticed that the characters in your favorite TV shows are so focused on their work that they rarely take time to eat or sleep? Their mobiles are by their beds so they don’t miss a three-a.m. call or text from colleagues, and their success has come at the cost of marriages, relationships with their kids, and personal happiness. While real life may not always be this extreme, overworking has been worn like a badge of honor in our culture, often leading to mental and physical burnout. Depending on the field and the individual company, the concept of “business hours” were mere suggestions, with employees expected to answer emails and texts on vacation, if they took vacation at all. It wasn’t until the pandemic that we really started to look at the extent to which our work lives affect our overall wellbeing both individually and as a society. One example of how that is shifting is Coinbase, which is taking a measure that pre-pandemic was virtually unheard of in the US.: a four-week “recharge.” After implementing shorter trial runs over the past two years, the cryptocurrency exchange found that 52% of employers believed the recharge was “the primary tool that helped them rest and recover in 2021.” If this is not tenable for your organization, you might start with smaller steps, such as mandatory lunch hours and other opportunities throughout the day to unplug and recharge. You might even offer trainings on meditation and breathwork, and encourage them to incorporate them into their routine, even if for just five or ten minutes. This will make it known that you recognize self-care as not merely a luxury, but necessary to the health of employees and the company as a whole.
Make it Fun
Creating a workplace culture is not simply about removing barriers to wellbeing but adding things that will make it a place they want to be, virtually or in person. One tool that is becoming increasingly popular is “gamification” – or the integration of gaming aspects into non-gaming environments. Whether we realize it or not, this has been part of our world for years. One for example is the emojis that make more nuanced communication (i.e. tone) possible in texts and emails. Another is educational platforms such as Duolingo, the language learning app where an adorable green owl teams up with virtual human characters to cheer us on, reward us with prizes, and provide stats on how our performance measures up to other users. Similarly, workflow platforms are increasingly using gamification to provide support and help employees celebrate the achievement of both major goals and each milestone along the way. This has proven particularly effective for millennials and Zoomers, who grew up with digital communication, prioritize connection with the organizational mission, and value immediate feedback on their work more than older generations.
Shifting workplace culture can seem like a Herculean task, especially if your organization is large and/or has a history of being entrenched in outdated practices. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while the pandemic certainly threw the world into a state of upheaval, in many ways it merely accelerated trends toward more inclusivity and flexible schedules that honor work-life balance. No matter where on the spectrum your company currently falls, implementing some of these simple steps can mark an evolutionary turning point, one that ensures sustainability for years or decades to come.