With the challenges that the pandemic has brought to the workplace, more than ever, leaders are being called upon to be strategic, creative, and thoughtful in finding ways to keep their companies financially healthy and growing, while keeping employees satisfied and engaged. Many leaders have grappled in the last few years with the challenge of maintaining a positive company culture at a time where employees and leadership are more physically disconnected from one another due to remote working environments. Chats in the breakroom, around the conference table, or a quick lunch out, have been replaced by phone and video calls, group chats and emails. The pandemic has also required compassion, flexibility and understanding with employees juggling challenges like home schooling, reduced childcare options, reduced senior care options, and even employees and their loved ones contracting COVID19, which may have resulted in the loss of loved ones. The “sandwich generation” of working adults who are raising children and caring for aging parents is now also navigating these challenges, in many cases, while working from home. The pandemic has brought employee health, comfort, and safety to the forefront in unprecedented ways. Of course, arguments can be made on both sides of the debate as to whether these changes have improved or decreased productivity; but after several years of adjusting business to a pandemic, the question is emerging: Where we go from here? When do we bring staff back to the office? Do we shift to a primarily work from home environment or a hybrid solution? Do we flex with the employees’ needs and personal situations on these questions or take a one approach fits all stance? Since leaders have transitioned from the initial idea of “14 days to flatten the curve” to years of adjusting to the pandemic at this point, what long term impact do these decisions have on company financial health and culture? Where do we go from here with our decision making?
The very nature of leadership involves making tough decisions to achieve the best outcomes for the company. Sometimes, the delicate balance of employee satisfaction and optimal revenue paths seem to be at odds in these decisions. As the pandemic marches on, it can be difficult to determine what the next steps should be. Brene Brown says, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” As with so many leadership concerns, is integrity our answer to navigating our way through these challenging pandemic decisions? Let’s break this down using the main points in Brene Brown’s quote.
There are many leadership quotes, such as Rosabeth Moss Canter’s, “It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that’s what leadership is.” This takes us back to the earlier point of making decisions for the “greater good” of the company even when these decisions may not be the most popular decisions. However, this does not mean that these decisions should be made based only on the opinions of the executive team. In an article entitled “If You Listen Up, Your Employees Will Step Up” by Business News Daily, it asserts that “The best way to make your employees feel important and valued is to listen to them.” While leaders often make the final decisions, giving employees a space to provide feedback can go a long way in promoting a culture where leadership decisions are supported when employee feedback is valued and considered in decision making. At the same time, to Brene Brown’s point, leadership is tasked with the responsibility to explore the feedback, challenge norms and “the way it has always been” to stretch the team and company to reach the next set of goals and fulfill the company’s purpose. It is important to recognize that “comfort” does not always equate to “satisfaction”. Employees may feel satisfaction in their roles, even when challenged. Many may even integrate their job satisfaction with how challenging their job is, some seek challenge and others do not. Rosalynn Carter says, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.” Great leaders take employees out of their comfort zones and help them see the vision of what is possible for the employee, team, and company. Part of a leader’s pushing the team in saying “let’s go”, also means “let’s grow”. With these points in mind, the decisions we make as we move forward in the pandemic should include both feedback, as well as fearlessness in challenging our comfort zones as a team. It is a fair assumption that after coming out of the virtual cocoon of pandemic separation and remote work, some employees may be reluctant to return to more challenging job routine (commutes, office dynamics, more time away from home). The question of “is it safe” versus “is it comfortable” has a great deal of middle ground to explore as we make these important decisions. Therein lies the opportunity to make courageous decisions that move our companies forward, while still considering the needs of all involved.
“What is right” can certainly be a matter of personal perception. However, leaders are tasked with decisions regarding what is right for a company’s health and stability in carrying out its mission and purpose. Unfortunately, personal values and opinions may not always align with what is right for a company’s “greater good”. For example, if a company’s primary service is home care, but a Caregiver is not comfortable caring for clients in their homes during the pandemic, even with strict company safety protocols, there is no longer alignment with what is right for the employee versus carrying out the company’s purpose. Sometimes, there are such major changes in a company or market for a variety of reasons, with the pandemic being a great example of this, that companies and employees must re-evaluate whether there is still a good match between the employee’s personal values and the company’s mission and purpose.
As for choosing what is right over “fun, fast, and easy”, again I return to the company mission and purpose as a guidepost. There may be decisions that allow for fun, fast, and easy, if these decisions still carry out the mission and purpose of the company. Employees may also be great contributors for ideas on improving processes for efficiency and for making work more enjoyable. However, if the ideas on processes inhibit the company’s ability to carry out its mission and purpose, leadership must make the tough, “right” choice. For example, while an entire customer support team taking a virtual lunch together daily may be fun and promote team comradery, it does not support customers if phone calls are going unanswered every day during lunch time. At the same time, there are multiple solutions for making a virtual team lunch a reality, while still supporting customers. Listening, prioritizing, and thinking through all options and alternatives goes a long way in making decisions that serve all sides of the issue, and while the initial decision takes longer, it will more often create a more lasting solution than “the path of least resistance”. Pandemic decisions certainly involve many considerations, so using this approach can help drive us to solutions around these issues as well.
This final point is where the rubber meets the road for leaders. Defining company values on paper is much easier and takes less time than creating a culture where the entire team is working and making decisions daily with these values as the roadmap. Since values should be a practice versus a statement, it takes daily attention. We cannot just read it once and walk away. That would be like reading instructions on how to meditate without practicing meditation daily. The benefit is in the practice of it, not in the reading of the concept.
Some might assert that the pandemic workplace has made this even more challenging, as employees are spending more time alone when working remotely, thus making decisions more independently without the influence of the culture of the team, and “in person” leadership. Depending on the team culture, this could have positive or negative impact. However, if the team is “practicing the values”, as part of their daily work, where the team is working becomes much less relevant if we are confident in how the team is working.
If we think about our personal values, which have often been formulated by our experiences since childhood, we rarely deviate from our personal values based on where we are. These values are a part of who we are and follow us wherever we go. Therefore, from the beginning, we must provide an experience of the company values, beginning with applicants. Isn’t this, after all, the purpose of the application and interview phase, to determine whether the applicant and company are a good fit for one another? It is certainly a better use of everyone’s time if this is determined before an employment relationship begins. Achieving this type of workplace culture takes time, organization, consistent and persistent communication. Company values must literally be threaded through the entire company to form a blanket over everything it does. Every team member should be able to recite the mission, vision and values, as it is a part of how every decision is made. Meetings, communication, awards and recognition, and marketing materials must have these values as part of the internal structure, so the daily practice and discussion of the values organically becomes the framework for the organization. When this is achieved, it empowers employees, regardless of title, because decisions are being made with the same values at every level of the organization. If everyone is aligned and working with the same values, then alignment on goals and strategy is achieved more easily, thus making decisions with integrity easier for leaders and the entire team much less complicated, even in the midst of a pandemic. The answers to our pandemic dilemmas may lie in getting back to the basics of leadership decision making by using integrity and values as our guide, and adding in some courage for those tough calls may help us find the answers to the new challenges and questions that continue to arise during the pandemic.