By Jim Mitchell, President of LHH
As the dust from the pandemic settles, employers and employees are continuing to navigate the changing world of work. Both would like to advance to some type of normal state. Return-to-work policies are a good example. In 2021, an Adecco global study found that 53% of workers preferred hybrid working models. How does this preference reconcile with Elon Musk’s recent mandate, “return to work or else?” One clue would be for Leaders to learn from the successful strategies that were employed during the tumultuous days of the pandemic.
At the height of the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, LHH Canada held a series of ten virtual CHRO Roundtables. HR executives from Canada’s large and mid-size companies gathered to share best practices in a world that was quickly dividing into BC and AD (Before Covid and After Disruption). In the area of leadership, it was clear that some leaders adjusted well, and others floundered. While organizational challenges have evolved, the leadership insights gained by Canada’s CHROs are more relevant than ever, particularly in the areas of employee well-being and corporate culture.
Canada’s HR executives observed the most successful leaders throughout the pandemic maintain open and two-way communications at all levels of their organizations, while authentically exhibiting traits such as empathy, tolerance, and trust. Leaders that couldn’t make this adjustment, generally relying on command/control and overreliance on process, simply failed. Employee surveys consistently supported the impact of these leadership traits.
Mental health issues escalated throughout the pandemic, and there continues to be a compounding hangover effect. LifeWorks, a global leader in mental wellbeing and employee support consultancy, publishes a Mental Health Index. It shows that the pandemic has worsened the psychological climate among employees and their families. Stephen Liptrap, LifeWorks’ CEO, emphasized that this decline in mental health will have ripple effects for many years to come. A failure of leadership during a period of mental fatigue and decline could prove dangerous and potentially lethal. According to Liptrap, “the best ways employers can improve their employees’ lives is to listen to their needs, provide them with digital and in-person mental health support and, if possible, offer flexibility in their approach to work.”
A focus on employee well-being is intrinsically associated with organizational culture. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article highlighted caring as an important factor in creating a culture of teamwork, trust, and respect. The CHRO roundtables underscored the importance of establishing an inclusive culture and building psychological safety during the height of the pandemic. Key areas of focus included ED&I, worker respect, and ethical behavior. Over the past two years, employees have reassessed their work and personal priorities. The failure of leaders to heed the cultural admonitions are contributing to the Great Resignation. MIT Sloan Management Review (2022) found, “a toxic culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.”
“For better or worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked” (HBR 2018). Leaders, in partnership with Human Resources, must continually assess the impact of their leadership on employee well-being, organizational culture, and retention. The pandemic demonstrated how quickly it can all change. The 2020/2021 leadership lessons from the CHRO roundtables are more applicable than ever before, and the stakes for companies have never been higher.