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How to Maintain Trust in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Oct. 7, 2021
Here are three qualities leaders should focus on as the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve and as they prepare for the next normal.

The pandemic has taken a massive toll on our global health, upended entire industries and led to The Great Resignation—a worldwide mass exodus of employees seeking new opportunities in the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. As a result, worker wellness—from both a physical and psychological standpoint—has never been more important.

As business leaders scramble to keep their workforces engaged and focused on advancing company goals, many crucial decisions related to worker health, safety and well-being loom on the horizon. Within the next few months, organizations will need to clarify hybrid/remote working models and navigate ever-evolving COVID-19-related regulations, restrictions, recommendations and more.

Existing management standards such as ISO 45001, the overarching occupational health and safety standard, and the newly issued ISO 45003, which focuses specifically on psychological health and safety, can help organizations lay the foundation of a strong culture. However, some decision-makers may not know where to go from there. With that in mind, here are three best practice organizational characteristics, based on BSI’s new Prioritizing People Model, to strive for as leaders prepare to set a course for the next normal.

Safety

According to BSI’s Organizational Resilience Index, there has been a significant rise in leadership trust among employees during the pandemic. It seems the early days of COVID-19 left many business leaders facing a sink-or-swim moment in which those who acted quickly, connected emotionally and prioritized employee welfare managed to earn their employees’ respect.

Workforces seemed to respond positively to the way some leaders rapidly shifted work models to adapt to COVID-19 requirements and prioritize worker safety. They also enjoyed the humanization of leaders that was necessitated by crowded living room Zoom calls, which provided a glimpse into the private world of professional colleagues. But with big changes coming to most organizations, such as returning to the office and rebounding from the Great Resignation, business leaders must work to maintain these gains.

The solution to this challenge lies in collaborative, communicative and emotionally intelligent leadership that meets workers in the middle. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: If employees’ basic needs for a safe and compliant workplace are not met, their trust in leadership will immediately begin to erode.

Some employers’ business models may necessitate employees return to an office or worksite, but there are still tangible ways to maintain their trust despite this reality. Ensuring employees have personal space to retreat to when fatigued ; providing sufficient absence management policies; and cracking down on adverse social behavior, such as bullying and harassment, are all examples of how to foster an organizational culture that values safety.

Belonging

ISO 45003 defines employee well-being as the “fulfilment of the physical, mental and cognitive needs and expectations of a worker related to their work.” Once basic employee expectations for physical and emotional safety are met, organizations must level up their efforts and focus on the finer aspects of well-being, namely emotional and mental health.

In the past, employers have tried to “solve” emotional health through reactive initiatives targeted at individuals, such as mindfulness exercises, wellness programs and employee assistance programs. These can have an adequate short-term impact, but they rarely sustain momentum.

Proactive, organizational-level action that focuses on creating supportive relationships, active listening and social engagement are all part of fostering a genuine sense of belonging among workers. Effective strategies can vary by industry and workplace, so leaders should frequently consult with workers to pinpoint their evolving needs. The heart of workplace interaction is between a worker and their line manager, so ensuring those relationships are open, honest and responsive is one common key to success in this area.

Beyond social interactions, employers must also consider work-life balance. Workers who no longer feel connected to their personal lives because of work are among the most likely candidates to experience burnout and quickly lose faith in their leaders. 

Esteem

If establishing a sense of belonging is a matter of ensuring employees feel comfortable raising issues and expressing their mental health concerns at work, building up employees’ esteem is more about establishing a culture that fulfills workers by appropriately rewarding achievement and allowing them to fulfil their potential.

Early in the pandemic, workers clung to their jobs, fearing the harsh unemployment cycle. However, with the world gradually reopening, new opportunities are now plentiful. Millions of employees are resigning each month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, recent Gallup data suggests that nearly half (48%) of America’s working population is actively job searching or watching for opportunities. Workers who don’t feel appreciated after nearly two years of pandemic-inhibited work will not hesitate to leave for greener pastures.

Employees must feel safe and secure in the workplace regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or otherwise. This is related to belonging, certainly, but it also covers esteem because of how pay, promotion and recognition are so intertwined with issues of diversity and inclusion. The jobs that cause people the most emotional stress are those that become grinds—monotonous mountains of work that employees must process with little hope of autonomy on the horizon.

Many employees are willing to spend extra time to get their work done, but they should be allowed the flexibility to do so on their own terms as much as possible. Hybrid working gave many workers a taste of an improved work-life balance equation, and businesses that fully revert to old arrangements are more likely to lose talent. When it comes to creating an engaged and productive workforce, leaders must ensure that rewards match employees’ efforts and that career development happens at an appropriate pace for all.

The global turbulence caused by the pandemic proves that many of the changes that lie ahead will be beyond businesses’ control; however, leaders must still work internally to prepare for and eventually overcome those challenges.

If employers can embrace the learnings of the pandemic—that workers prize trustworthy, empathetic and innovative leadership—and convert those lessons into actions that prioritize their people, they’ll be future-ready for whatever the next normal looks like.

Kate Field is global head of health, safety and well-being at BSI, a non-profit distributing organization and offers global services in the linked fields of standardization, systems assessment, product certification, training and advisory services.

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