Robin Wadsworth, President of Thought Industries .
In the fourth quarter of 2020, a particularly bleak period of the pandemic before vaccines became widely available, I decided our leadership team needed to do something different to get us through the uncertain times ahead.
My decision was not made in panic. Our company was not in crisis. In fact, from the day we sent everyone home in mid-March of 2020—just weeks after I had become president—through the next several months, we actually consistently outperformed against nearly all our key goals. My fear, though, was that some of that outperformance was attributable to factors that were neither healthy nor sustainable. They included mostly misplaced anxiety about job security and, even more, the relentless encroachment of working into more and more hours of everyone’s days. Working virtually, as many leaders painfully discovered, erodes the buffer provided by physical separation from our workplaces and the decompression a commute can sometimes offer.
What was the intervention I proposed? I held another video call.
But it wasn’t just any old video call. I asked everyone to stand for it. I asked them to keep their cameras on. I made it a mandatory call that was held every afternoon. I required all my reports to be on the call, and a few members of our C-suite joined as well. All in all, it was a group of more than a dozen.
Business, however, was not on the agenda.
Instead, I made this call a bit of a grown-up show-and-tell session for the particularly strange times we were collectively enduring. On the agenda were basically three things: sharing what you are doing to stay physically fit and well; sharing what you are doing to take care of your mental health; and sharing whatever is stirring your curiosity, sparking your interest or otherwise generating some real enthusiasm for you in a dark time.
Understandably and inevitably, the early sessions of this daily meeting felt a little forced. But over time, the team began to see and, I expect, feel the benefits. People began calling in from treadmills, exercise bikes or just from a walk in their neighborhoods. Some of our more reserved teammates revealed themselves to be quick with a pithy observation or wry remark. Others owned up to some unexpected enthusiasms, such as exotic cars in one memorable case.
In fact, the group’s commitment to this regularly scheduled interruption of the workday grew quite strong. And while no virtual meeting could replace what we were living without due to working at home for months on end—the casual hallway connections, impromptu cups of coffee and conversation, and the celebratory lunches or happy hours—we surely grew more comfortable with one another. We were comfortable enough to participate in a virtual silent dance party. We were comfortable enough that I participated in one meeting, on camera, from a salon where I was getting my hair colored. (The screen grabs will haunt me the rest of my days.)
What was the point of this silliness? Why was the recently appointed president of the company behaving more like a cruise director? In a word, empathy.
I wanted our leadership team to be honest, authentic and open about how difficult the environment had become. More importantly, I wanted to acknowledge these difficulties—and share coping skills—to open eyes, minds and hearts to what our teams and reports were surely experiencing as well. In short, I wanted our leadership team to explicitly choose not to let persistent job security anxiety and the unchecked encroachment of virtual work into daily life become a new normal.
Has this little experiment in social psychology been worth it? I believe it has. On internal staff surveys, morale is up exponentially. Productivity didn’t suffer from the daily interruptions, and we all learned that there are a lot of ways to get things done. We also managed to collectively create new memories, stories, bonding experiences and routines that were not solely centered around work.
And, at a time when the Great Resignation is making employee well-being a competitive asset, I’m convinced these meetings instilled in our leadership team a profound appreciation for the challenges that our employees have had to live with during the pandemic.
Finally, I discovered that nurturing a collaborative and empowering culture did not need to stop just because my team could no longer see one another at the office. Need to reframe the culture at your own company?
1. Make a scene. Obviously, I don’t mean you should hold a shouting match in the boardroom. But if you want to change culture, overt and visible behavior change is required. We could have told our employees to mind their work-life balance. Instead, leadership showed them we were serious about it and modeled the behavior we wanted to see.
2. Stay curious about your colleagues. Absent the easy ability in a shared workspace to check in on one another’s weekends, last week’s game or how the kids are doing, you need to make sure you are taking the time to connect human-to-human with the people your organization depends on for its growth and success. There is no replacement for that.
3. Let go of old habits. Corporate culture is, to some extent, an accumulation of habits. To reframe culture means changing habits, abandoning harmful ones and forming beneficial ones.
Improving your culture doesn’t happen in a week, a month or even a quarter. It takes a persistent and conscientious effort, but the rewards are worth it.
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