In the six months since COVID-19 forced us into remote work spaces, the digital workplace “happy hour,” where the intention is good, but interactions are awkward, has become a mainstay.
There’s a good argument to scrap that digital happy hour altogether. Replicating past workplace habits for our new socially-distanced lives isn’t necessarily the best way forward, according to experts who have studied productivity and well-being in the midst of the pandemic. “The replication strategy doesn’t work,” said Elena Grotto, SVP of business transformation and employee experience at Edelman. “What does work is a reinvention strategy. We know that this makes sense coming out of a trauma.”
Grotto was joined by four other experts for a conversation on “Productivity and the Pursuit of Happiness” at From Day One’s September virtual conference. Moderated by Alana Semuels, senior economic correspondent for Time, the speakers had plenty to discuss, given that remote workers now operate without traditional workplace boundaries and have plenty of demands and distractions at home. The group discussed the best “reinvention” strategies to promote both output and well-being, new opportunities for technology in the digital workplace, and the contested role of surveillance tools.
Above all, there needs to be “intentionality” in the new digital workspace, according to Adam Weber, chief people officer and co-founder of Emplify, which provides employee-engagement software. “What happened in moving remote was that the workforce turned very transactional,” he said. “The subtleties of relationships started to dissipate and it felt very business-focused.”
That attempt to throw together an all-employee digital happy hour, for example, could be replaced by randomized one-on-one interactions or thematic-based groups, he suggested. “It’s adding intentionality to make things feel very human.”
Weber shared other findings from Emplify regarding employee well-being during the pandemic. Nearly 70% of the workforce is feeling burned out, the company found in a survey. Edelman’s Grotto shared research from her firm to back up that sentiment: employees now navigate a 5% increase in internal emails and a 13% increase in meetings, with more attendees in each meeting. Parents spend an additional 27 hours a week on chores, childcare and education.
A lot of burnout stems from disorientation, lack of role clarity in the workplace, and increasing demands of home life while feeling guilty about taking time off. Given that Emplify’s move to a four-day workweek was widely noted, Weber suggested companies need to be more assertive about employees taking time off. Forced PTO, as opposed to flex or optional time, is one strategy, as well as setting “no-meeting blocks” and investing in manager-employee relationships. “One small thing we’re recommending is that employees write down their priorities for the week, share them with the manager, and have the manager re-rank the priorities,” he said.
Amie Major, head of talent management for E*TRADE Financial Corp., explained how the company leveraged internal communications to organize and distribute resources that could benefit employees during their transition to remote work. “We’ve always provided resources around counseling or stress management,” she said. “We did a lot of work to curate, bubble up, and tap into those resources we had and drive more frequent communications around it.” For example, the company created new website pages focused on work-from-home content to centralize timely information and resources to support employees through change.
Besides keeping employees informed through channels like Slack and weekly newsletters, E*TRADE has also replaced the traditional water-cooler chat with “virtual coffee chats” in which employees opt in to be matched with someone who has similar interests.
Employers are showing plenty of openness to new digital platforms, said Rob Ryan, senior director of strategic development for LumApps, which provides a social and collaborative intranet platform for companies. LumApps found that clients who already had a “pro-social digital workplace” prior to the pandemic were able to “meet that challenge head on and get out urgent news and communications around policy changes in a personalized approach, which of course drives engagement,” he said.
Responding to the pandemic era, LumApps provided new tools and solutions addressing onboarding, mentoring, training and virtual networks–all while trying to maintain the “working out loud” fashion many employees enjoy about in-office work. Virtual lunch corners, for example, allow employees to see who is in certain lunch groups, join, and engage through posts and questions.
Sysco Corp. got equally creative, according to Janet Duncan-Rumsey, regional VP of human resources. Sysco, which sells and distributes food to restaurants and other clients, created entirely new tools to help its sales people engage potential clients. Rumsey called it “virtual prospecting,” which means to develop a value proposition through seminars and relevant information to pitch and engage clients digitally. That shift happened as the company offered employees daily sessions on education and mental-health support.
Discussion of changing the way we work while maintaining productivity led to the question of surveillance tools. Most panelists spoke out against Big Brother-style surveillance and monitoring, as Weber put it, as it poses a threat to employee well-being. “We all want highly productive environments, and yet the old way of productivity was to command, control and force more velocity,” he noted. “But when you listen to what everyone is saying it’s the opposite–it’s talking about the whole person, well-being chats, it’s ways to create rest.”
“Creating systems that are thoughtful for the employee and acknowledge their current experience is the way to unlock productivity inside of a person,” he emphasized.
Listening and empathy is key because the role of the employer is changing. As Grotto pointed out, employer trust increasingly hinges on companies taking a stand on social issues and serving as arbiters of news about the pandemic.
She urged employers not to fall back on past practices while determining the best steps ahead. “Definitions of the pursuit of happiness and productivity have changed so drastically, so the key implication for employers is that as you make changes, your data must be fresh,” she said. “Data [from] before January serves very little purpose now–we need a new benchmark.”
“Be bold,” Weber added as a message to employers. “The world right now needs people who are deeply authentic, who are human, honest and care for the whole employee. This is the time to challenge the status quo.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.