Employees have adapted to working from home, but is that fencing in their aspirations? (Photo by Ricardolmagen/iStock by Getty Images.)

Over the last six months, millions of American employees have proved that they can do their work remotely, and generally better than expected. But is working from kitchens and basements fulfilling in the long run? Have their aspirations become homebound?

These questions aren’t prompted by a slump in productivity. “Within the banking environment, we've seen an increase in productivity for sure,” said Cassandra Mitchell, a VP and corporate responsibility officer for KeyBank. Instead, the issue has come up because the transition to WFH hasn’t necessarily brought with it the structures for providing reward, recognition and belonging, according to the speakers on a From Day One webinar last week titled, “Turning Workforce Aspirations Into Company Policy: Why Employee Fulfillment Matters More Than Ever.”

Far from being a carrot-and-stick type of dynamic, these rewards do not merely consist of career advancement and monetary gains. Rather, they emerge from dynamics where bosses act like leaders and coaches and where the human component is as critical as the professional one.  “The good leaders that I've worked with,” said Curtis Brooks, VP of training and development at U.S. Bank, “have really mentored me not necessarily in a formal way, but more of an informal mentoring, and then have really provided me an opportunity to network and meet higher-level and different-level people within the company. Providing that visibility was important.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, job-seeker behavior has changed: workers yearn for stability over a hustle-type of work culture. “They want to stay where there’s stability. They're not as inclined to go and look for another opportunity, if they feel that where they are is pretty solid,” said Carmen Bryant, director of U.S. marketing at Indeed, the employment search engine. “So keeping the employees you have engaged is going to be really important.”

The speakers at From Day One's webinar on employee aspirations, led by Lydia Dishman, upper left, an editor and writer for Fast Company (Image by From Day One)

To make work more intriguing, there is a lot that managers and directors can do. Among the techniques: dialing up fresh assignments, giving more autonomy, delegating more responsibility, providing more access to confidential insights, or providing an opportunity to spend a quick assignment in an unfamiliar area of the business. “We can make it worth their while to stay,” says Annalisa Esposito Bluhm, head of executive and strategic corporate communications at General Motors (and until this spring, the automaker’s head of employee engagement).

Bluhm pays particular heed to the needs of younger works, who demand a different kind of stimuli than their elders. The challenge, she said: “How do we create assignments that meet the new employees’ definition of meaty and compelling and exciting, but [that] also gives them a way to still build the skills that are requisite?” One idea she has considered is to give them tasks that could be above their level. “It’s calling upon us to get super creative in trying to find ways to provide that growth, either through partnering or by recalibrating assignments or saying, Hey, we've got this special project and you're leading”

A similar approach served KeyBank’s Mitchell well. Early in her career, she had a supervisor, an HR manager, who took her under his wing and went above and beyond with coaching and mentoring. “It was a combination of [the supervisor] getting me exposure to the right leaders, [and] allowing me to work on projects that, honestly, I probably wasn't necessarily prepared for,” Mitchell said. “He said he took a risk on me and allowed me to develop throughout that process.” Especially in pandemic times, Mitchell is a proponent of taking advantage of the educational tools offered by employers. All of KeyBank’s employees have full access to the library of Udemy, the online-course provider, she said. “We encourage our employees to really own their career.”

If fulfillment has a polar opposite, burnout may be it. Working from home, panelists agree, has resulted in increased productivity, but that may come at a cost. “We see a lot of benefits for those who can work from home. Among our salaried workforce, we're hearing that people like having the flexibility to cook dinner and be on a conference call, and not have to be on a commute,” said Bluhm. And yet, “At the same time, that idea of boundaries is gone. My commuting time has now become working time.” Indeed’s Bryant advocates for setting mandatory unplugging time periods. With limited opportunities for getting out of the house during the pandemic, she explained, employees tend to not make use of the PTO policies and just keep working.

To some degree, employee engagement or distress can be measured. Hertz uses the metric known as net promoter score (NPS), which essentially asks whether workers would recommend their company to a job seeker. “We have over the last several years been able to tie those really, really closely to the employee engagement surveys that we do on an annual basis. The higher the engagement, the higher the NPS score” said Jennifer Cockrum, a VP of HR at Hertz. “During the pandemic, we’ve been really keeping an eye on those Net Promoter Scores, and focusing on those areas where we see a huge delta. If we see something that they had traditionally been medium to high, and now they're very low, we will actually conduct skip levels or focus groups, with the employees trying to understand if there's something there that's a stressor to them, that we can help with as an organization.”

Brooks sees the act of learning grace and empathy as a way to protect the employees from burnout. “We're rolling out coaching programs, for example, ‘boss to coach,’ so teaching our leaders how to be coaches, teaching our leaders how to manage and lead in a virtual environment, and making sure that they're engaging their team,” he said. “So [it’s] really giving people the tools and resources, the empathy, the grace to say, Hey, I want to help you, we see you, we recognize it. And we want to do whatever we can from a company perspective, macro, and whatever we can do from a micro perspective.”

Coming to terms with uncomfortable conversations is crucial in developing a solid relationship with employees. “A lot of times leaders don't like having these uncomfortable conversations, when there is a very clear course correction or performance concerns, but I believe it becomes less frightening or challenging when you have the conversations along the way,” said Mitchell. Quarterly performance reviews, rather than annual ones, are a good way to normalize those candid conversations, panelists said. “We have to set shorter-term goals. You know, everything changes so quickly. And if you think about, when we set our goals back in January, in February, I mean it's kind of laughable how different everything is,” Cockrum said.

“For me, it's really just about being empathetic and really having the conversation around the goal. Here's the goal, here's what we need to be. Help me understand what's preventing us from getting to that particular goal,” said Brooks. “And based on what you hear, now you know what path you need to take.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partners who sponsored this webinar: Indeed and Culture Amp. Thank you as well to everyone who attended this webinar live. If you missed it, feel free to check out our replay here and visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.