After Three Years of Crisis, What Will Keep Employees Engaged and Motivated?

BY Tania Rahman | May 31, 2023

Over the past three years, workers have had to learn how to adapt and build new skills in order to succeed in a constantly changing work environment. In the aftermath of the pandemic, this same workforce is now experiencing extensive burnout. Now, organizations are tasked with finding ways to help their employees exit survival mode, through means of building an inclusive culture that supports a sense of employee engagement.

During a panel discussion at From Day One's Brooklyn conference, moderated by Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, a group of panelists offered their perspective on how their business is renewing a sense of meaning among its employees.

Widespread Employee Burnout

According to Dale Cook, co-founder and CEO of Learn to Live, people often think in two ways when it comes to burnout.

“There’s the external forces that we all experience, heavy deadlines, heavy workloads, life pressures. There’s [also] the internal side of how we manage those things on a day to day basis.”

He said that when his organization works with partners, they tend to focus on the internal side: the things that are within their control, like reframing mental health, and providing the right tools at the right time. Cook cites his own experience struggling with mental health in college and his access to mental health services as a key influence on his company’s mode of helping others do the same to manage their burnout.

And yet, Lydia points out that frontline managers are often the ones truly shouldering much of the burden as they watch their teams get burned out. The key to combating this and building stronger relationships with employees, Dale said, lies in a manager’s ability to be vulnerable with one’s own mental health journey.

One of the biggest shifts that Liz Pittinger sees as head of customer success at Stork Club is in the transparency behind communicating any strategic decision-making for the sake of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She points to how fertility journeys and menopause are silent stressors that contribute to burnout. These are aspects of health care that Stork Club incorporated into its benefits portfolio.

The critical aspect here is how these decisions are shared to the organization at large, so that people have an understanding as to why certain health care benefits are necessary.

Engaging the Workforce

A simple change in scenery could be the key driver in building engagement among employees.

At MasterCard, Charman Hayes highlights the value of in-person connection with colleagues. As EVP of people and capability, technology, Hayes helps underpin activities like volunteering, mentorship, game engagement, and learning and development to fulfill human connectivity.

“It's been a great opportunity since we've come out of our basements and our bedrooms.”

Noting MasterCard’s goal in using technology to bring people together, Charman indicated that human connection can be tastefully met in person where it matters, and they can also be met virtually.

Giving employees a sense of purpose through social impact programs is a priority at NBCUniversal. Jessica Clancy, who serves as SVP of corporate social responsibility, said the media company’s Talent Lab allows employees to be “nominated for a learning experience that wraps around inclusive leadership, the principles and values we care about at NBC, and integrates it with social impact.”

The full panel of speakers, pictured, discussed how they are focusing on engagement, inclusion, and motivation within their organizations (photo by Cassandra Sajna for From Day One)

Clancy said that having employees “not just participating in community service, but actively working on leadership development alongside young people from that community” is an important differentiator.

“It really helps employees to think about the skills around empathy, listening, inclusivity that they are practicing in the community, and that they’re going to bring back to the job,” she said.

From a leadership perspective, ensuring employee engagement is often personal.

“I feel a very deep sense of responsibility to ensure that we are positively impacting lives, whether it's other employees in the organization, fans, especially in the community more broadly,” said Jane Son, co-head of foundation and community engagement at the New York Mets.

Encouraging Empathy and Inclusion in the Organization

According to Dale, isolation is one of the leading issues for mental health. “As much as we’ve advanced our conversation together around destigmatizing mental health, it’s still the number one barrier for people in the workforce that often translates into fear of discrimination.”

To combat potential discrimination, his organization offers programs and services that are completely private and confidential.

For Stork Club, the path to effective inclusion in their mission is simple: reduce the cost of health care.

“Every single day, we're dealing with people who are desperate to start a family or not, who don't know if they can financially afford it. When we promote empathy, we start with the member experience,” said Liz.

“When our care navigations share member stories with us, we’re getting the celebrations, the picture of their newborns, and we convey that back to the customer and through the entire company to make sure everyone understands and feels connected to what our purposes are.”

Discovering the Next Steps in Professional Development

Often, a natural transition from volunteering in the workplace is finding an opportunity to utilize new skills and apply it to positions of leadership, development, and service. This makes internal initiatives like that of NBCUniversal and MasterCard useful for those in leadership to recognize when an individual wants to evolve to the next stage in skill building.

“Leaders can talk about the skills they need for projects, and employees can share that they want to build on and develop those skills,” said Charman. “We add this into our talent review process which translates into human resources.”

At Learn to Live, there is a strong belief that acts of service is an important part of a mental health journey.

“What I'm intrigued about is that interconnection between best practices, community service, and skills building, coupled with how people are working on themselves at the same time. That intersection is something worth exploring for organizations,” said Dale.

Tania Rahman is a native New Yorker who works at the intersection of digital marketing and tech. She enjoys writing both news stories and fiction, hot chocolate on cold days, reading, live music, and learning new things.


The Equitable Employee Experience: How Total Rewards and Career Development Go Hand in Hand

Jason Cerrato, senior director of product marketing at Eightfold, a talent intelligence platform, discovered a downward trend in companies during the pandemic: women at every level were leaving their jobs at high rates, with working mothers bearing the brunt.In the early months of the pandemic, one in four women in the U.S. lost or left their jobs due to lack of childcare, nearly twice the rate of men. The pandemic exposed the gaps in companies’ benefits, with demand for childcare, once deemed a luxury benefit, to become a necessity.Demand for childcare support wasn’t the only change benefits packages saw: mental health benefits and workplace flexibility have also become a talking point for job seekers as well. In a panel discussion during From Day One’s Boston conference, moderator Janelle Nanos, business reporter at The Boston Globe, spoke with Cerrato and other industry leaders on how the pandemic reshaped the world of benefits and what leaders must do to keep their workers supported.Ditching the One-Size-Fits-All ApproachWith an increasingly diverse workforce, companies need to offer benefits that cater to different demographics and life stages. “The benefits landscape has drastically changed in the post-Covid era because of the diverse demographics coming into the organization and the level of awareness that the employees have,” Shahina Islam, vice president of HR at IT service management company Zensar, said.“The focus used to be mostly just compensation, but the conversations happening in the post-Covid era are now ‘You’re offering me compensation, but what else can I look forward to if I join you?’” Benefits should be made to serve every employee, however, that’s not the case. In the U.S., only 61% of employees are satisfied with their benefits.The disparity calls for greater scrutiny and a problem HR leaders need to be constantly working to solve, says Shawna Oliver, assistant vice president and head of global benefits & wellness at insurance company Manulife Financial Corporation.“We presume that everybody was having this delightful experience with their benefits. But Covid gave us the permission to say that’s not what happened because we started getting real about the things that we talked about,” Oliver said. “Everybody in this room has a different experience when they go to see their provider, their clinician, their specialist, their mental health provider. And I want everyone to ask themselves, is that what you want from your benefits? To me, when I offer a program, I want everyone to have that really amazing experience when they cross that line. And if that's not happening today, it’s my job to work with my team to make sure it does.”Data from benefits usage can tell a compelling story for companies, Oliver said. Employee engagement is among some key metrics that can provide data to help companies improve benefit offerings.“We all look at claims data, we look at engagement, we’ve counted how many people are using value, return on investment, but who here really looks at who’s not using your benefits? That’s just as meaningful,” Oliver said. “If you have pockets of employees with commonalities that are not using your benefits, there’s something wrong with your benefit. Look at your data, look at who’s not using your benefit because it’s really those two combined that’s telling you the full story about what's going on in your program.”Including Employees in the Benefits TalkIn transitioning to a post-pandemic workplace, employees are making sure the benefits that came about during the pandemic are here to stay. Today’s employees are learning to vocalize their needs more than ever, with employees contributing to the conversations.Janelle Nanos of the Boston Globe moderated the executive panel discussion.As Head of Technology at C&W Services, a facility services company, Jodi Enggasser discusses the success she found from involving workers in the benefits conversation. Straying away from the traditional top-down approach and leaning into a discussion forum allows workers to discuss their needs more openly, Enggasser said.“The decision that was coming from executive leave or leadership was going to be pushed down on us. It didn’t let us have a say or a choice,” Enggasser said. “But now you can raise your hand to be part of a council where that council has a slice from the various types of populations in the company and you have an opportunity to review the types of benefits. It helped us feel like we were a part of the process and like we were part of the solution.”Supporting ManagersManagers are often the ones interacting with employees the most and can learn of problems and conflicts workers may be dealing with. For managers to best serve employees, managers must be trained and equipped properly, Jess Marble, director of Care for Business, said.“Your managers are on the front lines of your workforce. They’re the first to hear about a child missing school or a parent being sick. They’re the first to identify some of those triggers that are going to be disruptive to the workforce,” Marble said. “If you empower managers to have the tools to help employees get started on solutions, it’s going to benefit you as an employer because managers are going to be empowered to come to you and ask for solutions that will address some of the pain points that they’re hearing in the workforce.”The benefits of providing employees with adequate resources and substantial support not only lead to increased employee satisfaction but can increase work productivity and employee retention as well. By removing obstacles for the employees in and out of the workplace, companies are also investing and supporting employee’s career development as well, Cerrato says.“We build a process that helps with the career side of this career development and sometimes it’s just the visualization of that and making that a reality [for employees],” Cerrato said. “But sometimes that’s not what’s holding that person back. Sometimes it’s the availability of work, the schedule, or returning to the office. When we start to combine these worlds and have some of these, “How are you doing?” conversations, then we’ll be able to have career development conversations.”Wanly Chen is a writer and poet based in New York City. 

Wanly Chen | October 02, 2023

Building Upon Workplace Culture Through Recognition and Engagement

Global pharmaceutical company Takeda takes its Japanese roots to heart, infusing its mission and vision with traditional Japanese values such as integrity, fairness, perseverance, and honesty. Company leaders set the tone for this culture, valuing trust first and foremost, followed by reputation and then business success. These core values are also embraced by Takeda’s employees who, despite being scattered across several continents, in various manufacturing plants, offices, and remote working environments, remain committed to the “Takeda-ism.” Company culture is integrated naturally from the top down.Amina Lobban, head of HR business excellence global manufacturing, supply & quality at Takeda shared insight into this culture in a panel discussion at From Day One’s recent conference in Boston. Lobban says that the company appoints “values ambassadors” to whom fellow workers can voice concerns that are then trickled up through ethics and compliance. Having employee advocates working side-by-side with colleagues is just one strategy to make workers feel seen, heard, and appreciated.The panel explored how a workplace culture that supports productivity, loyalty, and overall organizational success is built when employees feel recognized and engaged. Experts from five successful organizations discussed scalable strategies for bolstering workplace culture.Taking a Much Needed Pulse CheckThis is where new technological advancements and software comes in, automating data collection to further employee engagement. Regular surveys allow employers to get a sense of how the team is feeling about workplace issues, company culture, recognition, career advancement, and more. Alexis von Kunes Newton, head of global talent development & performance at online retailer Wayfair, notes that leaders should cross-reference that data with demographics to see trends that might indicate deeper issues tied to culture and identity. “We ask questions about whether they have a sense of belonging,” Newton said. “Can I come to work feeling like I don't need to hide a part of who I am?”Surveys with open text questions can help employers gain insight into issues they might not have otherwise been aware of or have known to ask about. Newton says Wayfair likes to ask, “What’s one thing you value about your role or team?” and “What’s one thing you would change?” both of which not only help employees feel seen and heard, but can also drive strategy for adjustments to corporate culture.Jacqueline Fearer, head of global culture & engagement communications at enterprise information management company Iron Mountain, shares that her organization has asked “What’s one thing you wish the CEO could know?” – with surprising results! “We got almost 10,000 comments,” Fearer said. Easy fixes like “the lights are out in the parking lot, there's no coffee in the kitchen” that helped employees feel appreciated, to bigger company-wide cultural concerns like “we need to know the strategy better” or “I don't even know why I'm answering this because nothing is ever done.” The latter lit a fire under management to begin taking even the smallest of concerns more seriously.Surveys can help leaders bridge the gap to understand and connect with employees with wildly different personalities and performance styles and learn how best to support them. Matt Stone, senior solutions consultant at Attuned, describes an otherwise beloved employee whose communication style was different from his own. “Because of the methodology of a survey, I had better data to understand another human being who's not like me a little bit better, and give him more of what he needs to feel recognized and respected.”Using Intentional LanguageThe language used by corporate leadership can have a trickle-down effect on employee morale. Certain words that are part of hyper-modern corporate jargon, for example, may not play well outside of the United States, where nuance or a sense of irony can be lost in literal translation. Iron Mountain used to brag about “obsessing over our customers.” Fearer pushed back on this notion. “Obsess is not even a good word in North America,” she said. “So, if you have someone in Singapore or China who wants to please the CEO, and they look up the word ‘obsess,’ it's not going to go well.”This careful choice of phrasing extends to how employee recognition is discussed – or not. It’s vital to call a professional development opportunity exactly what it is. Networking opportunities, educational programs, and promotions are all forms of professional development, but employees may not realize that is what is happening and report it as a missing element of corporate culture if it’s not spelled out. “You have to name it,” Fearer said. Such educational opportunities and promotions, Newton notes, are an important form of employee recognition. “Career development is highly correlated with overall employee engagement and retention,” Newton said.Takeda even offers a career navigator program that can match current employees with other open roles across the company, increasing retention by encouraging those that might want to change their pathway to do so without leaving the organization, Lobban says. Takeda also provides visual career pathways (digitally and even laid out on the walls and floors of its manufacturing hubs) so that employees can visualize the map of their career advancement at the organization.Paris Alston moderated the executive panel discussion at the Artists for Humanity center in Boston.A Personal Touch Goes a Long WaySession moderator Paris Alston, co-host of “Morning Edition,” GBH News, points out that sending out finely tuned employee surveys is helpful, but not enough. “Even though we have this reliance on technology, there are some things that can be lost,” Alston said.One-on-one conversations are meaningful, shares Deborah Merkin, CEO and Founder, GiftCard Partners, a company that provides workplace incentives. “It’s saying, ‘you did a good job.’ It’s saying, ‘thank you,’” Merkin said. This makes a difference especially for companies that are particularly small or fully remote. Fearer shares that one team leader at Iron Mountain sends handwritten postcards to the homes of employees who are excelling, which also means their spouse or children may see the praise too.Establishing a Culture Across a Hybrid WorkforceModern employees value a sense of belonging in their daily work life. “Belonging is developing or creating an environment where people feel like I can be who I need to be at work, people understand the challenges that I have, and I'm accepted for that.” Lobban explained.This can prove a little challenging in a remote working world. Companies with a hybrid model can encourage remote workers to occasionally come in for in-person meetings or community days, while in turn also respecting certain employees’ needs and desires to work mostly outside of the office, if that is what they choose. It all comes down to finding a balance of maintaining personal connection while also respecting each person’s individual identity, preferences, and needs. In a post-pandemic world, companies where remote work is possible should consider, Lobban says, giving “that flexibility for people so that they can live their life and be successful at work at the same time.”When it comes down to it, leaders and employees need to practice self-awareness and self-acceptance when developing a workplace culture that works best for their team, recognizing when something is wrong and having the humility and dignity to fix it. By developing strategies that incorporate compassion, listening, and relationship-building, companies of all sizes can build a workplace culture that makes employees feel respected and drives the company’s mission forward.Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | September 29, 2023

Developing Leaders for a New Era of Workforce Flexibility and Inclusion

Despite a fairly stable job market over the last several months and relatively low unemployment, 2023 ushered in a deluge of white collar layoffs. AI and automation are sending shockwaves through the economic landscape with many workers feeling uncertain about their future. And companies that hire for these positions are slow-walking their hiring process to really vet candidates. “We are still seeing a tough market. It’s still scarce for certain talents and certain capabilities as we came through Covid,” said Christina Schelling, Verizon's chief diversity officer.Schelling says the problem is that many companies are hiring for similar types of roles, which is unprecedented. “Every company needs data scientists now. Every company needs digital or cloud engineers now. I think for the types of skills that are needed to meet the needs of the different business strategies, it's still a really tough market,” Schelling added.Schelling, who has more than two decades in leadership roles, talent acquisition, and DEI training, and a job history that includes Estée Lauder, Prudential, and American Express, sat down with The Wall Street Journal's business editor, Jamie Heller, for a From Day One fireside chat in Brooklyn. On the agenda were hiring woes, the advent of ChatGPT and AI automation, hybrid work, and DEI.I submitted my résumé to a robotOnline hiring is now the default and many applicants can't be blamed for feeling like robots are the new, indifferent gatekeepers. ChatGPT and Open AI, two immensely powerful and disruptive technologies, have made it easier for companies to sift through massive quantities of résumés quickly. Submitting an application online can feel no different than tossing your résumé and cover letter into the void.Schelling sees the new landscape of AI differently and says Verizon has been “leveraging that thinking and...muscle to care for employees.” But is the algorithm providing care to Verizon’s employees and those seeking employment there? They get 800,000 résumés and conduct at least 100,000 interviews a year.“We can't possibly get to the human piece of that without help from technology. When I think about our employees, and when they need benefits, or when they need help at different points in their lives, a lot of that help can be provided faster, and [with] better quality, in real time, with the help of chatbots.”Schelling says that “machine learning” speeds up the process of “getting to the right conversation with humans faster.” She assures that every résumé at least gets a look by their scanning equipment. And, most likely a human. “We do keep a human element to it…There are other organizations that take the human out more often than we do.”Jamie Heller, left, interviewed Christina Schelling, right, in the opening fireside chat session at the Brooklyn museum (photo by Cassandra Sajna for From Day One)Schelling offers some advice for candidates feeling the woe of the hiring process: Understand the importance of the words and the experiences matching the job requirements and the posting. Applicants can learn to game the system – i.e. play by the algorithm’s rules. “It's not super complicated how it works…the more prepared and the more connected a candidate makes [their résumé and cover letter] the easier it is to kind of get to the right conversation.”The right conversations are ultimately taken on by Verizon’s “fairly large in-house recruiting team,” according to Schelling. Not all those interviews are the perfect fit for a job opening, but many lead to “informational conversations” that allows interviewers to get to know someone. Perhaps an applicant’s skills aren't an exact match but they have more to offer. “We want to hire for careers, not just jobs. So we probably talk to people more than other organizations.”The New Normal: Hybrid WorkOnce an applicant gets in the door, depending on their role in the company, they can expect the new normal of hybrid work. Many of these workers are no longer willing to spend a traditional work week in the office. As the pandemic continues receding in the rearview, working remotely – a special privilege in the past – is here to stay. Recognizing this trend, Verizon hasn’t established any “mandates” about coming back into the office.Heller raised the issue of many companies mandating employees returning to work. In fact, a lot of companies are now pushing employees back to work via the "stick" not the "carrot," threatening pay, bonuses, and other performance measures. Yet, the more "punitive" measures are having consequences in talent acquisition. Multitudes of quality workers prefer a hybrid schedule.Here, Schelling takes a philosophical approach to the question. “I think the world is still figuring it out. And what we did at the beginning of last year will be different from what we have learned and evolved to in the beginning of this year.” She says that if people want to come in to work more, “no one's going to tell [them] not to come in.”“We've described hybrid at this point to be at least one day in the office monthly,” Schelling said, but they encourage their leaders to figure out what works and create reasons for people to come in. “Whether it's a learning experience, whether it's a team event, whether it's a volunteering event, whether it's just, you know, we've got a lot of work, quarterly close, let's come in and just be together.”Schelling sees the hybrid setup as offering the best in terms of personal and professional success. “Our whole mantra is we don't want to be a mandate, we want to be a magnet.” A New Millennium of DEITouching on the three year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, Schelling delved into corporate America’s navigation of these issues and said she’s “optimistic how [those] crises and social and civil experiences pushed for more accountability within the corporate space,” but said that corporate America wasn't “done.”DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion (umbrella of another acronym, ESG – environmental impact, social responsibility, and corporate governance), is 21st century standard in company culture. Having leaders who understand “why diversity and equity [are] important to the workplace” is a key part of training. It's “not a stand alone course” employees can opt into anymore, ”it's part of the setup and the expectation,” and according to Schelling it's what Verizon believes “is the right model for...leadership.”“DEI, the idea of human rights…has now rolled into ESG [and] has been around in different shapes and forms in most of the bigger organizations for many years. So now it's part of the ecosystem and the expectation, and then there's the public accountability, which I quite like.”Just a few years ago, questions of inclusion practices were not part of corporate and customer vernacular, Schelling pointed out, but now they are. “I think that with the economic pressures with the challenges and workforce availability, we recognize now that diverse talent is a significant unlock. And it's not something that falls by the wayside. It's something that is even more prioritized.”Matthew Koheler is a freelance journalist and licensed real estate agent based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, The Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others.

Matthew Koehler | August 07, 2023