What do we all need to be successful employees today?
The answer is a lot different today than it was in January. The events of 2020 have thrown workplaces into crisis mode, with employees working from home or working differently for months on end, and feeling isolated and unsure. We’re all lonely, a little lost, and seeking connection.
These changes around us mean that our old priorities and employee experience programs just aren’t relevant for employees’ current needs. Our new priority is basic human connection. It’s more important than ever to understand each other as three-dimensional people, and to help our coworkers understand each other — all while we’re physically more disconnected from each other than we’ve ever been.
We need a new set of baseline priorities for employee experience in 2020. That requires shaping a new culture of intentional connection and collaboration, even when we can’t see each other in person.
HR technology analyst Josh Bersin published an updated hierarchy of employee needs in May with a focus on the bottom of the pyramid — basic safety and security at work. Those basic needs have come into sharp focus, both because of COVID and now because of the hurt, anger, and frustration surrounding George Floyd’s death and the ensuing activism and retaliation.
One of the ways we find psychological security is through connection. Employees need each other, and they need the support of people beyond their immediate peer group.
Three ways we connect at work
When we were all working together in offices, it was pretty easy to connect with people casually. We pulled people together into meeting rooms when we needed to brainstorm. We huddled at our workstations. We bumped into people at the coffee machine or in the hallway. We went to lunch and happy hour. We saw the people we needed to connect us to answers or support. But now, we have to build new tools to intentionally help employees find each other, talk to each other, and tie themselves and their work to the big picture.
Find and be found
The most basic element of connection at work is being able to find the people you need — to answer your questions, to help move initiatives forward, and to provide support.
Where are the people you need? How do you find them, and how do they find you?
I have spent the past four years trying to answer that question. I founded Sift, an employee directory company, to help employees share who they are, beyond their HR data and employee ID number. We ask people: What are you interested in? What past projects are you proud of? What do you want to contribute?
Looking at employees in a more holistic way opens new doors for work to feel more human and connected.
I usually think about Sift as a tool to help people find answers to questions, and find potential collaborators within the organization. But it’s also a way to find people with similar experiences who can support you, listen, and share guidance during the tough, emotional times we’re all living through.
No matter what tools you use to connect employees to each other, it’s a good time to ask how you’re building a more connected culture.
If your team is facing its fourth month of working remotely, and people are feeling lonely and isolated, they need to talk to each other more than ever. But even if they know who they want to talk to, how do they get in touch?
In some ways, we have too many ways to communicate.
Do they send a Slack message? Is their question better as an email? Is it ever OK to send a text? How do they call someone? Are office phones routed to cell phones, or do they run the risk of leaving a voicemail that won’t be heard for months?
We need to set clear communication guidelines that everyone understands: These are the platforms we use to connect and how we decide which platform to use.
At Sift, we created a manual to guide our team’s communication. We outlined how to get in touch, based on time of day, type of question, and level of urgency. I’m also a big proponent of managers developing personal “user manuals” so that their team knows how to best get in touch with them.
Finally, even if employees can find and talk to each other, they need to know the big picture. What’s going on in the broader organization? What are the current priorities? How does each team’s individual work tie into company goals?
Business priorities are shifting right now, but that doesn’t mean employees should be in the dark. Every manager should be asking: What messages are employees hearing from leadership? How are they staying up-to-date on the organization’s strategy and plan? How often do they hear from me?
Pre-COVID, maybe your department gathered for Friday meetings where leaders shared the latest numbers and priorities. Those casual updates don’t work when employees are distributed.
People need clear, consistent communication delivered regularly, whether it’s a weekly email, regular video messages from leaders, or all-hands conference calls. Deliver messages directly to employees, not by just posting them on social media and hoping everyone will see. Even if you don’t have concrete news to share, just hearing from leaders can put employees’ rattled minds at ease and help them confidently do their work.
Leaders, keep communication flowing
I asked Kevin Grossman, a longtime HR strategist and president of The Talent Board, for his advice about communicating with employees right now.
“It’s never been more important for employers to keep two-way communication open with their employees,” he says. In the latest Talent Board “Coronavirus at Work” survey, 77% of employers said they have launched a communications plan for their candidates and employees. Those plans include more video conferencing than ever before, plus texting and messaging platforms.
He also noted that leaders are thinking about how to communicate with furloughed employees, who may be re-hired when work comes back.
“Leaders who ensure this population is regularly updated will create more goodwill in an otherwise overwhelmingly confusing and unpredictable time. How potential new hires and employees are treated today will impact businesses and their employer brands for not just months to come, but for years to come.”
It’s a stressful time for people all over the world. Leaders can help people cope by focusing on the most basic employee needs, nurturing the core functions we all need to keep connecting, communicating, and moving forward.