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Mark Spratt

Josh Bersin Academy

Vice President

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How to create a post-pandemic social contract

It’s time to review your culture and reach out to employees.

As lockdown measures are eased, employers and their HR leads have a big job to do in looking after employees’ emotional wellbeing, whether people come back into the office or continue to work from home. Many employers are enshrining their refreshed values in new social contracts. These clear pledges will help employees – new joiners as well as existing employees – understand what they can expect, what they can ask for, and what support is available to them as they navigate their uncertain new territory.

In a climate of great uncertainly, trust has become the new currency among the workforce.

As all employers take stock of what a post-lockdown workplace will look like, intuitive HR professionals will be paying close attention to how well employees are coping and building new forms of employee care into company cultures and values.

If employees are being asked to return to physical premises, do they feel safe and comfortable about doing that? Do they fall into vulnerable groups, or are they still shielding loved ones, which could be a source of anxiety if there is pressure to come back too early? If their children are not back in school, could a struggle for childcare trigger new stress? Or, if they are asking or being encouraged to continue working from home, are adequate long-term measures in place to make this a positive, inclusive option – emotionally, as well as practically?

Trust is the new currency for employers

Addressing such questions puts new burdens on HR teams and can pose dilemmas for employees themselves as they consider their own priorities and concerns. For instance, if people are worried about losing their jobs (if business doesn’t recover sufficiently), they may feel they have to suppress safety concerns for fear of making themselves a target for redundancy.

To build up and sustain morale, and demonstrate due care and attention to employees, employers need to be one step ahead of any issues that might arise. In a climate of great uncertainly, trust has become the new currency among the workforce. One way to be proactive is to draw up new ‘social contracts’ with employees, that document what the organisation is or will be doing to safeguard employees and look after their overall wellbeing during and beyond this new period of transition.

What constitutes a ‘social contract’?

So, what might such pledges look like? Social contracts aren’t meant to be formal, legal documents with terms and conditions; rather, they are written statements that clearly lay out the company’s plans, actions and priorities related to employees’ health, safety, and mental wellbeing. Their purpose is to let employees know exactly what to expect, and who they can approach if they have questions or worries.

Executives participating in a Big Reset working group agreed that a heightened emphasis on safety and security for employees – not only physical but psychological as well – was a critical component of any social contract.  Additionally, executives reported a greater desire for employee voice in decisions that directly impacted their perceived safety, according to Nancy Vitale, the Josh Bersin Academy faculty member who facilitated the weekly group discussions.  Other elements suggested include:

  • Greater work flexibility across all roles and job levels.
  • Proactive health support, with added emphasis on mental health care.
  • Provision for ‘personal needs’ support, including offers of proactive help for employees with increased caretaking responsibilities (ideas proposed include contributions towards home help, online food vouchers, tutors for children not yet back at school).
  • A stronger and deliberate stand on inclusion, equity and diversity – in all contexts. (In the light of Covid-19, this might include consideration of employees’ ability to work from home effectively, issues involved in safely commuting, or other potential barriers individuals might face so that no one feels in any way discriminated against if they lack the ideal conditions for home working or returning to work.)

Actions speak louder than words

In addition to generalised strategies and declarations, employers should aim to demonstrate their care and attention through proactive monitoring of employee sentiment and targeted intervention, as appropriate.

Microsoft, for instance, has monitored employees’ HR records to determine which employees took leave before the lockdown, and which have ‘worked through’. This action is based on the assumption that those who hadn’t taken a break could be more likely to suffer burnout and high levels of stress. The company’s response has been to actively encourage people to take leave, normalising time off, and reassuring employees that taking time off is the right thing to do.

Film studio Legendary Entertainment has appointed a return-to-work ‘tsar’ (a dedicated point of contact) and assembled a welcome back kit including new policy details, a thermometer, face mask, hand sanitiser, and even a ‘key’ that employees can use to operate elevators and open doors without direct contact.

Charting the course together

Given the enormity of the Covid-19 crisis, employers and HR leaders certainly may miss important considerations and needs, which makes it acutely important to listen to individuals’ concerns and be prepared to respond and adapt accordingly.

Going the extra mile has never been more important, as employers seek to smooth the way back to business as usual. 

Best practices emerging via the peer-led forums at the Josh Bersin Academy include having a continuous employee listening strategy, enabled by more frequent pulse surveys and supported by processes for absorbing and acting on feedback quickly and effectively. Other recommendations include watching out for remote employees who are failing to turn up on video calls or online meetings, or those who seem quieter than usual. (Such behaviors might indicate stress and flag a need for more support).

It’s ok not to have all the answers up front, too. Working together to find solutions is a very inclusive approach that resonates well with employees. Making ongoing collaboration part of the company culture should be a priority.

Experimentation is encouraged

Businesses as diverse as Atlassian and Kern Health Systems report that they are achieving a rapid response to evolving employee priorities and concerns by assembling small groups to address identified needs with micro solutions – that is, measures the companies can roll out quickly and then adapt and build on, rather than waiting months to perfect a big programme.

Swiss insurance company Chubb uses the Slack chat platform to keep people connected, wherever they are. This is extended to people’s families, too, in the form of cooking channels and volunteers tutoring employees’ children on tricky topics, for instance.

Certainly, going the extra mile has never been more important, as employers seek to smooth the way back to business as usual – whatever form that might take in the ‘new normal’.

Interested in this topic? Read Return to work: HR must prioritise mental health as lockdown eases.

Author Profile Picture
Mark Spratt

Vice President

Read more from Mark Spratt

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