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How to ‘Build Back Better’ When it Comes to the Employee Imperative

July 28, 2020
By Faith Howe

Responsible employee messaging has never been more important

The tragic and despicable deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, together with the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis, have sparked a revolution that is taking hold across the developed world. A revolution that calls for the reevaluation and dismantling of the systems, authorities and hierarchies that have taken hold in society creating deep inequality and injustice.

Organisations now have an immediate choice to make. Become leaders in this revolution or lose relevance and equity in a new normal where only by taking positive action can we meet the heightened expectations of customers, employees and stakeholders. Expressions of solidarity and support are simply no longer enough.

In this emotive and highly charged environment, the already established links between employer brand, company brand and corporate reputation have become even more pronounced. As organizations take steps to ensure the safety, well-being, equality and inclusion of their employees, as well as their commercial futures, the threat of whistleblowers, employee activists and trial by media — not to mention trial by tribunal — are all too real for those that misstep when it comes to their authenticity and their duty of care.

This is putting the efficacy of company values, ethics and purpose to the ultimate test. For organisations where these amount to little more than carefully crafted straplines, they’ve served only to highlight the gulf between positioning and reality. But for others, with strong leadership and embedded values, they’ve served to guide actions that will ultimately prove differentiating when it comes to talent — and brand equity — in the months and years ahead.

Change is happening on every level

While there’s higher order change in the making, we also can’t ignore the fact that on a practical level the COVID-19 crisis has freed organisations from long-established working norms, that maybe in hindsight were holding them back. Technology naysayers have been disproved in a world where it’s technology that is enabling human interaction, not threatening it. And innovation has helped drive efficiency at a time when no one can afford waste — least of all employees who in many cases are juggling challenging home circumstances, as well as their work.

Of course, forward-looking organizations are not just evaluating their successes in the context of crisis management, but recognizing that new ways of working will have positive business impact in the long term. The breaking down of silos, a renewed sense of focus and greater agility are benefits of the new ways of working that have materialized for businesses in different ways.

So, as we emerge from this period of extreme challenge, emotion and uncertainty, what are keys to ‘building back better’ when it comes to the employee imperative? 

Firstly, being deliberate about reshaping your future as an employer. Our research showed that as a result of COVID-19, a staggering 91% of employees want their company to take a fresh look at culture, values and purpose to reflect new expectations. The rules have changed, and so it’s time for the playbooks to be rewritten. This means it’s critical to see the next phase as we return to the workplace and ‘reopen,’ not just as another operational hurdle to clear, but as the first step on a journey towards a better future.

This starts with deep introspection to identify and address the barriers to diversity, equal opportunity and inclusion that will exist overtly or covertly within every organization, to varying degrees. And recognizing that this work is never done.

Next, it’s about understanding the changed expectations of the workforce, establishing a new north star and articulating ambitions that will resonate with employees and galvanize people behind a fresh sense of meaning and direction.

Finally, once these intrinsic needs have been met and employee trust is truly established, exceptional organisations will have the opportunity to capitalize on momentum to accelerate business transformation. The situation has forced operational change, and 83% of employees now appreciate new ways of getting things done remotely, compared to the way they were done before.

Employees and leaders have had to let go of a previous reality and in many respects people’s resilience and ability to adapt has proved out. The ‘future of work’ trends that have been creeping upon us for decades have come to pass in a matter of weeks, and now, getting in front of change and owning it will define success as businesses target recovery.

There are real reasons to be optimistic, therefore, about the significant role that employers can play in establishing a better future that transcends their own organizational boundaries, but the challenges are also significant. As we look forward, it’s exciting to imagine the possibilities for realizing human potential that could emerge out of these awful human tragedies. But, as ever, it will take enlightened organizations with exceptional leaders to really take such big leaps and, most importantly, see them through.

Read more from FleishmanHillard’s Recovery and Resurgence Communications: what tech sector pros need to do now report here.