Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann
Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, MA, MSMOB, APR, ACC, is president and founder of Designing Communication in Washington, DC, and a former member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council.
While the harshest restrictions of the pandemic may be behind us, many employees feel isolated and mentally drained. Improving communication, feedback loops, and accountability can help your organization give staff the support they need for improved wellbeing.
In crises, we’re told to put on our own oxygen masks first. Organizationally, this means when the fasten seatbelt light comes on (e.g., pandemic numbers rise, economies falter, member renewals fall, business models change), we must first take care of our association’s internal health and wellbeing. Only when we are safe and healthy as an organization can we meet the needs of our external stakeholders.
So, what does this organizational oxygen mask look like? Providing solutions to the biggest issue employees have been facing since the start of COVID: reduced wellbeing due to isolation. For 18 months, we’ve all been missing connection, community, socialization, and friendships that are critical to workplace wellbeing. The result is a lack of engagement and even mental distress.
Although many of us are now planning our associations’ return to our offices, solving workplace wellbeing issues is important for healing and also for employees who might remain virtual.
The best workplaces address employee wellbeing with formal programs based on employee needs and wants, organizational culture, budget, and leadership support. (See “Most Popular Wellbeing Programs” sidebar for examples.) However, for these programs to work, persistent communication, modeling, and feedback is needed.
In part one of this two-article series, we’ll present a research- and experience-based approach you can use immediately to improve staff wellbeing. Consider this your organizational oxygen mask.
Communication will be key to improving wellbeing. Here are some crucial elements for doing it effectively:
Listen. This is 80 percent (or more) of effective communication, so keep refining your wellbeing programs by asking employees what’s working through surveys, observations, and more. Create consistent, open, trusted feedback mechanisms that employees will actually use.
Changing organizational culture and improving wellbeing requires more than good intentions; real change requires accountability throughout the organization.
The American Institute of Architects, which has 94,000 members and 200 employees, learned the importance of two-way communication during COVID-19. Leaders first focused on staff safety, then ensured business-continuity resources. Once that was accomplished, AIA engaged staff through messages of support and by offering open forums for sharing personal stories and activities. Employees response to these efforts was overwhelmingly positive.
As part of listening to its employees, AIA hired a psychiatrist to talk to employees once a month about loss in their workplace, allowing employees to normalize their mental state related to the pandemic, isolation, the need to belong, and more.
Message and repeat. First, be clear what your key messages are. You should have no more than four key messages per situation, which consistently appear every time you talk about it. Make one key point per paragraph in written or spoken communication pieces. (For texts and IMs, this means one point per total message.)
Deliver. Send key messages using tools and channels most effective for each of your employee cultural and generational populations. Baby Boomers might be more open to email newsletters or Facebook, while Gen Xers and Millennials are likely to respond best to texts, video, or other social media. Employees with cultural backgrounds that value hierarchy and respect for authority will do better with in-person communication or communication from leaders.
Larry L. Robertson, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, SWP, CAE, senior vice president, human resources and belonging at AIA says the organization engages employees by embracing all their differences. “We don’t turn people away because they are different,” he says. “We pull them in because they are different.”
Communicate in layers. E-communication made our work lives a lot easier during the pandemic. However, we are now conditioned to tune out most of our emails, texts, and IMs because we’re just too overwhelmed. To get your messages across, use various forms of communication, including written, in-person, live, online, intranet, and meetings. AIA leaders say that layering messaging and using a variety of delivery methods was key to its high level of engagement.
Changing organizational culture and improving wellbeing requires more than good intentions; real change requires accountability throughout the organization. Rewards often foster accountability, and one compelling reward is money. In addition to private and public recognition, try building wellbeing bonuses and raises into your compensation and rewards systems.
Tracking wellbeing accountability can be done through “wellbeing scorecards.” Starting from the organization’s current state of each wellbeing priority, the scorecard measures progress toward organizational goals in each area. Wellbeing reports can then be provided monthly, quarterly, and annually to leadership and staff and allow your association to change programs or priorities as needed. The scorecard also tracks individual progress, on which compensation-related rewards can be determined.
These are the first steps for improving your employee wellbeing. The remaining steps will be presented in our next article, which will address modeling expected wellbeing and monitoring and measuring results.