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In the past, leaders kept a grip on retention by manipulating three levers: compensation, their relationship with employees and company culture. Now, though, Covid-19 and other social dynamics have turned that strategy to jelly. Employers are unable to navigate the three levers to keep employees around in remote settings in the same way they did in the office. Even as remote options give some control back to workers, leaders are struggling to deliver the social interaction and friendship that, more than anything else, keep people from leaving. Securing good retention is achievable, however, if leaders tap into the same warm elements of humanity that are behind many of those shifted dynamics.
The new reality calls for more intentional culture-building by leaders
Contrary to the popular vision of workplace leadership, top-level executives don’t typically sit down and build the culture of their offices. They can set a desired tone, but ultimately, people create the culture on their own from the bottom up as they interact among themselves. With so many people working remotely, though, employees aren’t doing this to the degree you’d normally see.
At my company, we recognize that our people are different coming out of the pandemic. We see that many of the social activities we were accustomed to enjoying together, such as holiday celebrations and barbeques, aren’t happening in the same way or at the same rate. Even company meetings are disjointed. We might have over 100 people participating on Zoom instead of connecting in person. Engagement is one foot in, one foot out.
In this reality, leaders must be more intentional and assume a more active role in building the culture. They need to start seeing recent changes not as complications, but as opportunities. In recent months, our team proactively rebranded and settled on new values — curious, collaborative and confident — to use as core pillars for what we do. We’re making culture behavioral and acting in a way that squares with our beliefs and goals, and we try to talk about those values on purpose during the precious time we do have with each other. The effort starts as early as hiring, where we encourage our hiring managers to look for our new values in candidates they interview.
Related: How to Be a Culture Champion in 2022
Boundaries are breaking, and that’s a good thing
Before the pandemic, drawing a clear line between your professional and private lives was normal. This boundary made it easy to forget the humanity of each person. If you needed to lay somebody off, cut wages or make other tough choices, you could repeat the mantra of “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
As workers went remote, that clear line blurred. People started living in front of their screens, and things we never used to see that are a natural part of our humanity — i.e., the kids running around with the dog in the background — suddenly became much more visible.
So the separation between professional and personal has already been breached. But from where I sit, that’s a positive thing. Employees can realize that the concept of corporations as soulless entities is unjustified. Real people run businesses and make tough decisions, and that’s always been the case. And on the leadership side, because those decisions can have such an influence on so many other individuals, if you’re at the top, you have to do what’s right for the collective.
Related: How to Better Manage Corporate Culture During Times of Transition
From crisis, the gift of a shared experience
In countless ways, the pandemic has ripped at us like nothing else we’ve experienced. But we were all put through that suffering and way of living together. Concealed within this crisis is the great gift of a once-in-a-lifetime shared experience. We can see our shared humanity and relate to each other in a way we would never have if the pandemic hadn’t happened. As a result, we have the chance to open ourselves in our work and other relationships.
You can manifest this empathy in lots of small ways that ultimately rebuild your culture to be better. When we were all in the office last week for meetings, we slipped out of the more task-oriented interaction that happens on Zoom. Our natural desire to let conversation flow kicked in, and time got away from us. Instead of shutting that down in a hardline way, we acknowledged how much people wanted to connect and talk about things beyond the to-do list — and the upshot was that I started padding my schedule to compensate. More broadly, we’re trying to organically rely on phrases that encapsulate the values we’ve all agreed on. We want that common language to unify us and help people feel like they belong.
The opportunities you get to respond empathetically might not look the same as the opportunities I encounter. IBM employees showed compassion for each other by using Slack to organize practical support efforts like picking up groceries. Infosys chartered flights for workers stranded outside their home country. But there are opportunities. It’s simply a matter of making the choice to observe and seize them.
Related: How to Build a Corporate Culture That Retains Loyal Employees
We can’t go back, so let the boundaries keep breaking
When trouble hits, people naturally want out of it. They want to avoid pain and risk, which often means hiding in what’s familiar. As we begin to look at what life will be like after the pandemic, though, it’s clear that what’s been familiar is already gone. There is no going back.
To work successfully in the new remote environment, we have to continue breaking down the boundaries between personal and professional. We must move toward a way of working where our shared humanity stands at the core of operations and delivers a sense of both community and purpose. The heightened awareness of how we are the same and all connect with one another can serve as a foundation for the effective, trust-centered communication remote settings require, and for creating an environment people want to stay in. Strive for that and both individual and collective success will follow.