Please don’t do that. Please don’t use the phrase “new normal” as if it’s some weak compromise you’ll have to live with. Please don’t talk to your employees about “getting back to normal” as if that’s the ultimate goal everyone is seeking. Please don’t assume that the pre-pandemic way you built ideas and relationships—within teams and with clients—was somehow optimal, ideal and loved by all.
I understand it’s easy to get wistful about those “good old days” from a couple years ago. But it’s not as if the pandemic suddenly cratered employees’ sense of trust and being connected to their companies. We’ve been talking about that crisis since long before COVID. A pre-pandemic PwC survey of global CEOs revealed more than half saw a lack of trust was a direct threat to their organization’s growth.
Yes, we were forced to scatter our people, go virtual, scramble to create new systems, struggle to accomplish even day-to-day tasks we all took for granted. There is a power in the simple act of us all working together in person, every day, and being exposed to the culture in every break room, hallway and activity. We can appreciate that now more than ever.
Yet in that environment of constant new challenges and compromises, people did rise to the occasion. Problems met with rapid solutions. The trust-killer of micro-managing became almost impossible. Clients, once seen primarily in formal meeting rooms, had to be more vulnerable, as meetings held from their homes forced them to let their agencies into their lives in new ways, leading to the kind of human connection that opens doors to higher trust and understanding.
And like it or not, all of us had to reexamine ourselves. What we feared. What made us happy. How we managed our time. How we prioritized. How we balanced our personal and work lives. How we best collaborated and succeeded. How we could earn and give trust. As we move into the future, we must not let this hard-won knowledge be diminished by suddenly losing our momentum in discussions of “how quickly can we all get back to normal.”
Today, we face the fundamental challenge perfectly captured in a 2021 study from Buck Global showing 58% of employees do not trust senior management to look out for their best interests and that 42% believe their leadership is out of touch with the reality workers have experienced during the pandemic. It’s a reality that should give us all pause. But we can also pair this with the positive implications of research conducted by Paul Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, which found employees in high-trust companies reported 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 40% less burnout and more than double the energy they bring to their jobs compared to workers in low-trust organizations. It is clear. The trust lacking today is a giant obstacle, but trust gained moving forward can be a game-changing multiplier.
Yes, we are all tired now from these past years. But we are also stronger in our understanding of what makes a great manager, a great team, a great relationship, a great company. How well we emerge from these past years may come down to how we hold ourselves to a trust-building standard. I think there are a few key areas that need close attention.
And, with that, how many of your virtual workers have been able to weigh-in specifically on the benefits of virtual they now see as keys to their ability to excel? You almost certainly have employees who have flourished these past years, often through great effort on their part that they are proud of. Marking those times as an aberration can send a powerful negative message you didn’t intend.
It means more proactive efforts to touch base with each employee more consistently. It means actively seeking out problems to address them earlier. It means taking a hard look at your managers’ workloads to give them true time in their schedules to make that happen. It means making sure your company culture allows managers to show the kind of personal vulnerability to their teams that is such a core component of building rapport.
So often, companies craft a benefit or positive change with the intention of helping employees, and then are surprised when those well-meaning efforts are met with employee skepticism, indifference, even scorn. What went wrong?
It may simply have been that the benefit or change was described and touted, but the conversation stopped there.
Sure, it was good news, but it was one-way. Missing from the sharing was the simple step of connecting the description of the effort with the intention that drove that decision. It shouldn’t just be “great news; we’ve decided to offer daycare services three days a week.” You’ll serve your employees, and your goals, far better with an approach closer to “we’ve been thinking of ways to help our working parents participate more easily in our collaborations at the office; one suggestion we’re going to be testing is providing daycare services three days a week.”
Now the employees understand from the start the underlying care, thinking and motive behind the move. It feels closer to a dialogue, one they can enter with honest comments on what is being tested, and why it is being done. Almost immediately, you’ve rapidly opened up the conversation in ways that alignment can happen and trust can flow—in both directions.
How many convoluted mission statements have you rolled your eyes at over the years? We laugh. But no company can afford that lack of clarity anymore. Use this time as a moment you streamline how you explain to your own people and the world what your company is specifically aspiring to and how all can be involved. To have your promises trusted, you must first make those promises clear, relevant and actionable.
We stand at a launching point where the solutions, bonds and trust built throughout these challenging times can be seen for what they truly are—an opportunity for every company to become its better self—trusted in the eyes of the world, their clients and, most importantly, the employees who are the true beating heart of every company, every brand.
It could be the biggest, most lasting win you have ever achieved.
Featured in AdAge, May 2022