New employee wellness rules for CHROs

A conversation with Deloitte’s Kraig Eaton

Even before the pandemic, business leaders ranked employee well-being as their highest priority for creating a successful organization, according to Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report. Workers who feel their best, the report suggested, tend to perform their best, which fosters loyalty and ultimately boosts revenue.

But a year of unprecedented upheaval has altered executives’ understanding of employee well-being. Rather than seeing employee well-being as a complement to or component of their work, it’s now seen as inseparable from how they do their jobs and must be designed into work itself, says Kraig Eaton, principal in Deloitte’s human capital practice and co-author of its 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report.

“Redesigning work around well-being can yield impressive results,” according to Deloitte. Examples include using digital tools to improve collaboration and communication; enabling worker choice in scheduling; and helping employees create healthier workspaces at home.

In an interview with Workflow, Eaton described what chief human resource officers (CHROs) need to know about shifting attitudes on employee wellness, and how to maintain or improve employees’ experiences during challenging times.

How did COVID change how CHROs should think about employee wellness?

Work-life balance, health, and safety have all become inseparable. They’re now at the core of what’s important to the workforce.

The definition of employee well-being is much broader than what it had been before the pandemic, when it predominantly meant physical health and safety. Now, leaders are realizing that stress, anxiety, and the blurred lines between work life and personal life all have an impact.

The focus has also broadened beyond HR. Executives, supervisors, and even individual workers have to provide a better focus on this new definition of well-being.

Are CHROs adjusting their employee wellness programs and strategies to address that?

They’re beginning to. Stepping back and looking at the last 12 to 18 months, many are asking, “What has been a big differentiator in our ability to survive and even thrive through this?” One of the attributes they’re looking at is worker resilience, and how you build on that. Organizations that integrate well-being into the design of work at the individual, team, and organizational levels will build a sustainable future in which workers can feel and perform at their best.

How much are executives and workers aligned on this issue?

You’ve got a bit of a disconnect. In our 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report, we asked both groups: “What are the most important outcomes you hope to achieve in your work transformation over the next three to five years?” Workers ranked well-being in their top three. They’re expecting that as organizations transform the way in which work gets done, well-being is a material outcome that should be achieved.

On the other side, executives ranked well-being outcomes as second to last. We also asked executives, “How sustainable are the well-being initiatives that were put in place during the pandemic?” Most executives felt they were very sustainable. They must realize that there is more work to be done. Beyond the pandemic, employees expect work to be re-imagined with well-being as a primary outcome.

What types of companies are leading by example?

One organization, which I’m not at liberty to name, has completely changed its approach to building teams. During the pandemic, everybody has had different needs in balancing the new reality. One individual can’t start before 10 a.m. and another needs to start at 6:30 a.m. In the beginning, leaders told teams they could set their own norms. But it was very hard for teams to be productive with different working hours.

Leaders shouldn’t go back to the old, rigid structures dictated by job profiles.

Working norms became part of their evaluative criteria when forming teams, and it allowed them to pull together people with different expertise from all parts of the organization with positive results.

Giving individuals autonomy to make meaningful decisions about what and how they contribute to the organization is also key to increasing well-being. As an example, Starbucks changed its approach to designing work schedules, posting them two weeks in advance and doing whatever it can to transfer employees who have more than an hour-long commute to a closer store.

To integrate employee well-being into job design, what other lessons can CHROs take from the pandemic?

The key idea is choice. Over the past year, workers have assumed new roles out of necessity. And they found they liked having new opportunities, learning new skills—and they were productive, often more so than they had been before.

Leaders shouldn’t go back to the old, rigid structures dictated by job profiles. They need to look at specific capability gaps and give workers the choice to work on special projects, or give them the agency to step out of their current roles and focus on other areas.

Leaders also have to embrace helping their workers assume new roles and helping them to be more adaptable. The biggest challenge is leaders’ willingness to break down organizational barriers and allow talent to move across those barriers for the benefit of both the organization and the employee.