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Three Take-Aways from 2020 for Improved Employee Well-Being in 2021 + Beyond

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We all have our stories from 2020 – stories of frustration, fatigue, flexing, incredulity, uncertainty, and fear. But if that’s all that we let characterize last year, we’re selling ourselves short and missing out on some big learning opportunities. While most of us were caught off-guard in some capacity by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is in the stories of perseverance, courage, and situational awareness where we start to find comfort and inspiration. We are now positioned to bring forward and apply amazing learning opportunities in 2021 and beyond; overcoming the struggles and frustrations of 2020 and embracing the silver linings and memorable highs gives me hope and excitement for the future.  

I’m thrilled to be an expert contributor on Workplace Environment, Policy, and Design for the Wellness Council of Wisconsin, a non-profit dedicated exclusively to helping employers design results-oriented wellness programs to maximize the health and productivity of their most valuable asset—their employees. Recently, I was able to share some of my insights on a panel with other industry experts on how we can take what we’ve learned in 2020 and focus on wellness in 2021. Here are some of my key lessons, as well as a few resources, that I’ve found helpful in navigating our new workplace realities and dynamics. If you are a visual person, you can hear about this in my video.

Lesson 1: The Importance of Visual Cues in the Physical Space to Support Behaviors
When the pandemic hit, I was on the trip of a lifetime with my mom and my aunt, traveling across Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. While at a restaurant in Singapore, we noticed sinks were positioned along the outside walls within the eating area and patrons would wash their hands before their meal was served. What a powerful visual cue to reinforce a behavior and cultural norm! I believe this idea translates to the workplace environment as well. Through the sink placement, people quickly understood this restaurant values and highly encourages cleanliness to the point where it is “just what you do” if you are a patron there. Organizations have this same power to use visual cues to support positive behavior and changes in the workplace. For example, if a company believes (as I do) that it’s important for well-being to offer employees choice and control in their workplace, I’d recommend incorporating a variety of environments, including large and small meeting and collaboration spaces, social zones and innovation spaces, quiet and focus areas, virtual work environments, etc. It’s important to not only provide options with the right technology in place, but also to have leadership model the value by utilizing these spaces themselves throughout the day, and openly encouraging employees to work where they will be their best. There are several studies, such as Steelcase’s Global Report, that show that employees with high access to multiple activity settings for work are very satisfied with their jobs, resulting in lower stress, higher productivity and increased engagement.

Lesson 2: The Continued Need for Employee Connection, Belonging and Identity
I cannot overstate the importance of supporting connectedness, belonging and individual identity amongst employees. Although in many ways 2020 was more challenging than ever in this regard particularly, I think it also helped drive home this point. Through gathering input from our clients and research around the way the physical environment and technology impact employee engagement, our team developed 5 drivers to an engaged workplace – one of those drivers is well-being. What began to already surface pre-pandemic was the need for employees to feel a sense of belonging and connection to the corporate culture, brand and peers while also being able to show their personal identity. Overnight, many of us found ourselves working in a virtual world and our standard points of connection in the work setting disappeared. If you are in a position of leadership or touch employee engagement at any level, I’m sure you are evaluating what connection currently looks like for those around you and how it could look moving forward. Making modifications to programming, the physical space or technology outlets where people interact, could be helpful places to start as you seek to enhance a sense of connectedness and belonging. 

Lesson 3: Physical Space Influences Culture and Vice Versa
In my experience and research, it’s apparent that culture and the physical space are intricately connected, reinforcing one another, with a blurred line of which comes first – much like the chicken and the egg scenario. Physical space can not only help support culture, but the behaviors within the space can help inform and shape the design to achieve success. Having now spent countless hours in virtual meetings, I truly believe more than ever that the physical environment in which employees connect and engage with one another will play a critical role in the health of workplace cultures moving forward. From organizations looking to maintain their culture, to those who may be exploring a cultural shift, it’s important to evaluate policies or behaviors that might drive culture. If the physical environment could help provoke change, the workplace could just be a jumping off point to support your desired future. There isn't a simple, prescriptive answer to these questions; both aspects should be considered and balanced with technological tools that can help elevate, change, or maintain culture.

In addition to imparting my own lessons learned from the year, I’d like to provide you with some resources to formulate or refine your own take-aways and plans for progress – however that may look –  moving forward. 

Recommended Resources: 

Corenet Global Post-Pandemic Hackathons, specifically the Well-Being Hackathon Results.
Last year, when the pandemic hit, Corenet Global, an industry association for those who lead real estate within organizations, kicked-off a worldwide hackathon involving around 1,000 people on 90 teams, including myself and EUA’s HR Director, Bob Norman. We hacked all things from well-being to sustainable practices to remote working trends post-pandemic. One key finding of Bob’s team was that a focus on the well-being of employees and building occupants would move from something that was trendy to something that should be considered mandatory for organizations and landlords. We are already seeing that take hold in our client and partner conversations to date. You can find all the reports here.

All Things Brene Brown
I am unashamedly a Brene Brown fanatic! In her book “Braving the Wilderness,” she talks about how trust is built in small moments. This takes me to the workplace environment and thinking about the opportunities to connect with one another in small moments (i.e. engaging in conversations before and after the meeting, or at the water cooler).Taking this a step further, companies that are successfully highly innovative often have a high level of trust among employees and throughout their culture and this idea of "small moment trust building" becomes increasingly important when innovation is required to happen outside the office in virtual work environments.

Additional Resource: Braving the Wilderness at Work Conversation Starters: 

No matter what 2021 may hold, we have the choice to let the difficulties of 2020 cloud our perspectives or lead with courage, taking hold of the opportunities that presented themselves through this past year and navigate 2021 with hopeful perspectives that can help elevate not only our health, well-being and resiliency, but also that of those around us.

Heather Turner Loth, MCR.w
Business Development Practice Leader : Principal

Heather Turner Loth is the Business Development Practice Leader and Associate with EUA working out of the Milwaukee office. Heather's passion for people allows her to excel at building relationships. Outside of work, she enjoys taking dance classes and traveling.

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