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CultureIQ recently conducted a poll of 2,000 US employees as part of its annual “Global Workforce Culture Survey.” While the survey revealed a renewed sense of purpose and dignity among workers, it also identified a few key workplace culture challenges that need to be addressed — including safety and agility.

The poll was conducted from March 20 to April 1, a time during which most states’ stay-at-home orders took effect, millions of businesses shuttered or laid off/furloughed workers, and infection numbers soared.

Some results of the survey point to some red flags in how companies are handling the crisis, which are especially concerning as employers begin to consider when and how to reopen:

• At the time of the survey, 7 percent of respondents indicated their organizations had not taken new steps and were operating as if it were “business as usual,” indicating that some companies were slow to respond to the crisis. While that’s a small percentage, when you consider that about 129 million American adults are employed, that 7 percent adds up to about 9 million people working for employers who had not taken any action to protect or support their workforces during the opening days of the pandemic.

• Similarly, just 54 percent of workers said decisions impacting their jobs were made without delay, a decrease of 4 percentage points from 2018/2019, indicating that businesses may not be keeping up with the pace of change required in the crisis.

• Safety is also a concern. Though 67 percent of respondents felt safety was a priority with immediate supervisors, this marks a 4-point drop from 2018/2019 for the sample as a whole. Among respondents with less formal education — who were also more likely to say they continued to be exposed to coworkers and customers during this time frame — we observed a 7-point drop. Likewise, these same workers showed a 6 percent decline in feeling that senior leadership demonstrates its commitment to compliance.

Despite the dire circumstances faced by many workers in this time period, some of our results suggest employers may have a unique opportunity to rally the troops:

• 72 percent of respondents said their work gives them a sense of personal accomplishment, up 7 percentage points from 2018/2019.

• 73 percent said senior leadership acts in ways consistent with what they say, up 6 percentage points.

• 83 percent said they’d be willing to put in extra effort to help their firms meet goals, a 4-point increase.

• 79 percent indicated their jobs made good use of their skills and abilities, up 5 percentage points.

• 75 percent indicated having a sense of direction and purpose at work, up 6 percentage points.

Further, when organizations showed their concern in proactive ways (such as taking protective measures or offering additional support), scores showed a general pattern of lift of 10 percentage points or more across a variety of items and topics, while organizations who did nothing were penalized with less favorable employee attitudes.

Action Steps to Start Taking Now

Having leaders show concern for employees is clearly associated with a more positive work culture. Demonstrating such concern may be most important for leaders of employees who have been on the front lines during the COVID-19 outbreak. Now is the time to show your people just how important they are to your business, to your mission, to your customers, and to the community.

How can leaders demonstrate that concern? Here are some key action steps:

1. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a nice guideline for the topics leaders should keep addressing: basic needs come first. Health and safety are paramount, especially as employees begin reporting back to work and customers return. Remember, virus protection at work affects no just employees themselves, but also their families.

2. Consider the Financial Impact on Employees

Hourly workers and those relying on tips have already lost a substantial amount of income. It’s important to provide any level of assistance you can.

Our survey results show that employees with less formal education, who are more likely to be on the front lines, have felt much less favorably than last year about being adequately compensated for the duties they performed. We refer to them as “essential,” and they are taking great risks by going into work, but their pay does not reflect that.

3. Institute New Workplace Safety Standards

Consider how work will be done with new safety precautions and the impact those precautions could have on productivity and timing. According to our survey, fewer employees feel safety is a priority for their leaders this year than they did last year. That indicates leaders need to do more to deal with the threat posed by COVID-19.

4. Employees Want Leaders Who Lead

Your employees want to support their leaders, particularly when they are asked to contribute to a purpose beyond just turning a profit. Focusing on customers and community right now will enhance employee engagement. There’s never been a better time to introduce a purpose-centered vision into your dialogue with workers.

One of our most interesting findings is that aiding customers and the community has a stronger positive influence on employees’ feelings about their employers’ missions than providing personal benefits to employees does.

5. Meet People Where They Are

Leaders have to separate their experiences in this pandemic from what others may have experienced. Some people are worried about debts, some are worried about how working could get them or their loved ones sick, and some are unsure how to organize their days now that they are working from home.

Have a flexible and empathetic approach. Our survey shows a 14-point boost in positive views of company culture when employees are allowed time to care for themselves and family members.

Paul M. Mastrangelo and Diane Daum are principal strategists at CultureIQ. They designed questions and analyzed data from the “2020 Global Workforce Culture Survey.

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