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Why corporate well-being initiatives need to get personal

In a recent PwC survey, CEOs reported plans for their companies to become more digital and flexible — and more employee focused.

It’s now been several months since companies first implemented their COVID-19 crisis response initiatives. Although in many parts of the world the virus continues to present serious health and economic challenges, company leaders must balance such urgencies with the need to take a longer-term view of their company’s prospects. To better understand this dynamic, PwC recently conducted a CEO Panel SurveyPDF, asking nearly 700 CEOs how their company’s business model will change after the pandemic. Their responses spoke volumes about how the future of work is likely to evolve.

As the leaders of small private firms and US$1 billion-plus public companies, representing a diverse cross section of industries, countries, and regions, these CEOs make the decisions that will redefine how and where work gets done — with implications for untold numbers of employees. The survey revealed that CEOs’ plans focus on three key areas: to become more digital and virtual, to adopt greater flexibility, and to be more employee oriented. The first two priorities are reflected in other survey results. For example, 78 percent of CEOs said they believe the shift toward remote collaboration will endure, and 61 percent said they believe that low-density workplaces are here to stay.

These trends underscore the importance of the third priority identified among our respondents: becoming more employee oriented. Specifically, respondents were asked about doing so “by expanding employee health, safety, and/or wellness programs.” When asked about actions taken during the pandemic, the survey found that 61 percent of companies conducted wellness programs. This focus on well-being, both during the crisis and in the future, makes sense. Fundamentally changing the way people work requires their buy-in and trust. And becoming more virtual and flexible requires that companies focus on their employees’ well-being in new and creative ways to help them mitigate stress and prevent burnout.

Becoming more virtual and flexible requires that companies focus on their employees’ well-being in new and creative ways to help them mitigate stress and prevent burnout.

When we talk about wellness initiatives in this context, we’re not referring to the one-size-fits-most programs used by many companies. Companies will need to adopt a more personalized approach to employee well-being. Workers are concerned about increased automation, job insecurity, the need to upskill, and the possibility of being redeployed to new roles. At the same time, they are juggling significant challenges in their personal lives, whether they have kids at home doing remote learning, are caring for older or at-risk relatives, or are coping with the isolation of living and working alone. To truly support wellness as a meaningful and sustainable benefit, companies should view well-being as more than something that provides momentary relief. Instead, well-being should be something that sustains people over the long term.

The first step is to think about your employees as individuals. One effective way for company leaders to do this is to develop personas, or example profiles that include details about work and personal pressures, enabling a deeper understanding of what employees need and how various scenarios are likely to affect them. To illustrate this technique, let’s consider four different workers and how their personal experiences during the pandemic might influence which types of well-being programs and benefits would prepare them for the evolution their employers are asking them to make.

Tom, a 46-year-old financial advisor, works from home in the London suburbs. When his job went remote at the start of the pandemic, his usual methods of strengthening client relationships came to a halt — no more business travel or dinner meetings. Through frequent video calls, Tom works to guide clients who are anxious about their investments and the broader economic uncertainty. Behind the scenes, Tom is concerned about his ability to maintain and grow his firm’s business while coordinating with his spouse to care for their two school-age children.

Lena, a 28-year-old technology call center supervisor, lives in Budapest. Lena’s job changed drastically during the pandemic, as thousands of new remote workers caused a spike in demand for IT assistance. At the outset of the crisis, she was working from home, but she has since moved to a hybrid remote and in-person schedule, and as a supervisor is scheduling shifts for her team and overseeing their return-to-work process. Lena’s plans to relocate to the United States are now indefinitely on hold — her most pressing concern is that her employer will seek to automate more customer service functions. She wonders how to stay relevant at her current job and acquire new skills in order to redesign her future.

Shannon, a 50-year-old nurse, is a single parent of a teenage daughter and lives in Houston. Shannon’s role presented new challenges as her hospital experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 admissions and established procedures to protect staff and patients. Recognizing the need for increased telemedicine capabilities, Shannon took on the task of training doctors to consult with patients virtually. She’s taught herself on the job and has realized she has a knack for technology. She’s thinking about how to take formal classes or training while balancing her job and the needs of her daughter.

Ravi, a 24-year-old software engineer, is in his first professional job with a large tech company based in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. During India’s national lockdown, when everyone was instructed to work from home, he quickly moved back in with his parents in Mumbai rather than look for shared housing in his adopted city. Now, he struggles to keep pace with his work responsibilities amid the activity of a multigenerational home in a city subject to infrastructure challenges, and must find a way to seek out mentorship and develop professional relationships without face-to-face interactions.

All of these individuals have seen their life change drastically as a result of their organization’s adoption of more digital, virtual, and flexible models. Moreover, the challenges their companies are facing today will likely look different tomorrow. As our PwC colleague Blair Sheppard and his coauthors wrote in their book Ten Years to Midnight, five urgent global issues are threatening to upend our world: asymmetry, disruption, age (demographics), polarization, and trust (what PwC refers to as the ADAPT framework). The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these forces, and most organizations will need to rethink and reconfigure many of their traditional approaches.

Company leaders must consider what they want their organization to be, and how this vision can be personalized for employees. They should start with the following five actions.

• Lead with purpose. Establishing clarity about the purpose of the organization and recognizing how that purpose aligns with employees’ needs and preferences will have a significant impact on productivity and profitability. Work is meaningful to people in different ways, but employees increasingly seek out work that is intrinsically rewarding and matches up with their personal values — what we refer to as “good work.” Providing this type of rewarding experience encourages loyalty, leads to better performance, and is a significant source of competitive advantage. In a more community-minded sense, it is also important to align initiatives such as sustainability, social responsibility, and issues of justice and equality.

• Embed personas into scenario planning. Leaders should undertake dynamic scenario planning that takes into account what their employees want in terms of how and where they work, along with an understanding of external factors. As part of this exercise, they should use personas (similar to our workers above) to better understand their employees’ individual needs, fears, and concerns. The next challenge may not be a global pandemic, but it may very well be something that forces companies to pivot one or more aspects of their operating model in order to respond effectively. For example, organizations may have to address the adoption of policies that impede cross-border trade or regulations intended to mitigate climate change. It is critical that companies be able to consistently support their employees’ well-being through such shifts.

• Upskill employees to help ensure their future success. Organizations have a responsibility to develop an upskilling strategy — both for the employees who will be moved into different roles within their company and for those who choose or are forced to look for opportunities outside the company. The former group will need updated skills to meet their organization’s evolving needs, whether this means building their digital acumen or developing their leadership and interpersonal skills. The latter group reflects a difficult reality during a recession. Some respondents to the CEO Panel Survey indicated plans to reduce head count and increase automation, and others said they would seek out contract and temporary workers. Company leaders should help their employees manage such transitions as smoothly as possible so they can succeed elsewhere.

• Customize benefits using data and analytics. Calling on an in-depth understanding of what employees need and value, leaders can develop more personalized benefits. For example, 24 percent of the CEO Panel Survey respondents reported that they provided additional financial support to employees during the pandemic. Elsewhere, companies are offering employees new variations of flexible work arrangements, access to backup child-care support, or paid leave so they can help set up their children with virtual schooling. To determine which benefits to focus on, use advanced analytics to perform preference analyses, and then let the data guide your decisions: This preference-based mindset can provide a gut check about how well your investments align with what employees want and need, and where money is being spent on things that employees don’t value. By focusing on preferences, organizations can cut workforce costs and improve the employee experience at the same time.

• Reimagine employee programs and policies. In addition to redesigning benefit plans, company leaders should look at their broader recruitment and performance strategies. Here, as well, a one-size-fits-all approach will no longer suffice. For example, companies should review their current learning and development offerings to align with the personas they identify. Consider our four employees, above: Tom will need to learn new ways of working and interacting with clients, Lena will need to learn new leadership and managerial skills as many of her customer interaction tasks are automated, Shannon will need training in emerging technologies and design thinking to develop the promise she’s shown in this area, and Ravi will need a redesigned onboarding experience that helps him build a network remotely.

For many leaders, the pandemic has resulted in a series of realizations. The digital transformation they kept putting off or underinvesting in has not only begun but been accelerated. Many of the roles and tasks that previously had to be conducted in person have transitioned smoothly to remote arrangements. Leaders’ traditional view of how work gets done in their organization has been uprooted, revealing room for creativity and innovation.

At the core of all of these realizations? People. True resilience in the face of current and future crises can be cultivated only if leaders understand their employees’ goals and challenges — what they need from their employer to live and work well.

Author profiles:

  • Bhushan Sethi is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. He works with business leaders on workforce strategy and transformation and is a recognized global thought leader and advisor on the future of work. Based in New York, he is a principal with PwC US.
  • Peter Brown is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. He has more than 20 years of experience helping large multinational corporations redefine the way work gets done and create innovative talent ecosystems that build enabled and agile workforces. Based in London, he is a partner with PwC UK.
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