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Irish businesses had to contend with some serious challenges last year. To help us reset for the year ahead, we asked Irish employers to share their advice on how to create a better workplace in 2021.

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6 Focus Areas For A Better Workplace In 2021

Before we dive into some of the excellent ideas we received from Irish business leaders, let’s take a quick look at six key areas that will help you re-engage your staff and have a better workplace in 2021:

  1. Leadership
  2. Communication 
  3. Recognition
  4. Workplace Flexibility
  5. Learning and Development
  6. Health and Wellbeing

Before we dive into the six areas and the advice from Irish employers, download the summary guide now.

Leadership

Even in normal times, leadership style has a huge impact on the morale and engagement of your staff. Studies carried out by Gallup found that employees look for four universal attributes in their leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope – all of which were heavily called-upon over the last year.

“This year has brought about uncertainty and when a world becomes uncertain it breathes fear but also change. I would promote the benefits of change for 2021, this could be within yourself and your development or for business looking for new strategies. Let’s grab 2021 with both hands and say I’m back in control.” Brenda Nagle, Head Of Business Governance at Gallarus Industry Solutions

Employees expect humanity from their leaders so do not be afraid to show your emotions and vulnerabilities; act with empathy. 

When communicating with your people, find the right balance between being realistic about the challenges that lie ahead and being confident that the business will overcome this crisis. 

As a leader, create space and safety for your employees to share their experience of the pandemic. Really understand what your people have been thinking about over the past months and then use that information to re-shape your organisational culture and future initiatives. Some questions to consider asking include:

  • How has the pandemic affected your beliefs and expectations?
  • (If still fully employed) Has the pandemic had an impact on your plans and goals, both personal and career-wise? If so, in what way?
  • What opportunities do we have to work differently? (To work more efficiently, to better serve clients and customers, to attain better financial results or achieve organisational goals, or develop individuals personally and professionally?)

When talking about these topics, be sure to provide ‘psychological safety’ – where your people are able to freely express themselves without fear of repercussions for their self-image or career. 

All of the above suggestions will help your employees process their emotional experience and will also strengthen your workforce culture. Learning how the pandemic has affected your employees’ beliefs and expectations can help your business to carefully design meaningful and motivational employee engagement initiatives, new HR policies & practices, and much more.

By involving your people in coming up with solutions and making decisions on how to move forward, you will recharge your employees as well as get optimal ideas and action plans for your business.

Communication

Communication has always been critical to business success and the pandemic has further reinforced just how important it is for organisations to provide open, honest, transparent and timely communication.

“I think this year has been a year like no other and if I was to offer any advice I would encourage as open communication as possible. Employees have had a very uncertain year in all industries and it is important for employers to recognise this and provide comfort and honesty in open communication.” Lorraine Morrin, Human Resources Generalist at Oneview Healthcare

woman talking on mobile phone

Communication is more important now than ever

In these challenging times, communication has become more about creating greater clarity and reducing uncertainty for employees. Hence, it is so important to keep two-way communication flowing at all times. This includes 1-1s, team meetings, senior leader sessions, employee surveys, and more.

While leadership visibility is always important, in a remote or scattered workplace environment, employees look at their leaders for even more guidance and direction. 

Using an online communication platform to increase awareness of your company’s strategy and mission and how employees can contribute to that mission can help keep employees focused and engaged in achieving business objectives.

In the post-COVID-19 period, we recommend frequent check-ins and transparent conversations between leaders and their teams so they feel included in what is happening with the business. Frequent conversations also make people feel less isolated and able to see the collective emotional strength of the team.

Some post-COVID-19 communications strategies include:

  • Daily blog updates from the Leadership team to connect everyone to the goals and mission of the organisation.
  • Channels for two-way feedback so employees can have a voice in what they need for increased engagement and productivity.
  • Digital platforms to host different resources and publish timely updates regarding relevant topics, such as health & safety when returning to the office.

Strong company-wide communication, accompanied by tools and resources to support the process, is a great facilitator of success.

Recognition

The global pandemic has pushed many companies and individuals back to survival mode, so employee recognition has fallen a little to the wayside. However, study after study has shown that recognition and appreciation are a big part of what makes people more engaged at work once their pay and job security needs are met. 

Encourage your leaders to show acknowledgment and appreciation through regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings. Colleagues can also play an important role in this ongoing process. For this to happen, it helps to make appreciation and recognition a part of your work culture. Ways to do this include:

  • Ask employees about their “wins” of the week or carry out employee ‘pulse’ surveys.
  • Add a “kudos to” moment as part of your team meeting agenda with the purpose of recognising noteworthy behaviours or actions.
  • Encourage peer to peer recognition through eCards and or other online methods.
  • Celebrate birthdays, holidays or special moments with the entire team.

If you want to thrive in a post-COVID-19 era, prioritise employee recognition, trust, and communication. By doing so, you can preserve a strong company culture, motivate employees to succeed, and boost productivity throughout your workforce. 

Remember: what gets recognised, gets repeated!

Workplace Flexibility

Employee desire for workplace flexibility is not new. Pre-COVID-19, flexible work arrangements were used by many organisations as a competitive advantage in attracting talent. 

With the pandemic showing that employees can be productive while away from the office, researchers and professionals are predicting a rise of remote working as a new normal and a significant decline in the number of people working in the office full-time. As more Gen-Zers enter the workforce, it is likely that the demand for flexible working arrangements will increase even further.

Woman working while son plays

Remote working is no longer seen as the preserve of just ‘digital nomads’

There is plenty of data showing great employee engagement benefits flowing from increased workplace flexibility. To take an interesting example from across the water in the US, ever since the US Patent and Trademark Office implemented its ‘Work from Anywhere’ policy in 2013, the organisation has been ranked the highest on the Best Place to Work in the Federal Government Survey.

Remote working can also help you recruit great talent. There are already companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Siemens, and Shopify which have announced that they will make remote work permanent even after the vaccine is on the market. This enables them to hire great people from anywhere in the world.

Speaking of Twitter, they have plenty of workplace flexibility innovations that you can borrow for your own business. Twitter has been very proactive in supporting its remote workers throughout the crisis, including a work buddy system called the Tweep Exchange whereby overloaded teams can pair up with teams that have available bandwidth. The company even hosted a virtual ‘summer camp’ to help parents working at Twitter to keep their kids occupied and engaged.

If you’re feeling particularly innovative and ready to step into the brave new world of work, you can consider creating ‘virtual workspaces’. 

The rapid rise of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology has meant that virtual spaces may well be the hot new topic for the modern workplace. According to workplace design expert, Robert Brown, “Virtual Space enables us to live and work in a simulated universe that looks and feels like our physical world but without the earthly restrictions of time and space. The result? Better work, collaboration, creativity, self-actualization through more immersive, more valuable, and more virtually genuine experiences.”

The consulting firm PwC recently reported that virtual and augmented reality could deliver a £1.4 trillion boost to the global economy by 2030.

Remote working and virtual spaces will require policy revisions. Working from home may mean that certain costs and liabilities are seen as being transferred from employer to employee. Some companies and even governments are making changes. There has already been a bill proposed in the German parliament to enshrine the right to work from home for at least 24 days a year.

With more teams having to work from home I think it is important that employers make a conscious effort to promote a flexible working environment and ensure that their employees feel trusted, valued and still part of the team/company despite being separated from everyone. I feel that to promote wellbeing and a positive culture within their workforce by having strong resource groups to promote wellbeing, diversity and inclusion – and also having a group to promote a positive remote working environment  – will pay dividends, as employees will be more productive if they feel trusted, included and valued but also having resources available to them if/when times get difficult” Aidan Hennessy, People Talent Manager at Nearform

From recruitment, to remote onboarding, to talent management, you need to have the right systems in place to be able to connect with employees regardless of where they are located. There are plenty of HR Tech platforms out there such as HR Locker and Sonru as well as the well-known tech tools such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Slack.

By adjusting your recruitment strategy to capture remote workers, you will broaden your talent pool and be able to reach more highly qualified applicants.

Providing your employees with the option to work remotely, gives your people more control over their lives and it is also better for the environment in terms of commuting.

But like many organizations in 2020, we’ve realised that we need to evolve. The future of work isn’t coming; it’s already here. In a recent survey from Gallup, 59% of people would like to keep working remotely as much as possible even after COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted.

If you’re still undecided, consider these findings from an internal staff survey at the international software company, Hubspot. HubSpot has always considered themselves to be a ‘remote-ish’ company and even they were surprised at the effect of covid on flexibility-related issues. Apparently “two-thirds of HubSpotters plan to work remotely more often once our offices re-open, and approximately 16% are interested in moving to a full-time remote set-up, in addition to hundreds of employees who are already remote.” The company is dropping the ‘ish’ from ‘remote-ish’ and has introduced many initiatives to facilitate the move to a remote-first company environment.

Learning and Development

Businesses that invest in learning and development for their employees will be encouraging higher engagement and better performance. Furthermore, in this VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), leaders and their teams need to strengthen their skills. 

And, as a bonus, learning is enriching and a good way to de-stress.

With this new way of working, first you need to ensure that you and your people are digitally fluent in the key technologies needed to be productive. Consider hosting 45-minute weekly webinars on digital skills.

Then, seek to enhance ‘soft skills’ such as emotional intelligence, effective collaboration, team building, and communication skills, all of which will help your people adapt to this strange new world of work.

Through learning management systems and other e-learning platforms you can keep your teams connected and engaged from anywhere. Remote learning and development represents an engaging, cost-effective, and viable solution to keep employees learning when distance is a factor. 

Health and Wellbeing

While the area of employee health and wellbeing has gained momentum over the last decade, few organizations previously perceived it as a top priority. The global pandemic changed all that – health & wellbeing has undoubtedly been pushed up the priority list.

According to mental health provider Ginger, 62% of employees surveyed, reported losing at least one hour daily in productivity due to COVID-19 related stress, with more than a third losing more than two hours daily.

“If there was one area I would encourage employers to focus on in 2021 it is the wellbeing of their colleagues. It’s the legal thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do AND it’s the smart thing to do. A healthy workforce leads to a healthy bottom line.” Brian Crooke, Course Director at Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace

HR and business leaders should consider finding ways to innovate in the area of health and wellbeing, even in the midst of budget constraints and uncertainty. Here are a few budget-friendly post-COVID-19 wellbeing initiatives:

  • Provide access to on-demand videos and articles to support all pillars of employee wellbeing, from financial to mental and physical. Employees can choose what to engage with and can access helpful wellbeing support at any time.
  • Introduce new ways for employees to make savings through employee discount programs to help them save on popular retailers.
  • Provide a free Employee Assistance Program (EAP) so your people have a safe space to go to when they need extra support during difficult times.
  • Add a wellbeing allowance benefit to give a little extra money towards wellbeing initiatives of your employees’ choice.

Global pandemic aside, it’s always best to have health and wellbeing on your employee engagement agenda – it can help you reduce absenteeism and decrease your overall business costs and can help you build a healthier and more engaged workforce.

Food giant Glanbia has taken this approach to heart. They have also introduced online keep-fit sessions, relaxation webinars and virtual coffee breaks for their staff.

Remember to always follow the latest government updates regarding public health and communicate these to all your employees. These can be found on this page of the HSE website.

Advice From Irish Employers

Now let’s look at some powerful insights and advice from other Irish employers to help you and your employees in the year ahead.

But first . . .

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If you’d like to talk to us about resolving any HR matters in your business, contact Insight HR here.

 

Mr Michele Neylon – CEO of Blacknight Solutions (Hosting, Colocation & Domains)

The main thing is making sure that everyone from the top to the bottom of the company is flexible and pragmatic. So while previously most of our staff were working “normal” shifts from our offices now they’re all working from home and having to juggle their domestic lives and those of their partners etc., with their jobs.

One of the bigger challenges has been switching to being a 100% remote company overnight.

From a technical perspective that wasn’t too hard for us, but from a practical day to day one it was a seismic change.

For some of our staff the change has been very positive and they’re loving it, but others have had major issues with it and it’s put a strain on them and their teams.

Change can be a challenge, but businesses that do their best to embrace it can survive and possibly even flourish, while those who deny it will cause problems for themselves.

 

Diane Baker, Recruitment Manager at Poppulo

Try to work together with employees & support as much as possible as the country opens up & returns to normal. Communication is key, Ensure that everyone is kept up to date with company plans and ambitions. An informed workforce leads to greater engagement allround.” 

 

Elizabeth Kelly, Senior Manager Development at ENCLUDE

We organised a buddy system from the start of the first lockdown so all our staff got to connect with one or more members of their team each day via Zoom.  It really helped people not to feel isolated and that they were still part of the company.  It also got client problems solved faster!

 

 Brian Crooke, Course Director at Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace

If there was one area I would encourage employers to focus on in 2021 it is the wellbeing of their colleagues. It’s the legal thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do AND it’s the smart thing to do. A healthy workforce leads to a healthy bottom line.

 

Fanny Grant

Recruiter at Threatscape

My personal take away from 2020 is that we have learned to enjoy the simple things that we took for granted before Covid hit. Whether that’s seeing friends and family, going shopping, visit the cinema or museum, etc, . . . and having a job! Many people started doing outdoor activities and family activities.  So to me that’s a lot of positive things that came out of the pandemic.  

 

The swift arrival of COVID-19 has undoubtedly immersed the entire world into unknown terrain.  While browsing online earlier today, I was drawn to the blogging site of twitter where multiple followers were asked to describe 2020 in one word – the following words were most commonly used; pain, unstable, hurt, agony, sadness and unpredictable. These words collectively summarise the economical and emotional challenges organisations and its people have experienced, and sadly are still experiencing. The effects of COVID-19 have been lasting and devastating.

 

Despite Covid-19’s negative effects, it is likely that we can all agree on one thing – we’ve learned a lot. As an HR Manager operating within the ‘not for profit’ sector, I have witnessed the foregone days of having office space lit up and occupied five days a week being replaced by the digital home workplace. Working from home was one of the biggest challenges for some employers within this sector. Have we the appropriate IT infrastructure in place, how can we all operate remotely without daily interaction and physical presence? How can we still service the needs of our clients?

 

Laura Barry – HR Leader – Not-For-Profit Sector

Indeed, the learning curve was steep, but we got there. We got there not only continuing to provide excellent services and quality standards but also increasing employee engagement, a fundamental HR facet that increases productivity, employee retention and an optimal workplace experience. The work-life balance, virtual social interactions and constant simple gestures of appreciation shown weekly to staff got us through it. For many of us, the digital home workplace will now be our new norm. Trust is a key learning for many leaders that once doubted this intrinsic benefit. For 2021, employers across the Island will undoubtedly incorporate this work practice, whether partially or fully and will reap the benefits of seeing a real time boost to morale all the while inspiring confidence and autonomy among its workforce.  ‘To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace’ – Doug Conant.

 

Deirdre O’Brien, Training Consultant / Life and Executive Coach / Personal Development Trainer 

“I would have a few tips I have found to be good. The first is for people who are working from home regardless of their position in the company: Dress with intention, dress as if you were going to the office, right down to the shoes you wear – as in, no slippers. Makes a big difference to how people feel and focus. The second one is: Do something specific for the length of time it would have previously taken you to get to work, something that has nothing to do with home life and nothing to do with work. It could be go for a walk, or learn a new language etc. Something that takes the same duration as your previous commute would have taken. And the third tip is again in relation to working in a disparate environment, some at home some rotating in an office: Keep in touch, specifically, and not related to work. Have a regular coffee and cake meeting – for half an hour to an hour only once a month on an interactive online setting (Teams, Zoom etc.) this way managers can get a better insight into how their team are doing, but the team also feel that it is not all about work. These are some of the things that I teach but are based on what I have seen and experienced as being both motivating and inclusive.” 

 

Mila Neudert, IT Service Delivery Manager at ProStrategy

All people struggle with change, it doesn’t matter what is. For some businesses, it was a very successful year, for some it was the worst. Disregard the industry, every person had to adapt and change their habits, behaviours, communication styles, and many more. So, if business could adapt quickly enough they would recover much easier. Apart from changing technologies (moving online mostly) very important for us was the transparency of the management on how the company is doing. For example, we had only two company-wide business update meetings before and from March this year we have them each month – people are aware of how we are doing and what we are doing to improve our “numbers” – brings more trust and understanding from staff. Another thing I did to connect with people more (as no more office coffee breaks chats) was to introduce “social gathering” meetings with no business agenda, which also proved to work well and people felt more at ease and noted it was important to them. Also if there’s a possibility to invest in people’s skills – it was a good time to learn and catch up on the latest releases of technology. Thinking ahead and planning for the future brought more stability in people’s thinking and released uncertainty. All the main bets should be on the people, they are the main driver for any business success, so the main focus was on the guys in the team. Little things make a big difference and, if we genuinely care about each other, it doesn’t matter what life throws at us – we can handle it.

 

Lorraine Morrin, Human Resources Generalist at Oneview Healthcare

I think this year has been a year like no other and if I was to offer any advice I would encourage as open communication as possible. Employees have had a very uncertain year in all industries and it is important for employers to recognise this and provide comfort and honesty in open communication.”  

 

Tony Duffin, CEO at Ana Liffey Drug Project

“It has been said that the COVID19 pandemic has (for better or worse) amplified what is. Couple this amplification with the need for many organisations to diversify what they offer to their customers/clients; and these changes can cause organisational culture and operational differences now compared to when the pandemic began.  During the first wave of COVID19, in Ireland, fear and uncertainty permeated the public and professional consciousness. While this has subsided there remains significant concerns and a desire for certainty. As such, whatever change you may be managing at work – process, communication and authenticity are even more important than ever.”  

 

Laura Burke, HR Generalist at Clanwilliam Health

“I would say my number one lesson of 2020 is to remember we are, and always will be, stronger together. Truth be told, a business is only as successful as its people, yet somewhere along the years we may have lost sight of this. People want to feel valued, like they are part of something meaningful and have a purpose. Reminding them of their contribution to the success of the business and the vital role they play will drive motivation and optimism. No one gives 100% to an employer where they feel they are just a number. We are all important and have a place.” 

 

Brenda Nagle, Head Of Business Governance at Gallarus Industry Solutions

“This year has brought about uncertainty and when a world becomes uncertain it breathes fear but also change. I would promote the benefits of change for 2021, this could be within yourself and your development or for business looking for new strategies. Let’s grab 2021 with both hands and say I’m back in control.”  

 

Aidan Hennessy, People Talent Manager at Nearform

With more teams having to work from home I think it is important that employers make a conscious effort to promote a flexible working environment and ensure that their employees feel trusted, valued and still part of the team/company despite being separated from everyone. I feel that to promote wellbeing and a positive culture within their workforce by having strong resource groups to promote wellbeing, diversity and inclusion and also having a group to promote a positive remote working environment will pay dividends as employees will be more productive if they feel trusted, included and valued but also having resources available to them if/when times get difficult”  

Want Some HR Help?

If you’d like to talk to us about resolving any HR matters in your business, contact Insight HR here.

Share with your network!