During the pandemic, two overlapping groups of employees have been facing great pressure on the job and at home: women and deskless workers. Women, as well as people of color, are over-proportionately represented among the essential workers pressed to keep working during the pandemic. And these employees are often caregivers, as well.
Deskless workers are employees who "typically don't sit behind a desk to perform their jobs," as defined by Mike Morini, CEO of WorkForce Software. Tied to a physical workplace, they constitute 80 percent of workers across the globe and nearly 100 percent of shift workers in a wide range of industries, including health care, retail, manufacturing and transportation.
Because of concerns about health, safety, stability and security at the workplace and at home, many employees in these two groups are less engaged at the workplace. To boost engagement with their demanding work, HR can apply the principles of New Work to give these workers a sense of purpose, inclusion and security.
Use Team and Individual Purpose to Raise Engagement
Purpose is New Work's answer to flagging employee engagement. Employees need to connect purpose in their individual work to company purpose, "even (or especially) where it may be less obvious," according to the CHRO Thinking Ahead Group at WTW, formerly Willis Towers Watson. Team purpose makes this connection, writes Michael Chavez, global managing director of Duke Corporate Education, by serving "as a bridge between the everyday shared work of the team and the organizational purpose."
Chavez cites the example of Steve LaChance of LPL Financial, the largest independent broker-dealer in the country, who "incorporated team members into the process" of defining the team purpose so they "see how they collectively fit into the bigger picture." Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, stated that "a clear and compelling purpose is the glue that binds together a group of individuals." Team purpose makes all team members feel included in the team and company, where current circumstances suggest that the felt need for inclusion is perhaps greatest among women, people of color and deskless workers.
In a survey of German HR managers from a representative sample of organizations regarding employee performance and productivity, conducted by the HR research institute Frauenhofer IAO, over one-third of the HR managers reported that employees in their organizations are anxious about fairness in sharing work and a lack of recognition for their performance on the team.
The team's purpose can help HR answer these concerns. Hill maintains that "on this foundation can be built everything else a team needs to work well, … agreed work processes … and the means for ongoing performance assessment."
Dan Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, sees purpose as "a powerful tool for leaders who want to inspire people to bring their best to work." It needs to be "personal and emotional," he writes, citing examples from Roche and Microsoft, where team purpose "made team members dive into their projects with more energy and enthusiasm."
Finally, team purpose "creates awareness and inclusion," according to the editorial team at Indeed.com. In a post on their website, they maintain that teams can, as part of meeting their purpose, "evaluate behaviors … to identify areas of improvement" and "discover how individuals work together and find the strengths and weaknesses."
Furthermore, HR can use team purpose to augment the impact of common workplace practices and policies in responding to employee concerns about fairness and recognition, illustrated with two examples. First, the shift assignments of deskless workers are typically posted for all to see, making fairness in the allocation of work transparent to all. Building on this, HR can consider policies or support practices where desked employees working from home or in the office are also able to see the allocation of work within the team. As with deskless workers, transparency in sharing the tasks for desked employees gives them confidence in the fair allocation of work.
Second, many companies recognize team performance when celebrating team success stories. HR can go one step further by encouraging practices to recognize individual performance in meeting the team purpose. For example, team members can share their personal "mini success story" of the week or month in achieving the team purpose.
Fairness in sharing the work to attain the team purpose, and the recognition of diverse contributions to the same, can improve engagement and inclusiveness for all employees. The impacts today may well be felt most by women, people of color and deskless workers who are struggling to overcome concerns around safety and stability.
Recognize Women for Practicing Soft Skills
In New Work, employees want individual contact with team leaders. In a further survey of German HR managers from Frauenhofer IAO regarding leadership, 43.4 percent reported an increase in employees desiring one-on-one talks with their team leaders. McKinsey observed that leading companies have directed team leaders to engage in "microinteractions, coaching … and more recognition to employees." The company pointed to the need to "complement traditional listening mechanisms (such as pulse checks) with true listening."
Research shows that women tend to be more proficient than men in the skills newly required for such talks. Boston Consulting Group announced this gender advantage in the title of its report "Women Are the X-Factor in New Ways of Working." The report references three studies in which women were evaluated as being better at "inspiring and motivating others, building relationships, and collaboration"; better at "deciphering emotions from people's faces" and "reading body language"; and more likely to "acknowledge others, solicit opinions, and actively listen."
Furthermore, a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry shows "a significant female advantage on the Empathy Quotient index." Empathy is there defined as "the ability to recognize and respond to the emotional states of other individuals … important for well-being." In a Korn Ferry report, women scored higher on all emotional intelligence categories than men except one. High scores signify effective leaders who "are able to influence others, manage conflict well, and grow their people."
Companies that show they recognize these advantages in soft skills practiced by women and actively support them in leadership roles should be able to promote and attract more women into management. The women leaders taking on these greater challenges should in turn be able to encourage more engagement from their team members in performing demanding work.
Provide Flexibility to Increase Engagement and Security
Although women are more proficient in team-building skills, they have been less engaged at work. "More women could leave the workplace if they lose flexibility, while diverse employees and parents with young children are more worried than others that a full return [to the office] will have a negative impact on their mental health," according to McKinsey. Deskless workers also feel pressure from their typically inflexible working conditions. In a survey conducted by Quinyx, a global provider of workforce management solutions, 23 percent of deskless workers said they would not trade a shift in order to meet a personal appointment due to "fear of negative repercussions from the employer."
HR can introduce policies that help employees feel more secure in their personal life. Thirty percent of the deskless workers in the Quinyx survey would prefer "more flexibility in the timing of assignments" rather than a salary raise. A survey of 350 companies published in MIT's Sloan Management Review reported that only 18 percent of companies promote work/life balance and 15 percent ensure well-being. McKinsey's Women in the Workplace study recommends policies to "encourage employees … to take full advantage of flexible work options." Leaders need to assure employees that there will be no "stigma attached" to using the options by being "supportive of their flexibility needs." As a result, women will be "less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce."
Such policies can be supplemented by HR practices within the team. Frauenhofer IAO urges team leaders to support individual employees in their "challenges around work-life balance, particularly in the family context." Ultimate Software recommends coaching employees on "work-life blend" and suggests greater efforts "between manager and employee to communicate the latter's priorities to the former, who then can help."
A leading bank in Switzerland positions such supportive practices on a day-to-day basis within the team. "[The employees] do it on their own," a manager at the bank told me. When someone needs to stay home for a sick child, another team member volunteers to cover for the absent member. The next step would be to systematically formalize such agreements for recurring private commitments: for example, leaving early on Tuesdays but staying late on Thursdays. Team members gain security because the team reaches agreement on, or can assume responsibility for, handling the work/life balance for all.
Give Confidence to Take on More Work Challenges
HR policies for the recognition of diverse employees' contributions to the team purpose, empathetic one-on-one talks, and team agreements to support work/life balance give all employees the sense of being valued as an entire person. This alignment to New Work gives them confidence that the work will be meaningful while not preventing them from fulfilling private commitments. Employees will feel engaged to take on more demanding work and indeed be more open to accepting the greater challenges from being promoted.
Benjamin Wall is a Switzerland-based management consultant with more than 30 years of experience, including at KPMG, who has taught at a range of business schools. Wall's fields of specialty include strategy, HR, diversity, organizational development, performance management and knowledge management. He is the author of Amazon: Managing Extraordinary Success in 5-D Value (Morgan James, 2019).