It has become clear that many employees will continue working remotely for the long haul. Companies such as Facebook, Shopify, Square, Twitter and VMware have gone so far as to change their operating models to remote-first or remote-friendly. Google and Indeed just announced their workforces will remain remote til July 2021.
An informal Bloomberg Opinion poll revealed that more than 50% of respondents want to keep working from home rather than return to the office, and a recent Gallup poll confirms the sentiment.
However, work transferred to the remote worker often translates into just the task aspects of work, with workers becoming focused solely on crossing off items on the to-do list, diminishing their connection to company purpose and mission. This creates a challenge for HR professionals who must protect their organization’s sense of purpose that may have taken years to instill.
How can employers regularly remind remote employees that their work matters? How can they keep the organization’s purpose relatable, relevant and sticky? How can they help employees work toward the overarching corporate mission in the midst of more external turmoil and change than many have seen in their lifetimes?
The right cultural mindset, managerial approach and collaborative tools can support specific initiatives to help maintain the cohesion and sense of community that are necessary to support organizational purpose, as well as improve company loyalty and performance, no matter where your employees are.
Getting purpose right
In simple terms, purpose is about an organization’s cultural mindset — how it interacts with its customers, workforce and community. Furthermore, how that purpose is executed in terms of ethics (doing the right things) and competence are more important now than ever before.
Done well, organizational purpose can be a guide for the entire workforce to live the mission of “doing the right thing.”
A brilliant example of this is Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s Tylenol crisis, where seven people died after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Serving as a living guide to the company’s decision-making and actions during that tragedy was its purpose statement, or credo, which begins with: “We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.”
Great organizations have a distinct purpose that employees are passionate about and support. This purpose should be encompassed by the key statements detailing how an organization interacts with its workforce, customers, community and the broader global environment, and the values that support those statements.
Statements and values alone have little relevance unless they are actively used by all levels of the organization. To make them tangible and actionable for all employees, companies need to consistently test, re-validate and promote their own credos.
At a practical level, regular celebrations of workforce achievements – including customer success stories, organizational contributions and sustainable future planning – should be visible to all and clearly aligned to the values they represent.
How crises fuel purpose
Now more than ever, organizations must reestablish the purpose behind their existence, their long-term sustainability and how they engage with their stakeholders and the community at large. In a brief timeframe, we have witnessed an extraordinary confluence of events and shifting public sentiment, including:
- A global pandemic reaching crisis levels in the United States and driving mass concerns about personal safety and economic security.
- Social and civic unrest driven by racial inequity.
- Increasing mistrust of our four key societal institutions (government, businesses, NGOs, media). While the most recent research shows an increased trust in government, it is unlikely that this will be sustained as the longer-term effects of the pandemic are realized.
Overall, we are seeing a greater community response to the devastating effects of the pandemic and the systemic racism that has plagued the United States for hundreds of years. Many have become more empathetic as they understand the inequities and pressures laid bare by both of these crises. That emerging response is evidenced by food and supply donations; volunteering; thanking and celebrating essential workers; connecting with neighbors, friends and family to make sure they’re okay; protesting inequity; creating programs to address racial injustice; and more.
Add to this that workers everywhere have seen more of the human side of leaders, teams and organizations as personal and professional worlds merge. Most of us have experienced the disarming effect of being on a video call and seeing colleagues in the setting of their everyday lives, with some of the work persona removed to reveal more of the human – from pets and children to working from a dining room table or spare bedroom.
The effect of all this is significant. It has encouraged people and organizations to reflect more on the emotional, personal and social aspects of the workplace; how they are contributing to their organization and communities; how they can help those who are less fortunate; and how they can do the right thing across all aspects of their lives.
What purpose-driven organizations are doing right
Purpose-driven organizations are leveraging their skills and those of their employees to give back to causes that are near and dear to them. For example, Timberland has pledged to plant 50 million trees around the world in the next five years.
Gilead Sciences, which develops medicines for life-threatening illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, invested $400 million in cash donations for non-profits in 2019 alone and recently announced a $20 million philanthropic fund to support organizations impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. And, in its 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge, IBM is asking the world’s developers to build solutions for COVID-19 and climate change.
Encouraging purposeful behavior
With help from digital platforms, corporations can support and empower their employees, remote or otherwise, while encouraging collaboration and partnerships throughout the organization and with the community at large. Here are some ideas:
- Showcase purposeful work. Organize joint live sessions, bringing together employees, vendors and customers to discuss your company’s purpose and its impact on them. Use video so you get the audio and visual cues as to the passion behind the words.
- Host peer-to-peer virtual awards to celebrate company values. Host a monthly celebration to recognize employees who have demonstrated company values (i.e., going above and beyond to support a customer or colleague). Add an unsung hero award to recognize workers who may not be recognized regularly. Encourage employees to dress up as they would for a live event and celebrate from their homes or have them leverage fun Zoom backgrounds. Prizes could include access to live workouts, Amazon gift cards, meal delivery services or charitable donations.
- Adopt a social media-style platform, such as Workplace from Facebook, MS Teams or Slack, to create a volunteer group. This platform would be used across the business to ask employees to offer up ideas on how to support local community or charitable organizations. For example, if you are an IT company, can your IT team help a nonprofit update a legacy system? If you are a marketing firm, can you create a new website for a charity? If you want to go less skills-based, you might consider collecting donations for a local food bank or helping in schools with remote tutoring. Encourage employees to vote on their preferred initiatives and then support them to carry out these volunteer efforts. By giving employees a say, you are more likely to increase engagement.
- Leverage a video blog. Create a series of video blogs from different areas of the business in which employees at various levels discuss what purpose means to them, what motivates them and how company goals link with their personal goals. Employees can address how they feel the company supports them, as well as what this means for key stakeholders – including customers, partners and shareholders – and them personally.
For remote collaboration, companies are leveraging a mash-up of solutions, including Google Drive, MS Teams, OneDrive, People First, SharePoint and Slack. Keep in mind that in the longer term organizations likely will want to consider platforms that have analytic functionality to help them understand how the social-emotional aspects of their employees’ workdays balance with task-oriented activities.
In an age of data privacy and cyber threats, organizations will also want to categorize and define the types of classified information held and its specific location to remain compliant to relevant laws, policies and regulations. As you are looking at investing in collaboration platforms, look to those that include some form of analytic capabilities, as well as those that operate with a structured approach to information, storage and data privacy protections.
Challenge creates opportunity
Changes brought about by leading and managing in uncertain times provide organizations with the opportunity to recommit to their purpose. The pandemic and social unrest have allowed leaders to show vulnerability and encouraged organizations to be bolder in solving problems and facing the unknown. Organizations can empower the workforce to collaborate internally and externally to serve the overarching company mission, ultimately supporting the overall social good.