Workplace Wellbeing

The Post-COVID Culture Shift
Written by Allison Dempsey

No event in recent memory has had more of a profound impact on daily life—both personal and professional—than the COVID pandemic. Altering the fundamental structure of the employer-employee relationship along with numerous long-held beliefs and norms concerning the work world, COVID has forced employees to fundamentally revise not only their career goals but their ideal working environment.

When the pandemic wasn’t creating massive job loss with shutdowns, it was forcing employees to leave their positions due to sickness or fear of becoming sick. While some were able to continue working from a home base or negotiate an alternate plan with their employers, jobs that demanded on-site attendance were falling by the wayside. From those failings, changes had to be made, and while some were short-term, the ones here to stay are a result of employers rethinking the fundamentals of how work is done and how to best serve the unique requirements of a diverse workforce.

Reimagining and reinventing how work is best accomplished means first accepting that the work world will never be the same. As the world establishes a new post-pandemic “normal,” organizations’ capacities to strike a balance between sustaining business and meeting employee demands is crucial.

Considering mental and physical health, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on both, forcing businesses to address the four pillars of physical, emotional, financial, and social welfare issues more fully with a greater emphasis on overall wellness. Recognizing the signs of mental distress, more businesses are providing access to stress management tools for those in need, and several Canadian provinces have made virtual mental health resources, like online cognitive behavioural therapy, available.

When it comes to helping employees better prepare for the financial insecurity that arose—and persists—with COVID, some employers are also emphasizing the availability of financial counsellors as a component of their benefits packages.

If you hadn’t heard about Zoom or Teams meetings before 2020, you’re most certainly familiar with them now. When in-person meetings were made impossible, virtual meetings quickly became the norm. For many companies, these initiatives have remained in place, heralding improved communication techniques across many industries. With so many businesses having suddenly switched to remote working because of the pandemic, the normal expectation for meeting attendance shifted from face-to-face to online video chat platforms, and everyone had to learn new methods of communication and teamwork. Without a doubt, this widespread trial in working remotely has altered attitudes toward working from home.

Despite conflicted opinions on remote work during COVID, many employees and employers have learned that it is possible for people to be successful and content while working from home, all while retaining a positive workplace culture and keeping employees connected and engaged. These work-from-home and hybrid initiatives have continued for many in tandem with the cost reductions for businesses and improvements to work-life balance for employees. This greater degree of flexibility at work has pushed businesses to consider innovative solutions to satisfy physical separation requirements as well as other health and safety standards that may already be in place for some time, including part-time employment opportunities, and flexible or staggered start and finish times.

This flexibility goes hand-in-hand with greater absence management programs such as short- and long-term disability, sick time, and pay continuation plans, all crucial instruments for occupational health and safety in addition to being critical design factors for benefits plans. When someone is ill, a comprehensive absence program with wage replacement enables them to not only avoid going to work while sick, but allows them to stay at home without facing financial consequences. These initiatives help an organization’s overall disease prevention strategy by preventing the transmission of infection among its employees and fostering a safer workplace.

During the height of the pandemic with companies shut down for days, weeks, or even months, the advent of automation rose to the forefront and has remained prevalent since, creating an increased dependence on technology. Whether it’s businesses automating certain portions of their operations through robotics or engaging the use of AI chatbots to efficiently address customers questions so that human operators can concentrate on the most urgent issues, technology in the workplace is at an all-new level and continues to grow across almost all industries.

On the human side, more women took time off from their careers to care for their families during COVID, and according to McKinsey, while women make up 39 percent of the global labour force, they comprised 54 percent of all job losses during the pandemic.

While some employment losses are attributable to the professional role, jobs held by women, such as those in retail and hospitality, have been disproportionately affected by COVID. Research demonstrates that investments in childcare alternatives made by employers or the government can help keep women in the workforce, reducing the gender wage gap and boosting household spending, which boosts the global GDP. As a result of the pandemic, work-from-home situations and more flexible work schedules are now more widely accepted, helping to level the playing field. With additional attention on DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), employers can continue to address discrepancies in compensation, benefits, and careers as employees plan for new ways of working.

While Zoom and Teams facilitated meetings safely, other technological improvements have arisen to reduce the overuse of those sometimes-tedious online meetings. Digital tools are now available for everything from status updates to praise. According to Slack, clearing away weekly meetings from employees’ schedules can free up more time for collaboration and team building.

Recent history has also made the general population more aware of the importance of clean, well-ventilated indoor air. The advent of a dangerous air-borne illness highlighted the often decrepit and frankly dangerous buildings where so many of us have spent hours a day for numerous years. One of the best methods for lowering the transmission of infectious diseases inside buildings is increased ventilation. Additionally, it has advantages for cognitive function and is linked to lower absenteeism among employees, allowing staff to work more effectively with fewer sick days.

To mitigate poor indoor air ventilation, many businesses have had to upgrade buildings, which not only improves air quality but can save money in the long term as well. Simple tasks like opening windows, replacing filters, system cleaning, performance checks, leak checks, evaluation of wear and tear, and general maintenance are all part of the process. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, such retrofits can cost $0.26 to $0.82 per square foot, but with energy savings ranging from five to 14 percent, these sorts of upgrades will typically pay for themselves in less than two years.

Looking at the sum of these changes, it appears the entire business culture has faced a radical shift over the past few years, moving from regarding employees simply as cogs in a machine to truly understanding the importance of wellness initiatives, financial concerns, flexibility, and embracing change. By addressing a variety of wellness initiatives and putting a strong emphasis on advancing organizational culture and values, this strategy encourages the development of personalized plans that become engrained in an organization.

The pandemic certainly accelerated a trend toward remote work that had been progressively gaining ground over the years but had not yet fully taken root. It brought about changes in work habits and the perceived value of work; employer / employee trust has also evolved, as workers have shown that productivity need not be hampered by working outside the office. From a mental health and wellness perspective, another benefit of eliminating commuting is that employees report higher levels of satisfaction and productivity, and lower stress.

If nothing else, the pandemic has shown both employers and employees that it’s possible to negotiate personalized work schedules through flexibility without damaging productivity. We’ve witnessed a change in what is demanded of leaders along with the assumptions made about what works. Going forward, small changes in thinking and behaviours can be translated into a positive and healthy employee experience while ensuring continued business success.



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