Interview: Humanizing the employee experience

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ON a cold November morning, Tara Davis and I met virtually to talk about psychologically healthy workplaces for employees, writes Orla Clancy. The director of staff well-being and engagement at the American Psychological Association (APA) and her team have been fully working from home since March. She talked about the psychological challenges created by our need for both social distancing and social connection during these times.

Every organization, regardless of its size, has had to acclimatize to a new way of working. The replacement of in-person interactions with virtual communication has had an impact on how organizations engage with teams and how colleagues connect with each other. 

The shift in workplace dynamics has had an undeniable effect on organizational connectedness and individual relationships. “One of the biggest factors that determines how healthy we are, even how long we live, is our relationships. But how do we maintain our social connectedness for our health when being physically distant is also important for our health? Sure, there are lots of different ways we can still connect with others virtually, but sometimes they feel like cheap imitations to seeing someone in real life. This conflict of needing to both avoid and pursue relationships and social connection is one of the biggest challenges of this time,” said Davis.

In transitioning APA’s 530 employees from the office to a remote work environment, Davis had to think very differently about employee engagement, employee well-being, and internal communications. “Rather than simply take what we did in the office and apply it to a virtual setting, we took a step back from what we used to do and instead have constantly been surveying our employees to find out what they need right now.”

Davis went on to speak about the logistics of moving operations to a fully remote workplace and what this meant for the team. “We found that many employees did not have a home office set up, and quite a high number of them also felt distressed about personal items they had left at the office in our headquarters building that was shut down.

“Our facilities team worked out a plan to deliver the home office to each employee and then retrieved their computer equipment, and ordered sit-to-stand desks, chairs, and filing cabinets on APA’s dime. They worked out a schedule of socially-distant pickups for personal items or sent items to employees who did not have transportation. What an undertaking for more than 500 people! But that is what our employees needed to telework productively and efficiently, so we gave it to them,” she continued.

It’s not only employees who found themselves in uncharted territory this year, management had to very quickly change how their businesses operate, without any lead-in time. As well as moving their teams offsite, they had to introduce new initiatives to keep the team united. Davis spoke about how it’s not possible to always get it right. “My work has changed in that I am much more accepting of failure,” she said. “One of the biggest pieces to a psychologically healthy workplace is the organization’s context – what works for one organization may not work for another. In the same way, programs that resonated with our staff a year ago, or even a month ago, may not resonate now. I have grown in my acceptance of failure, which is good for innovation.”

Asked about the way she now reaches out to, communicates and engages with staff, Davis said: “When we began full telework in March, our office established new goals – to inform employees, to share tools enabling productive telework, to connect employees with each other and APA, and to provide resources for managing work and life. Since our workplace had changed so much, we could not just continue with the status quo.” 

Internal communications mechanisms employed by Davis and her team include a daily e-blast to centralize communications, the intranet containing resources to help the team cope with the pandemic’s stress and a platform for them to share personal and professional accomplishments, an APA Pen Pals program, and a Coffee Connections program.

“These programs combat the loneliness and isolation many employees face due to full teleworking and the physical distance required by the pandemic,” explained Davis. “While we cannot fix the pandemic, we can provide as many tools and resources as possible to help our employees cope with it and build resilience. It’s important during this time to ask your employees what they need and do your best to meet those needs in this new environment.”

Teleworking has led to a loss of conversations that might occur in informal settings. To replicate this experience for the team virtually, APA introduced mechanisms, such as a Virtual Breakroom in Microsoft Teams and health and wellness challenges during virtual work. “We are encouraging our employees to take healthy breaks, experience nature, practice mindfulness, and formalize self-care techniques into their lives,” said Davis. 

We live in a time of uncertainty and so it is important to create certainty, where possible, for teams. “As psychologists, our CEO and other leaders know that uncertainty is a very debilitating emotion. It is often worse than bad news,” shared Davis. “While we cannot remove the uncertainty the pandemic brings, we have been trying to remove uncertainty in our organization as much as possible. For example, throughout the entire pandemic we have been making decisions about telework and communicating them as far in advance as possible for the employees. We now know that we will not be going back into our office (which is located right by the US Capitol building) before June 2021.”

APA has a model for a psychologically healthy workplace. It includes five domains: employee involvement, employee recognition, health and safety, employee growth and development, and work-life balance. They all feed into organizational functioning and employee well-being.

“Programs, policies, and communications that improve your employee well-being aren’t just good for the employee – they improve organizational functioning and financial success. The foundation for all five domains is communication. Both top-down and bottom-up communication are essential for making your employees active participants in the organization,” said Davis.

She added that internal communication can also be used strategically to energize employees and connect their work to the organization’s mission, increase satisfaction and fulfillment in the workplace, and grow staff commitment to the organization. She said internal communications is vital especially in a time when employees are juggling so many roles and a state of “flow” is difficult to achieve.

Davis explained that APA CEO Dr Arthur C Evans Jr is committed to communicating with employees on a frequent basis. He hosts coffee breaks, listening sessions, town halls or all-hands meetings, and shares a weekly blog. He also hosted a cooking show and invited employees into his home via Zoom, taught employees how to make his famous spaghetti, and shared ‘food for thought’ perspectives of how the organization’s transformation can be compared to cooking.

“I don’t think there’s one mode of internal communications that is more successful than others, because employees are all different and internalize messages differently – you need to communicate the same message through different mediums and multiple times to reach your audience,” she said.

“We are in an uncertain time where employee needs change day-to-day, even hour-to-hour. Some types of communications are best situated on an intranet, where employees can interact with each other and build community, whereas other communications require a formal webinar with the CEO. The most successful communications are consistent (one voice for the organization), frequent, shared via multiple mediums, repeated as necessary, and as transparent as possible,” she continued. 

What has Davis found to be the biggest challenge in terms of maintaining well-being among her team? “Managing work and life. Work-life balance has always been a myth —to call it a balance implies that each day you are spending equal amounts of time on both, which never actually happens, it’s never actually a balance. Some days your family, your home, your friends, your pets may get more of your time, energy, and talent, and other days, work may dominate your schedule. A healthy work-life integration is central to our well-being, but it feels very daunting right now. It’s more about integrating the two to figure out what works best for you and where your resources need to be spent daily, as each new day presents new challenges during this time.” Davis knows the work-life juggle all too well as she holds her one-year-old child in one hand and her laptop in the other.

One of the many concerns organizations face this year is maintaining staff well-being and engagement. What advice does Davis have for businesses? “Treat your staff as humans first, employees later. If they know that you only care about how much they produce, they will not produce well or much. Right now, we are all experiencing higher levels of stress than we have before, and are juggling so many more roles at once. Assume people are doing the best they can – show grace. Check in with employees often to see how they are doing. Ask your employees what they need right now. Offer a mental health benefit or Employee Assistance Provider option to your employees. Show them that their health is the most important thing to you by making organizational decisions that back up that statement. Err on the side of over-communicating — people need that in this time of uncertainty. This can be an opportunity to create a psychologically-healthy workplace that is appealing to current and potential employees,” she said. 

Long after our conversation, I reflect on how, with the right support, we are all more resilient than we realize in the face of adversity. In a very short time, organizations confronted the challenges faced by the pandemic, resulting in more versatile workplaces and a focus on greater well-being.