The real meaning of employee-centricity

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Laptop, office

The real meaning of employee-centricity

By Beth Bogacz and Lynnette Hunter

If there is one thing we’ve learned from the COVID pandemic, it’s that there’s probably too much verbiage floating around regarding what we’ve learned from the COVID pandemic. 

But the tides really are shifting. Not only in the way we work but the way we think about work, and the way we value ourselves. 

We’ve been surveying our team at AT for many years, asking them to tell us what matters most to them about their employment, why they chose to work here, why they choose to continue to do so. The No. 1 answer has always been compensation, compensation, compensation. Until recently. Call it work-life balance, or employee well-being, or flexibility, or emotional health, or working in your pajamas, or anything else – but the talent in our industry cares about a great deal more now than a pay check. 

It began to be noticeable in the first few months of the pandemic. The Great Resignation wasn’t just a cliché or a buzzword. It was a real, tangible phenomenon, and we suddenly found ourselves recruiting from a growing pool of people, from both in healthcare and out, who were seeking something different. They wanted, and more importantly expected, competitive salaries, yes, but also to be valued not just as potential creators of work product but as actual individual humans, with human wants and needs and the right to have those wants and needs acknowledged and met without apology. 

AT has always been what might be called employee-centric. But in an environment where talented, well-compensated, experienced people were quitting their jobs because the boss wanted them to show up to the office in-person once or twice a week – well, something like that requires a radical change in thinking about the entire way we work. So we’ve spent our time these last months trying to sweep away the irrelevancies of the past models of work and get to a place where only what matters remains. 

So, what matters?

The first thing that matters is trust. And it’s a little jarring how significant a change in thinking that one word can represent. Do we trust our talent to manage their own workloads and deliver on their responsibilities and fulfill their roles in the organization? If we do, if we really do, it opens up all sorts of extraordinary possibilities. Like flexible time off, or remote work, or the ability to go off and handle a family matter for an hour or a day, or to take some time just to relax and clear the head without worrying about some artificial limitation on “personal time.” 

We want our people to be at their best, and if they are worried about taking a longer vacation because they might not have that extra day to look after a sick child, that doesn’t benefit anyone. We want them to get their work done in the morning, maybe even in their pajamas, and go to the softball game in the afternoon, and return to their work the next day feeling like a complete parent and human for having done so. 

Of course trust flows both ways. But what we found during the pandemic was that we could trust employees to be productive even when coming into the office wasn’t an option. And so we have to continue to trust them. Because we trust them, our people know that they have to take ownership of their own responsibilities, to communicate with each other and make sure the gaps are covered, to know what can be virtual and what can’t. They have agency in their own and their team’s work planning, which not only gives them a sense of ownership in the undertaking but as an added bonus removes a great deal of the administrative minutia of management too.

The second thing that matters is talent. And for the sake of this discussion, let’s broaden the usual definition of talent a bit. Talent doesn’t just mean the ability to write clever sentences or draw pretty pictures. It means the drive to create beautiful, memorable, and valuable things for the benefit of others. You know it when you see it. We are looking for the people that have it, and wherever they might be located doesn’t matter. That is the other great shift that’s grown out of the COVID pandemic. Three years ago we were for the most part limited to talent that either lived in the Chicago area or was willing to relocate. Today our talent can live anywhere on Planet Earth with a decent internet connection, and even that limitation might fall by the wayside soon. 

We’ve hired dozens of people now who are 100 percent remote, who live in different states, who have no interest in relocating, because, why not? Talent is talent, drive is drive, and the more we are able to cast aside any impediments to its engagement, geographical or otherwise, the more it will be able to flourish. 

Because that’s our job, after all. To look people in the eye and see if they have something to contribute; and, if they do, to free them from whatever is restraining them from doing so. 

The third thing that matters is communication. It’s very easy, especially as organizations grow, for leaders to lose touch with the rank and file – or for the rank and file to lose touch with leaders. Leaders must always ask themselves, “Are you communicating the state of the organization to your people?” “Do they know what’s going on with client business, with recruiting, with DE&I, with social responsibility?” “Do they know what the leadership is anticipating coming down the pike, what the long-term strategy is?” And do you know what they are thinking? 

At AT we are consistently surveying our people – and, more importantly, taking action based on the results of the surveys. Are all our meetings actually necessary and productive? Could we have fewer meetings? We addressed these concerns by implementing no meetings on Tuesdays, or on Fridays after 2PM, and we’ve standardized meeting invitations and agendas and recaps so folks don’t have to stress over missing something critical. It seems like a simple thing, putting guide rails around meetings – but it was a stress point for our people and so we listened and did something to fix it. 

Trust, talent, communication. That’s all. Whatever HR strategies you may be considering, ask yourself: Will it add to or subtract from any or all of those three? Will it build trust, will it free talent from artificial restraint, will it strengthen communication? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID pandemic, it’s that the important things matter, and they matter in both our work lives and our lives outside of work. 

Beth Bogacz, AbelsonTaylor

Beth Bogacz is senior VP, human resources, AbelsonTaylor. 

Lynette Hunter, AbelsonTaylor

Lynnette Hunter is executive VP, client services, AbelsonTaylor.