Cheerful business team having morning briefing in office

Cheerful business team having morning briefing in office.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has wiped a lot of people out emotionally. That’s why fostering a positive, empowering work culture will be a critical component of your organization’s success in 2021. If you want to attract and retain the best talent, you will need to create a work culture worth embracing.

Culture starts from the top down. Managers can begin to effect positive changes in their organization by making it a personal commitment. Be the change that you hope to see in others — but only if you can do so with authenticity. Employees will be quick to spot hypocrisy.

Below are five practices that are key to bringing about a work environment that others will envy. I’m convinced that a deep commitment to these ideals has helped my companies thrive despite all Covid-19’s challenges.

Reward Prosocial Behavior

Most companies already reward employees based on their performance. There’s nothing new or innovative about that. I’ve found that many managers miss out, though, by not rewarding positive behaviors that don’t directly affect the bottom line. 

While it’s obviously important to celebrate efforts that advance your company’s financial health, money shouldn’t always be your highest priority. Your top sales rep might be head and shoulders above the closest competitor, reliably ringing up sales where others come away empty-handed. But if that person is an incredible jerk, treating other employees as if they were worthless, that’s not behavior you want to promote.

Instead, look for what a psychologist might call “prosocial behavior”—words and actions that are intended to help others. When you see it, call it out immediately, before the occurrence slips your mind. If you can’t stop to offer an employee specific praise at that moment, jot something down that will jog your memory later. By investing effort into acknowledging this type of behavior, you’ll encourage collaborative and supportive relationships. 

Look Beyond Credentials

The best employee for your company might not be the one who comes to the interview process with the most extensive experience or impressive degrees. Your hiring practices should take non-obvious criteria into account. What are the people skills you should consider when adding someone new to the team?

You may find more long-term success by teaching and guiding a less experienced candidate with stronger soft skills than taking on an MBA with an ego problem. Work with your executive and HR teams to determine how best to weigh both credentials and intangibles in the hiring process.

Of course, we can’t hire people just because they seem nice, much as we might want to. When building my team, I look to strike a balance between soft and hard skills. I’ve learned that going to either extreme invariably leads to problems I easily could have avoided had I paid closer attention during the vetting process.

Promote Autonomy

Micromanagement lowers morale, stifles innovation, and kills creativity. It also creates a high and expensive turnover rate.

Managers can engage in demoralizing micromanagement behavior without even realizing it, setting strict guidelines and requirements where they’re not needed. In a pandemic-battered economy, where workers are already feeling stressed, smart managers will reward good work performance with an increase in personal autonomy.

Remote work arrangements during the peak of the pandemic gave numerous companies an opportunity to embrace autonomy and flexibility with their teams. One happy result of the pandemic-fueled rush to at-home work was the fact that many employees performed better when released from the 9-5 birdcage. I know plenty of people doing higher-quality work because their new remote lifestyle allows them to focus in ways that weren’t possible in an office setting.

The first quarter of 2021 strikes me as the perfect time to step back and let your employees figure out for themselves what suits them best. If that’s working from home, great. If it’s a return to the office, that’s fine, too. Ask your people to propose their own solutions to the work-life balance issue.

Make Your ‘Open Door’ Policy a Reality

I’ve found that it’s one thing to say, “My door is always open” and another to actually mean it. To make a positive work culture a priority, you will need to solicit feedback and, when appropriate, act upon it. This requires you to sharpen your active listening skills.

Even if you’re swamped, resist the impulse to be short with a worker who takes you up on your open door policy. Stay engaged when someone comes to you with an idea for improvement. If you don’t have the mental bandwidth at the specific moment they show up, schedule a time to follow up. You might be surprised to find that they have some really good ideas to implement.

As appropriate, spend time getting to know more about your employees’ lives outside the office. What are they interested in? What do they do for fun? Asking questions like these will help you connect on a more personal level and make office life a more natural extension of who your people are. Workers who are allowed to be their authentic selves at work will be happier and, thus, more productive.

Embrace Technology

While promoting a healthy work culture primarily involves soft skills, technology can really help bring your vision to life. Communication is an essential part of any healthy organization, and you’ll want to invest in technology that makes that easy, especially with remote workers in the mix. Something as simple as a company-wide messaging system will keep employees in touch with you and each other.

Your work culture can (and should) spill over into your customer relationship strategy as well. The happier your team, the better they’ll treat your customers. But that’s not to say tools can’t offer an assist. Effective CRM tools improve communication between businesses and the consumer, helping to develop long-lasting relationships that convert to sales.

A positive work culture will benefit everyone in your company as we navigate into 2021 and beyond. Begin noting the changes you’d like to make, but don’t make the mistake of pushing too far, too fast. If you set a reasonable pace, the changes to your work culture will gain greater buy-in and be more likely to stick.

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Roland Millaner