As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s increasingly important that organizations focus on how to improve workforce well-being, whether remote or not. This interview with Michelle Arentz, owner of Lazarus Learning LLC, is part 1 of a series that explores key issues and ideas that many are facing as they try to cope with a new normal in business.
Why focus on how to improve workforce well-being and health?
MICHELLE: There are so many reasons, all of which have a positive impact on the bottom line. For starters, a sick employee is not a productive one, plain and simple. We all know a story of someone who showed up to work sick, and how well that went over. Maybe we’ve done it ourselves; I know I’ve been guilty of it. Not much gets accomplished, and what does, tends to be of lower quality, speed, accuracy etc. Nevermind that person likely is infecting others around them, which has a domino effect on productivity. Now, more than ever, we have to be very careful about anyone showing any signs or symptoms of illness, and keeping them clear of everyone else.
Better to focus on the preventative measures we can (and should) take to reduce the chances that someone gets sick in the first place. Think of this as the “ounce of prevention for a pound of cure” approach. Putting a little effort and investment in up front can go a lot further in saving on lost time and profitability when an employee can’t work, or can’t work effectively, and everyone else has to pick up the slack. The ideal is to reduce or eliminate the losses associated with being unwell. With the pandemic, we know that wellness issues of all sorts are a major concern, including skyrocketing numbers of mental health sufferers.
What would be some suggestions for how to take a preventative approach?
MICHELLE: It doesn’t have to be a big, expensive event. Companies can improve workforce well-being by proactively talking about well-being; what it is, and how to improve it. Help everyone understand that it encompasses more than physical health – it’s about emotional and mental health too. There are plenty of resources out there that can provide guidance on small, but effective, ways to boost one’s wellness. The sky’s the limit, but a good start could be building awareness that well-being is a priority, that we all benefit from having a high level of it, and that the organization is committed to doing what it can to support efforts that improve it.
If an employer wants to go further, a wellness program can be a great approach. This helps embed the concept into the culture and operations of the business (and let’s be honest, we measure what matters, so if well-being is truly a priority, everyone in the company should see that with a program that allows for data tracking, feedback and more). It can be homegrown, or found “off the shelf” from any number of companies, including many health care providers and insurance companies. There are any number of interesting and informative sites on this subject; one that has some intriguing data on trends and programs can be found at www.myshortlister.com.
The most important thing is to get it on the radar and do something to get started. You can’t expect to improve workforce well-being if you never bring it up. Never let the size of the organization be a limiting factor! Anyone can get on board with this, and make great things happen.
How can remote working technology play a role in this?
MICHELLE: There are a variety of ways we ought to be leveraging technology to help support workers and in doing so, improve their well-being. I’ve been having great success with a client who quickly pivoted to remote working, and then offered a series of virtual sessions on how to better cope to the new reality of working from home. Doing this meant building or adapting learning content that focused on how to make the most out of remote working – setting up a space, getting organized, more effective virtual communication, meeting skills without face-to-face encounters etc. – and then providing learning opportunities in a virtual space (webinars for the most part).
Not only did this provide valuable information and knowledge the employees could use, it also showed that the company was truly invested in them, and willing to prove it with such opportunities. Furthermore, there’s plenty of thinking out there that says we may never return to the way things used to be, and that this can be beneficial in many ways. I can’t say for sure in this client’s case, but I suspect they will find as time goes on, this will become an increasingly viable way to operate, at least for some of their staff, and that it will be a welcomed paradigm shift.
What other options for remote working technology do you recommend?
MICHELLE: I’m also a big fan of online, on-demand learning, or e-learning if you prefer. One advantage of this format is that your employees don’t have to show up at a given time in a give space (virtual as it may be), but rather can learn what you want and need them to at their own pace, and on their schedule. With all that’s going on these days, many workers may well appreciate the ability to access learning earlier in the morning, or later in the day, or by breaking it up into smaller chunks in between other activities they have to take care of.
Couple that with the freedom to repeat the content (most e-learning is viewable over and over again), slow it down, pause to digest certain information (or even apply what’s being learned as you go), and you get a more robust and enriched experience. I’ve gotten feedback on live virtual sessions that some participants had a harder time keeping up (especially when English is not their first language), or that they had to drop off early in order to get to the next call, which meant they didn’t get the fullest experience possible.
Where else do you see remote working technology as a driver to improve workforce well-being?
MICHELLE: On a broader scale, I see alignment with how we’re moving more business operations to being touchless, and applying that to a host of other interactions. A few examples that come to mind are new hire onboarding, customer training on products or processes, internal SME (subject matter expert) content capture and collaboration… there are so many ways we can use remote working technology to help us get through the pandemic more effectively, and beyond.
Just to take onboarding as an example, I’ve advocated for quite some time that more can – and should – be done before a new employee even sets foot on the property for their first day on the job. Even with COVID-19, many companies still have workers who have to physically be present, but we can reduce some contact risks (and boost morale for all involved) by shifting key aspects of the process into a virtual space. Imagine being able to deploy welcome messaging, key information about what to expect and how to be ready for the first few days and weeks of this new job, and more, without having to sit down with this person? This is not to say we should stop having a” human touch”, but there is much that can be accomplished without a scheduled, in-person orientation (assuming that’s even being done at all). This can ease the concerns about how much physical contact employees must have, reducing viral spread, freeing up mental and emotional space otherwise bogged down in those fears and calculations… it also allows us to set everyone up for greater success as they ease into the role and organization, and removes some of the burden on hiring managers, their teams, HR and more.
What else can be done to better or further support workers who are still at home, likely for longer than originally anticipated, and trying to balance personal and professional life?
MICHELLE: I think we first have to realize that this situation is probably going to linger into the future than we’d thought. We need to assure remote workers that we will adapt to this “new normal” as we go, and stay flexible as needed as the situation evolves. Beyond that, we need to make every effort to provide ongoing support and education that, at least in part, ties back to improving workforce well-being. Offering learning opportunities that may, on the surface, seem unrelated to business, can yield benefits down the road. Why not teach employees how to be better organized at home, and how to creatively make a space where work can be done? Teach them how to make healthier food choices, or how to incorporate more movement into their day, to be healthier overall, and less susceptible to getting (or staying) sick?
On a more business-centric side, focusing on managerial leadership development will be more important than ever. Many managers and supervisors were uncomfortable with the idea of remote working before the pandemic, believing that if they couldn’t see their staff, how would they know they’re getting the job done? Helping managers be better at leading people can go a long way to making everyone feel better, get more engaged in their work, reduce conflicts and stressors, and much more. Now is the perfect time for organizations to assess whether or not their managerial leadership development program is providing optimal guidance and content, and is aligned with the business as it shifts and adjusts strategy and operations. For those companies who lack such a program, this is the time to start building one.
It’s an old axiom, but I think it rings true: most people don’t quit their job or their company, they quit their manager. Even in the midst of a major economic crisis, many workers will actively look for another opportunity if they feel where they’re at is not considerate of their well-being or needs, or if their leadership is lacking – and that will naturally have a negative impact on their overall sense of well-being, with all the ripple effects that come with it. I would predict that as soon as things open up a bit more in the labor market, there will be more movement of talent. That’s another hit I don’t think most businesses would like to have, and it can be mitigated by making sure those who are responsible for leading others are being set up for success in doing so. That’s a whole other topic of discussion right there!
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About Michelle Arentz
With degrees in Communication Studies and Education, learning has been an integral part of Michelle’s life. Having woven a career tapestry over the past 20+ years that has moved between corporate learning and development and public education, for her, it’s a calling, not just a career. With many years’ experience in content, course, and program design and delivery, making learning engaging and meaningful is her mission. Sharing her love of facilitating and teaching, she has reached a wide range of audiences, from high school students to manufacturing plant workers to corporate leaders, both domestically and abroad. Now operating as an independent consultant and instructional designer in her business, Michelle blends her skills and passion for skill and knowledge advancement in the service of clients who wish to improve the life-long learning journey of themselves and their employees.
About Lazarus Learning
Lazarus Learning LLC was inspired by Michelle’s desire to ‘breathe new life’ into learning content, resurrecting existing materials clients may have, or creating it from scratch. Years of experience in learning and development proved that while many have great knowledge and abilities, it’s not always evident in the materials they have. Everyone benefits when given access to enriched and engaging learning materials and experiences, and Michelle is determined to help rid the world of “death by PowerPoint” as she applies her talents to learning and development projects.