How to promote a collaborative and empowering workplace?

Robin Wadsworth, President of Thought Industries

In Q4 2020, a particularly bleak period of the pandemic before vaccines became widely available, I decided our leadership team needed to do something different to help us through the uncertain times ahead.

My decision was not made in a panic. Our company was not in crisis. From the day we sent everyone home in mid-March 2020 — just weeks after I took office — over the following months, we actually consistently outperformed nearly all of our major goals. My fear, however, was that some of that outperformance was due to factors that were neither healthy nor sustainable. They usually include misplaced concerns about job security and, even more so, the relentless encroachment on more and more hours of everyone’s days. Virtual working, as many leaders painfully discovered, erodes the buffer provided by physical separation of our workplaces and the decompression that a commute can sometimes provide.

What was the intervention I suggested? I had another video call.

But it wasn’t just any video call. I asked everyone to stand in front of it. I’ve asked them to keep their cameras on. I made it a mandatory phone call, held every afternoon. I demanded that all my reports be on the phone, and a few members of our C-suite joined in too. All in all it was a group of over a dozen.

However, doing business was not on the agenda.

Instead, I turned this call into a bit of a grown-up show-and-tell session for the very strange times we were going through collectively. There were actually three things on the agenda: sharing what you do to stay physically fit and healthy; share what you do to take care of your mental health; and share what piques your curiosity, piques your interest, or otherwise sparks real enthusiasm for you in a dark time.

Understandably and inevitably, the first sessions of this daily meeting felt a little forced. But over time, the team started to see and, I expect, feel the benefits. People started calling from treadmills, exercise bikes or just from a walk in their neighborhood. Some of our more reserved teammates reported being quick with a pithy observation or wry comment. Others possessed unexpected enthusiasms, such as exotic cars in a memorable case.

In fact, the group’s dedication to this regularly scheduled break from the workday grew considerably. And while no virtual meeting could replace what we lived without as we worked from home for months—the casual connections in the hallway, impromptu cups of coffee and conversations, and the celebratory lunches or happy hours—we’ve definitely grown more comfortable with each other. . We were comfortable enough to participate in a virtual silent dance party. We were comfortable enough that I attended a meeting, in front of the camera, at a salon where I had my hair colored. (The screen grabs will haunt me for the rest of my days.)

What was the use of this folly? Why did the company’s recently-appointed president act more like a cruise executive? In short, empathy.

I wanted our leadership team to be honest, authentic and open about how difficult the environment had become. More importantly, I wanted to acknowledge these difficulties—and share coping skills—to open eyes, mind, and heart to what our teams and reports were certainly going through. In short, I wanted our leadership team to choose explicitly not to make lingering fears of job security and the uncontrolled advance of virtual work in everyday life a new normal.

Has this little experiment in social psychology been worth it? I believe so. In internal employee surveys, morale has risen exponentially. Productivity didn’t suffer from the daily interruptions and we all learned that there are many ways to get things done. We also managed to jointly create new memories, stories, connecting experiences and routines that were not just about work.

And at a time when the major layoffs are making employee wellbeing a competitive advantage, I believe these meetings have instilled a deep appreciation for our leadership team for the challenges our employees have faced during the pandemic.

Finally, I discovered that fostering a culture of collaboration and empowerment didn’t have to stop just because my team could no longer see each other in the office. Need to reframe the culture in your own company?

1. Create a scene. Obviously I don’t mean you have to have a shouting match in the boardroom. But if you want to change culture, overt and visible behavioral change is needed. We could have told our employees to watch their work-life balance. Instead, the leadership showed them that we meant it seriously and modeled the behavior we wanted to see.

2. Stay curious about your colleagues. Without the easy ability in a shared workspace to check in on each other’s weekends, last week’s game, or how the kids are doing, make sure you take the time to connect person-to-person with people from who your organization depends on for its growth and success. There is no substitute for that.

3. Let go of old habits. Corporate culture is to some extent an accumulation of habits. Reshaping culture means changing habits, giving up harmful ones and forming beneficial ones.

You can’t improve your culture in a week, a month or even a quarter. It takes sustained and conscientious effort, but the rewards are worth it. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?