When asked about their top business priorities, many CEOs will say ‘We put our people first.’ But, as Scott Adams wittily pointed out in his cartoon strip, Dilbert, this is often not the case. In the cartoon, Dilbert’s boss reveals that his most valuable asset is actually not people, but money 1. There’s nothing new under the sun here, considering that Scott Adams was addressing this issue way back in 1993. But today, as then, the most successful companies are those where there is real synergy between management and employees.
Despite improvements in some areas, there’s still a long way to go before companies realize the benefits that can accrue from moving the full spectrum of employees’ physical, psychological and social health higher up their corporate agendas.
When we talk about employees’ wellbeing, we need to consider a range of factors that affect overall health and happiness. These include physical health, but also less visible aspects, such as feelings, interactions with bosses, and stress levels. The challenge is to find smart ways to build organizations around employees’ wellbeing.
And we should be aware of the risks of not putting people first: cascading low morale among employees, lack of motivation and low productivity. That’s why (pre-COVID) Google offered great perks to attract and keep their best employees. For example, unlimited amounts of excellent food, as well as on-site medical services and health care coverage to keep their employees happy and healthy. Employees were – theoretically – free to pursue their own interests one day a week and they could even bring their dog to work!
According to PROWELL© there are seven dimensions of wellbeing: Physical Fitness, Physical Comfort, Physical Nourishment, Cognitive Wellbeing, Social Wellbeing, Emotional Wellbeing and Environmental Wellbeing 2.
All these dimensions are affected by the current pandemic. Clearly employees’ health is threatened by COVID-19 as, alongside the risk of contracting the disease, many people who are now stuck at home day in and day out find it difficult to maintain healthy life habits. With the shift to remote work, employees often find themselves working in less-than-ideal conditions, which may well affect their productivity. And, due to greater stress, fear and uncertainty, mental health has also been affected. Finally, due to social distancing, and in some cases quarantine, the pandemic has seriously undermined employees’ social wellbeing.
Nearly 80% of 189 drivers in a survey by The Rideshare Guy said that Uber and Lyft are not doing enough in response to the pandemic. As a result, drivers exposed to the virus simply cannot afford not to work. And, in California, the state aims to recognize rideshare workers as employees under a law that passed in January, but Uber and Lyft continue to contest it.
Smarp, a leading employee communications and advocacy platform, has devised a nine-point program for enhancing wellbeing in companies 3. Smarp recommends first getting buy-in from top executives and all managers. A company-wide wellbeing survey then provides the basis for designing a program that must have clear goals. The program should be launched by making an announcement company wide, clearly communicating its benefits. Finally, they recommend encouraging employees to keep contributing ideas and emphasize that you must measure the impact of the program
Such an approach relies to a large extent on what we might call Western corporate values (those found in companies based in the US and Northern Europe). Here, organizations are “flatter” (there are few hierarchical layers, and employees are encouraged to get involved in decision-making). But there are, of course, other perspectives that managers working in international companies need to be aware of. In an increasingly globalized world, cultural competence is fast becoming a key success factor for individuals and organizations whose activities take them across physical and cultural borders.
Creating Cultural Competence
Social psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede (1928-2020) carried out some of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. When he published his book, Culture's Consequences, Hofstede effectively put comparative intercultural research on the map 4. IBM had asked him to survey its employees around the world, the idea being to show that employees’ values and behavior were driven by a common corporate culture. What Hofstede found was the exact opposite.
Wherever he went, he found that people’s values and behavior were completely different. For example, in the Netherlands, employees are typically on first-name terms with their managers, while in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America, that would be unthinkable. Managers in these parts of the world are treated with extreme deference and employees tend to be reluctant to admit 'weakness' or put forward ideas, as they fear that this might damage their career prospects.
The Diversity of Business Cultures
The way employees are treated also differs radically in business cultures around the world. The dominant Anglo-Saxon model has traditionally tended to put shareholders first, with employees’ interests much further down the list of concerns. But there are other approaches, such as the Rhineland and Polder models, which, to some extent, involve employees in the way companies are run 5 6.
Whereas in the US employees have little say in corporate decision-making, in Europe those working in companies with over 50 employees are represented in Works Councils. These have substantial powers, including a right of veto on some issues. Although they are not formally union bodies, union members often play an important role within them. Such structures enhance employee buy-in and increase the chances of success for wellbeing programs.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
As a manager, wherever you may be in the world, there are potentially huge benefits to be gained from truly putting people first. If you can do this effectively and systematically, you will find that your employees are motivated to reach their full potential. They will be more productive and creative, build better relationships, cope better with stress and make more meaningful contributions to your company’s goals. This will take you a long way down the road toward real employee-management synergy.
“When you put your people first, profits will follow. And, when you have happy employees, you will have happy customers as well.” 7
Mike Gould is a communication consultant based in the Netherlands. He studied Social Anthropology at Sussex University. His main aim is to help people enhance the effectiveness of their communication, especially across cultures. He also teaches academic writing to PhD students from around the world and is the co-author of The Unofficial Guide for Authors – From Research Design to Publication.
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