Rethinking the Post-Pandemic Workplace: A Framework for an Inclusive Culture

We got it all wrong.

Work-life balance does not exist.

Work-life integration does.

We need to stop thinking about work and life as two separate entities. The pandemic transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, forcing us to rethink how work and home must exist under one roof. And now, more than two years into this new reality, we are being forced to reckon with life in this new normal, determining which habits established during lockdown will persist long after the masks come off.

As employees continue to navigate work amid everchanging pandemic realities, the goal is not to find balance, but integration. Similarly, as organizations continue to think about the future of work, the goal should be to empower and equip its employees in finding this integration.

But, how?

It all comes down to culture. Employees are people first. Driving work-life integration requires organizations to understand and embrace the individual, responding and anticipating their needs across all aspects of the business.

Although they may be different, each employee has needs and companies must work to better serve these needs. Building off of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of the most well-known theories on motivation, we created the Hierarchy of Employee Needs. This hierarchy provides an actionable framework to drive inclusive cultures that power work-life integration.

To create an inclusive culture that prioritizes employee wellbeing and drives productivity, organizations start at the base of the pyramid, then move up tier by tier, with each tier satisfying a more advanced set of needs. The ultimate goal of this framework is to reach a point of self-advocacy, where employees are empowered to articulate their unique needs without fear of backlash. Ultimately, this sense of empowerment can influence feelings of loyalty leading to increased engagement and retention. 

  1. Establishing a company-wide culture of care

The base-level need of employees is empathy. Leaders need to tap into their empathy and connect directly with employees in their organization. People are struggling, and they are the ones that make a business successful. Organizations can implement stipends, expanded PTO, and other efforts, yet it is only when those programs and policies are held up by a “culture of care” that employees can optimally benefit from these offerings.

Organizational Empathy

Building organizational empathy requires a recognition that employees are people first, and an acknowledgement from leadership that with ongoing COVID-19 implications for the way we will work, business cannot continue as it has in the past.

Operating with empathy is the foundation for cultivating a caring culture.

Such empathy can be expressed differently across organizations and even across teams, but the bottom line is leaders recognize employees have lives outside of work and these lives have gotten exponentially more difficult amid the pandemic.

To begin cultivating this sense of empathy, business leaders need to be on the ground-level engaging with employees. It can mean internally administering pulse checks or bringing in third party consultants to understand what caregivers are experiencing and what specific forms of support they need. 

Werklabs uncovers prescriptive insights for organizations on their employee experience through engaging in 1:1 interviews with employees. In one of its interviews, a mom employee stated

"Here, at my current company, no one talks about it, about being a parent, or being a mom… They send out links to online child care resources. BUT I REALLY WANT TO TALK TO A HUMAN ABOUT THIS...that’s the key piece they are missing… It's engaging and having these conversations."

With this sentiment frequently expressed by working mothers, intentional efforts are clearly needed to show employees that the organization cares for their wellbeing. What are first-step efforts organizations can take? A good starting point is to rethink performance evaluations and metrics for the last year of work. Truly acknowledge that the last year of work was unpredictable, unbearable, and different than all other years by adapting performance metrics to align with this messaging.

Managerial Understanding

Managers are the conduits of the culture. Organizational empathy established at the top must be delivered at the manager level, or risk being lost altogether. It’s critical that managers understand and embrace the significance of the role they play in providing support. 

A mom employee interviewed by Werklabs echoed the value of managers when talking about the support she receives at work:

"The CEO said something [about giving grace to parent employees] and some team members embraced it, but those I work with, my manager, it didn’t trickle all the way down to them the way that it should have."

To show support, managers need to be driving conversations with employees about their needs, but not haphazardly and not without empathy. Things to consider:

  • Recognize that employees working from home do not necessarily have greater work capacity, especially if they are also serving as their child’s teacher and caregiver
  • Be thoughtful about timing of the conversations
  • Show you are caring as a manager, get vulnerable and share aspects of what is going on in your life
  • Enter into a co-creation of schedules and workload with your employees, recognizing that one-size does not fit all
  • Emphasize the need for collaboration and communication between employees 
  • Clarify how performance and productivity will be assessed

2. Empowering employees through work structures

Actions speak louder than words. If tangible action is not taken to support employee needs, efforts taken to establish a culture of care may be viewed as simply lip service. However, once this shared understanding of a caring culture exists, the impact of establishing supportive work structures is significant.

Flexible Work

Implementing flexible work structures is more than simply supporting remote work, it is supporting non-linear work days. Flexible work structures allow employees to ask “what does my day need to look like to accomplish what I want to accomplish?” Employees have control over their days and have the option to work alternate hours.

Flexible work structures are predicated on the idea that we all have different types of work, and people will find the time and opportunity throughout their day to efficiently do this work in a way that supports their personal needs.

What parents have been asked to do during this past year of work has been nothing short of impossible. They need to be empowered by organizations to do what they need to do in order to deliver on both the home and work front. This may be replying to emails at 9pm after the kids are asleep or waking up at 5am for focused work time. If we only think of work being able to happen between 9-5 then, yes, parents may be working ‘longer’  hours. 

However, it’s important that organizations be intentional to not put rigidity behind flexibility. Flexible work needs to be flexible.

Peer Support

Individuals are feeling alone and isolated on top of the physical and mental exhaustion most caregivers are experiencing. Organizations need to ask themselves: How can circumstances be created that facilitate peer-to-peer support?

More broadly, it comes down to team dynamics. It’s employees in leadership positions emphasizing the continued uniqueness and difficulty of the current situation facing most all employees and especially parents. It’s framing our current work situation as an opportunity—an opportunity for coworkers to lift one another up where they can and when they are able to do so. It’s emphasizing that just because you may not see a colleague’s green dot active on Slack, indicating they’re online, doesn’t mean they are not working and getting their job done. With COVID-19 shifting work to a predominantly online environment and moms having assumed even greater childcare responsibilities, now more than ever moms are concerned about being perceived as having a lack of commitment to their job. It remains crucial that moms feel as though their work is being taken seriously by their colleagues, even when they cannot offer as much face time as their colleagues.  

More specifically, if the company doesn’t have a parent or caregiver ERG (Employee Resource Group), create one. Mentorship and buddy programs are also great opportunities. Normalize sharing personal anecdotes in team meetings, across company chat messages and emails. Check that internal meetings are being recorded or minutes being taken, in case a caregiver has to step away.

3. Supporting unique, employee-specific needs

In the end, every employee and family has different needs. The ultimate role companies play is supporting and encouraging individuals to advocate for their unique circumstance. 

How? In theory, if companies are following this framework it’s already been done. Through establishing a culture of care and empowering employees with work structures, individuals will feel comfortable being self-advocates. The key then becomes how these conversations are approached. 

Employees should be thoughtful about how they are showing up for the conversation. They need to pick a time where they can show up prepared to talk about:

  1. What they are delivering to the organization.
  2. What they will continue to deliver.
  3. What they need from their manager or team in order to do so.

Reaching this point of the pyramid yields one other positive consequence: employees begin to reassess the role they play in supporting their needs. With a supportive workplace, employees are more inclined to revisit how workload is being shared at home. It can lead to a “I am being supported at work, am I being supported at home?” thought process.

The bottom line: A new narrative needs to be created. One where leaders are messaging with empathy, managers are delivering on the promise of that empathy, and individuals are putting forth what they need consistently. The story of the working mother does not have to be doomed and organizations do not have to sit idly on the sidelines. It’s the right time to take action.

Pamela Cohen, PhD

Pamela Cohen, PhD

Chief Research and Analytics Officer, heading up WerkLabs, Pam is a behavioral research scientist with expertise in predictive analytics. Using qualitative and quantitative methodologies, she links employee experience to key performance outcomes.

Abby Haynes

Abby Haynes

Senior Research Associate at WerkLabs, Abby’s expertise is uncovering industry insights on the intersection of workplace experience and sociodemographics, such as gender and parental status.

Phyllis Stewart Pires

Phyllis Stewart Pires

A nationally known work-life expert and advisor to The Mom Project and WerkLabs.