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Leading Experts Share Challenges in Human Resources During the Pandemic and Trends in Employee Health and Wellness

During the pandemic, the relationship between employers and employees has changed dramatically. HR professionals have to keep up with the changing environment, especially with the increase in popularity of hybrid work.


Nikki Salenetri

HR Vice President, GYMPASS


Chris McLaughlin

Chief Marketing Officer, LumApps


Arianna Huffington

Founder and CEO, Thrive Global and The Huffington Post


John Adcock

SVP of People Operations, CARE.COM


Amee Dejourdy

Chief People Officer, Brightcove

What is the main challenge HR professionals and managers are facing today when it comes to overseeing a hybrid workforce? 

John Adcock: Onboarding new team members and fully immersing them into the culture of the organization continues to be a challenge of a hybrid workforce. Whether you’re trying to teach them a skill, bolster relationships, or build excitement, there must be investment in fostering a culture that gives remote and in-office employees an equal and shared voice. At Care.com, we’re seeing success with things like virtual coffees, HR office hours, and both work and non-work-related conversations via Slack. 

Chris McLaughlin: At LumApps, we like to talk about engagement, enablement, and empowerment — the three pillars in HR that help with considerable challenges such as employee development and retention. Keeping a pulse on the mood of the workforce has become more difficult and more important at the same time, and creating and maintaining a solid culture is difficult to do without “water cooler chats.” In a time of change, the goals are both to keep teams connected without being in the same physical location, which means ensuring that remote employees have the same experience and get the same information as those that are in the office, providing employees tools for collaboration that are effective without being disruptive, and ensuring that the company is well-positioned to achieve targeted business outcomes.

Arianna Huffington: We now know an enormous amount about how stress and burnout affect us, both at home and at work. The science is clear that when we prioritize our wellbeing, we’re more creative, productive, and resilient, and we make better decisions. Wellbeing isn’t just a perk; it’s a competitive advantage. And there’s a direct connection between the health of a company’s bottom line and the health and wellbeing of every company’s most important resource — its people. So in the same way wellbeing boosts our immune system, culture serves as a company’s immune system, giving it the resilience to meet inevitable challenges.

Amee Dejourdy: I think there are several challenges at play all at the same time. A major challenge is simply a lack of past experience dealing with this kind of hybrid work environment – for both HR professionals and managers. This is all new, and we haven’t had the benefit of time to learn what works and what doesn’t work. While workplaces were becoming more open to the idea of remote workers and flexible work arrangements pre-Covid, any shift was occurring slowly. I think these situations were still largely the exception versus the norm. Covid hit quickly and everyone went immediately to working remotely, which created challenges but it still maintains a level playing field. All employees were now working remotely. The real challenges arise as a portion of people start moving back into the workplace, while others continue at home. Suddenly a manager is faced with needs that they haven’t faced prior to this moment in time – and we have to pivot fast to maintain productivity and engagement as quickly as possible without the time to get managers and teams truly ready.

A second major challenge is the additional burden a hybrid environment puts on HR and managers to maintain equity in how our employees are experiencing work – across so many aspects. There is now a need to communicate and build strong teams with members working in different ways and in different locations, while maintaining equity across a group. The need to communicate through multiple channels all at the same time presents additional complexity. We need to think intentionally about how we create connections with our teams and among team members in varying locations. We have to be thoughtful about how we evaluate performance, and apply a lot more introspection around how much bias finds its way into our thought processes based on whether or not someone sits physically near us. As leaders, are we managing meetings in a way that creates an integrated experience for all participants, giving each person the same opportunity to engage and be involved? Are we minimizing the impact of informal discussions that occur in and around those formal discussions?  

And the third major challenge is a natural resistance to adjusting and accepting this all as a new “norm.” Most of us have a tendency to gauge success or failure based on our past experience of what looks good or doesn’t – what has worked for us in the past. We strive for maintaining the culture we loved so much that existed in the environment we experienced pre-Covid. I believe that we have to let go of those past notions and build a culture that allows employees, managers, teams to thrive now, in a workplace many of us haven’t encountered before. 

Can you speak on the relationship between employee engagement and a company’s overall productivity? 

JA: The reality is, most employees want to work hard, produce excellent work, and support their team members. However, increased employee engagement is not something that leadership can simply squeeze out of their employees; it’s something they will willingly give when working in a culture that excites them and supports what they need to be their most productive self.  

CM: First, the direct cost of a disengaged employee is between $4K to $10K annually on average. A properly engaged and enabled workforce is 50 percent more efficient, and the average cost savings for a large enterprise can be in excess of $25m per week. Ultimately, companies with strong employee experiences are 2.2 times more likely to achieve their targeted business outcomes and 1.6 times more likely to outperform their competitors.

Nikki Salenetri: In general, employees who are more engaged and satisfied with their organization are more likely to be more productive. This connection has been cited by a variety of organizations, from Forbes to Harvard Business School. In addition to improving employee productivity, engagement has many other positive effects, like engaged employees being more enthusiastic, positively influencing other employees, providing better customer services, and, of course, lower turnover and absenteeism.

AD: I believe there is a significant correlation between employee engagement and productivity. When employees feel engaged and excited by the work they are doing, they are more committed to the organization, their team, and their company’s success. They are motivated to do more than what is asked of them. They collaborate better. They are more innovative and creative in the work they are doing. As a result, a company’s overall success will benefit tremendously.

What was the turning point that made you realize your workplace burnout was beyond the point of comfort?

AH: My turning point came in 2007, when I collapsed from exhaustion and broke my cheekbone. I had bought into the idea that burnout was just the price we have to pay for success. But I came to realize that that’s just a collective myth. So I learned everything I could about the connection between wellbeing and productivity. And I made a lot of changes to my life based on what I found out. I started getting more sleep. I started meditating again. And I became much more deliberate about building in time to recharge.

Where should leaders start when it comes to implementing employee engagement and wellbeing practices into their team’s routine? 

JA: I’m a staunch advocate of human-centered design for solving HR problems. At Care.com, we conducted one-on-one interviews with employees across the organization to better understand the benefits and risks of having our people work hybrid. From there, we addressed some of the issues head-on. For example, we heard an abundance of meetings were causing burnout and fatigue, so we implemented a strict three-hour no meeting block on Tuesday afternoons, and we’re already hearing favorable feedback. 

CM: We are convinced that the most important thing is to listen to the teams’ feedback. It’s necessary to do this frequently to avoid building up issues and to make sure employees have multiple avenues to provide feedback to management. It seems important for leaders to co-construct action plans based on feedback in order to respond precisely to the expectations of the teams and thus increase the engagement score.

AD: First and foremost, I believe a leader needs to set an example. I believe that when employees have a manager who is engaged and interested, they are more likely to be as well. I believe employees will watch their leadership closely to see what they DO, not just what they SAY. For example, at Brightcove we decided to implement half days on Fridays to allow employees to have a bit more personal time. Leaders need to demonstrate how important it is to take advantage of that opportunity by behaving in a way that supports and respects that time – not scheduling meetings or even better, by taking that personal time themselves to unwind.

I am also a firm believer that it all begins and ends with conversation – checking in, listening to one another, and demonstrating a level of vulnerability in communicating with your team. Particularly in a hybrid work environment, and especially given the stresses that we have all been experiencing, getting a pulse on how we are each doing is paramount. In my team and at Brightcove, we do simple things like checking in with one another at the beginning meetings. I try to find opportunities to share some of my own challenges around balance and managing workload or stress. I try to prioritize the mental health and well being of my employees above a work topic when I sense someone needs help. I have found that allowing our employees to bring their whole self to work in a safe environment has allowed for better engagement and adoption of wellbeing practices within our teams. The great news is that our bi-annual engagement survey results point to an employee base that feels cared for and listened to – I really do believe it all starts with that.

What is one piece of advice you have for company leaders who feel a disconnect within their employees? 

CM: Listen and communicate. It is crucial to react quickly and to understand where the feeling of disconnect comes from in order to take the necessary measures. Provide the environment, both in office and digitally, and tools for your employees to communicate with each other and leadership. Identify issues early and collaborate with the affected teams for solutions.

NS: Talk to them. The best way to understand how your employees are feeling and to bridge any gap is by creating an environment where they feel comfortable sharing feedback with you. Find the way that works best for your organization — whether that’s through anonymous surveys, focus groups, informal chats, etc. However, once you have this feedback, it’s critical that you refer back to it when implementing initiatives and making changes so that your employees know that you are listening to them, even if this means explaining why a decision was made that was different from their feedback. If your employees do not feel seen or heard, they may begin to provide less feedback over time. This transparency will help to reinforce an open and communicative culture. 

AD: As a leader, if you bring true authenticity, you will more likely get it in return. Try to demonstrate an openness to sharing with your teams in a more vulnerable, human way. I have found that this creates a safe space for others on the team to do the same. 


Richard Branson

Founder, Virgin Group


Amanda Lannert

CEO, Jellyvision

Are there any initiatives or upcoming trends in employee health and wellness that you personally support?

Richard Branson: First and foremost, I believe in flexible working. It is important that employers appreciate their employees’ work-life balance and give them the flexibility to work around their personal lives. We have embraced flexible working since 2013 and allowed our people to work from home or remotely and stagger their working hours if they wish to. We trust our employees to work wherever and whenever they like as long as they get their work done on time and at a high-quality level; other Virgin companies may decide to follow this model in the future.

I also support unlimited leave. In my book, I wrote about how we were introducing an unlimited vacation policy, which is currently applicable to the 170 people at Virgin’s headquarters, Virgin Management, and our not-for-profit foundation, Virgin Unite. This allows our people to take as much vacation time as they feel they need each year, as long as they take a minimum amount of vacation to ensure they are getting time to rest and recharge. This gives our staff the flexibility to take more vacation time than previously possible, like during a special year when somebody gets married.

Amanda Lannert: The pandemic drove major shifts in employee health that are here to stay. Virtual health solutions, leveraged only occasionally prior to 2020, will continue to grow in popularity. Mental health is health and companies must start asking themselves how they contribute to — or detract from — the mental health of their employees. And employee benefits need to evolve to meet the demands of employees who may not be building trust in the office, which means delivering value is going to require new approaches by HR. The bottom line is that when it comes to supporting employees’ health, traditional approaches will fail to get employees what they need, when they need it.

At Jellyvision, we believe it’s time to shift our approach. Let’s stop pushing mental health benefits during Mental Health Month, and start pulling employees inby providing guidance when they submit a claim for an out-of-network provider. It’s time to engage employees at the moments when their benefits are top-of-mind, and show them better ways to navigate the complex world of healthcare.

In what ways can other employers/organizations encourage a culture of health and wellness?

RB: It’s a lot harder to try and convince people that they’re looking at a good brand, rather than simply being a great one. I suggest the following:

  1. Put people at the center of your business. Your employees are by far the best advocates for your business. Make sure they feel valued and cared for so that they love your business just as much as you do.
  2. Choose the right talent and keep them. People are what make the cogs turn in a business. A business simply can’t succeed without the success of its people, so not only should you pick the right people, but you should do everything in your power to help them grow and develop. Don’t second guess them; empower them.
  3. Listen to your staff. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to listen to your staff. People can be your best asset, or your most fierce opposition, so making sure you know how they feel and getting them on board is important. Nobody likes a dictatorship.
  4. Be bold. Try new things: When it comes to testing out new ideas in the workplace, it can feel like a bit of a gamble. Nobody can predict whether or not it will work in the long term, but then again, how do you know until you try? You also need to get senior people to practice, push, and encourage any health and wellness policies a company has come up with to make sure everyone is making the most of them.
  5. Create a workplace that generates its own legacy. If a business is good, does good, and makes others feel good, then it creates its own legacy.

AL: Before we make meaningful steps toward a culture of health and wellness, we have to start by recognizing some hard truths. First, people just don’t care until it’s personal.They’re not thinking about their wellness benefits untiltheir kid breaks an arm, they need to visit a therapist, or they’re faced with a pandemic.

And second, the system lacks trust. People aren’t forthcoming about their health data and employees have a natural distrust of the providers and vendors who offer benefits information. Even employers are seen as having ulterior motives.

Prior to improving the health and wellness of our employees, we need to recognize and solve for these problems, and that starts by cultivating genuine benefits engagement.

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