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Maintaining Workplace Resilience When Change Happens Fast

There are a dozen ways businesses can help employees achieve well-being.

Key points

  • When change is happening fast, businesses need to consider the needs of many different systems: human, built, regulatory, and ecological.
  • Giving people structure, supporting relationships, and promoting rights are some of the ways businesses enhance their sustainability.
  • The resilience of a business during a crisis is never a matter of one system's success; multiple systems need to interact well.

Whether workers are building steel towers or programming code in open-concept office spaces, the structure, collegiality, and safety of workplaces are going to make a business more or less sustainable during a crisis. A group's resilience is intimately connected to the many systems it depends on: human, built, regulatory, and ecological. Each of these shapes a business’s potential to grow and be profitable.

The best businesses seem to be able to pivot when change is required, and employ people who are willing to help. For example, online meeting applications that were once thought too risky for daily corporate communication have suddenly been adopted even by the most technologically phobic workers. And so it goes. When change is happening fast, businesses need to think about the resilience of all their interacting parts, not just the mindset of an employee or the preferences of customers.

Here are a dozen ways businesses can produce healthier employees who, based on research I’ve been doing, are going to be able to handle the stress of a changing work environment.

1. Structure. Offer employees enough structure to make their workplaces predictable. That means, whenever possible, offering secure employment, solid supervision, and clear expectations with regard to workload. People cope better with stress during natural disasters, pandemics, and economic crises the more they know what they’re expected to do and have the support to do it.

2. Responsibility. Insist employees share responsibility for some part of the business. While mission statements and meaningful work are ways to make a workforce resilient and productive, holding people accountable for what they do and giving them responsibilities is a more practical approach to motivating a workforce to do their jobs during challenging times.

3. Relationships. Invest energy in building relationships between staff. While there will always be competition, creating opportunities for people to support each other in the workplace builds the social networks necessary for resilience. Whether that’s celebrating people’s birthdays, the annual summer BBQ, or peer mentorship, every sustainable relationship on the job decreases staff turnover and increases opportunities for innovation.

4. Networks. Link your business with other businesses in your community. Networks of collaboration may conjure images of Elks meetings and strange dress codes, but social cohesion ensures a united front during a crisis when no one business is able to cope on its own.

5. Identity. Take the opportunity a crisis provides to strengthen the parts of your corporate identity that work while exploring new identities for the future. What talents do employees have, and what capacity does the business as a whole have for production that could be used differently as the world changes? For instance, during the pandemic, distilleries found a niche as producers of hand sanitizer, and airlines turned passenger jets into cargo haulers. My own work with communities dependent on the oil and gas industry is helping them to find ways to diversify their economies and buffer them against changes to the economy as green technologies take hold.

6. Control. Take control of whatever you can control. A small business on a downtown street may not be able to compete with the box stores in the suburbs, but it can convince the city council to rezone its community to encourage denser housing and an urban landscape that is preferred by new urbanists who want chic libraries and public transit. No matter the size of your business, there is always something you can control and someplace where your efforts will be rewarded with change.

7. Citizenship. Be a good corporate citizen. My work on corporate social responsibility campaigns with large multinationals has convinced me that a triple-P approach (people, profits, planet) is good business and good for employees. People like to see their workplaces become relevant to their communities, whether that is through fundraisers or meeting people’s needs at a scale that is meaningful. There is an almost spiritual quality to being a part of a community that wants its businesses to thrive.

8. Rights. Protect your rights as a business and the rights of your employees. Whether that means asking for help from your government or ensuring employees are treated fairly, we are more resilient when we insist on transparent rules and equal access to justice.

9. Needs. Look after everyone’s basic needs. Minimum-wage laws, access to zero-deductible health care, occupational health and safety rules, paid sick leave, and maternity benefits do not decrease overall productivity. Instead, they produce a healthier, more stable workforce that cuts training costs and prevents workers from making each other sick.

Meeting employee needs can also mean changing where people work and when. If people can work from home part-time, or office hours can be staggered to avoid the morning congestion on highways, consider the real value to employees of these small modifications to business-as-usual.

10. Health. Take care of everyone’s physical and mental health in the workplace. That could mean stand-up desks and a canteen selling healthy food or subsidized gym memberships. It can also mean encouraging employees to take all their vacation time to ensure maximum performance. Pushing employees to the point of exhaustion undermines a business’s long-term resilience.

11. Finances. When possible, stabilize finances. Take risks but ensure a secure foundation for the next big crisis. Employees like to know their employer is financially solvent.

12. Positive thinking. Be positive and avoid catastrophic thinking. Even during a crisis, there are still things to be grateful for. Encourage moments of appreciative inquiry during staff meetings to celebrate what has gone well, even during the most difficult of times.

Resilience is not just something just inside individuals; it is the result of how well our environments provide the resources we need to cope with a crisis. The better a business is at making its own, and its employees’, well-being sustainable, the better it will survive the next major economic, social, or health care challenge.

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