How to Avoid Becoming a Corporate Catfish and Build an Authentic Brand

Devin Foster

Many people say they're emotionally exhausted from living through a pandemic and the stresses produced by a volatile social and political climate. 
 

To show their support, organizations are taking a stand by embracing empathy and transparency. But simply saying they’re going to change isn’t enough — a foundational shift is necessary. So how can organizations avoid becoming a corporate catfish and instead, build an authentic employee experience that prioritizes wellness? 
 

In a special episode of Talent Experience Live, Christine Kensey and Ellen Hughes of Phenom shared ways to create a safe, healthy space for employees, redefine the return to work, and evolve a company's culture with a talent-first mindset.
 


Read on for highlights from the show!
 

2020 was challenging – but can we find any silver linings for HR?
 


Reevaluate work. Living through a pandemic has forced us to “unlearn” preconceived notions about nearly every aspect of our lives, according to Kensey, Phenom’s Senior Director of Training. “If we can rethink our lives, we can rethink work and community," she said. 
 

Challenge assumptions. The transition into 2021 presents the perfect opportunity for companies to reimagine work and organizational culture. “We no longer have the excuse that we don’t know how to challenge assumptions,” Kensey said.

 

How can leaders and individuals combat the fatigue of 2020?
 


Help employees establish boundaries. Work-life balance has always been an issue for American companies, noted Hughes, Customer Success Manager for Phenom. Now, remote work means there’s no definitive start-and-stop to the workday. That in combination with the mental and emotional fatigue of the past year means it’s absolutely crucial to encourage employees to establish boundaries. 
 

Lead by example. It’s time for leaders to walk the walk. This means demonstrating to employees that it’s acceptable to step out for a doctor’s appointment or to participate in a school event. “Leadership should do these things to establish that it’s OK,” Hughes said.

 

How can organizations build trust regarding productivity of remote workers?
 

Rethink the concept of productivity. To answer this question, Kensey recommends reevaluating what productivity truly looks like. Traditionally, it involved working at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. But if employees can more easily get work done on a different schedule, companies really don't need to adhere to traditional norms.
 


Welcome new ways to jumpstart productivity. We're learning that doing things that may not necessarily look productive are actually key to nurturing productivity and output. Activities like taking a 30-minute walk or run, or just getting outside for fresh air are directly related to productivity, research shows. 
 

Consider challenging the typical view of productivity. “It might look like sitting outside with your thoughts for a moment,” Kensey said. It’s important for leaders to accept and encourage these approaches, Hughes added. 
 

Consider individual preferences and job role needs. Many workers are finding they can be more productive at home, while others miss the collaborative office environment. For example, creative teams may have a hard time finding a way to replicate the power of everyone gathered in a room to brainstorm on a whiteboard. “What is a productive environment for one person isn’t for another,” Kensey said.
 


Measure results instead of number of hours worked. Would results-based evaluations be more effective than measuring productivity in terms of hours? 
 

“Do you have to spend eight hours working if you can accomplish what you need to do to achieve goals in less [time]?” Kensey said, acknowledging that it’s a controversial idea. 
 

“It starts with authentic conversation, good coaching from managers, transparency, and understanding where struggles are coming from. We need to build support structures to encourage productive environments everywhere.” 

 

How can we overcome the challenges of showcasing an authentic brand?
 

Recognize the hardships. It’s important to take the simple step of acknowledging the past year's challenges to your employees, community, and job candidates, Hughes said. Sharing failures and being transparent regarding setbacks may seem counterintuitive, but it builds authenticity and trust. 
 

Live up to the metrics with an inclusive culture. Companies will need to avoid taking a checkbox approach when it comes to objectives, for example, hiring for diversity. Getting diverse talent in the door isn’t the end goal – it’s making employees feel welcome every day by creating a truly inclusive culture.  

 

How can companies evaluate the comfort level of employees returning to the workplace?
 

Ask employees for feedback. The most important step? “Just ask!” Kensey urged. Gather feedback, and aim for a balance between business objectives and giving employees choices. “Can we challenge assumptions, putting aside what we used to think was needed? Can we reflect on what we need to do to create structures that allow flexibility? Can we trust employees to create boundaries?” These questions need to be addressed at a leadership level – but organizations need to engage employees also. 
 

Establish a culture of trust. Create a culture where employees trust that leaders listen and act on feedback. We all have blind spots, cautioned Kensey. “We all think that we’re trying to be employee-centric or understand all the perspectives, but until you ask, you just don’t know,” she said. “But you’re also not going to get an honest answer if you haven’t created a place where trust and authenticity is allowed.” When companies achieve this, they enable decision-making that allows the entire organization to thrive – not just the areas directly tied to profit. 

 

How frequently should leaders ask employees for feedback? 
 


Ask often, and use multiple channels. You can’t ask enough, Hughes says. It’s important to gather feedback often, and to use a mix of approaches, from small surveys and polls to one-on-ones via Zoom or through casual messaging. 

 

How can organizations have discussions about hot-button issues like safety?
 

Opening up conversation around sensitive topics can be difficult when people have differing views and opinions. Here are a few ways employers can navigate these critical discussions:
 

Ensure anonymity. When gathering feedback on potentially polarizing issues, assure employees that their answers are anonymous to encourage honesty. 
 

Provide consistent communication on all levels. Transparent, consistent messaging must start with leaders and trickle down through all levels of management. This will help employees feel comfortable approaching managers with concerns that are bound to arise, such as mask wearing and social distancing. 
 

Leaders need to be accessible and honest. Another silver lining of 2020? Everyone working at home has leveled the field a bit in terms of being able to approach leaders. It’s actually easier now to access leaders (e.g., via Slack). There’s an opportunity to continue this, Hughes said. 
 

And make sure to “lead with the truth,” she said. This means being honest with employees and job candidates about tough topics like pay decreases or furloughs, and admitting when you don’t have all the answers. 

 

What are some ways to maintain inclusivity among remote employees? 
 


Assess your current level of inclusivity. Organizations need to be aware of current (and pre-pandemic) strengths and weaknesses regarding inclusivity. “Having a remote or blended workforce adds a layer of complexity, but inclusivity in the workplace is important regardless of your work structure,” Kensey said. 
 

Consider the major questions:

  • How do you ensure that there’s space for diverse perspectives? 
     
  • Remote teams may be more likely to silo. How can employees remain aware of the needs of everyone across the organization, not just direct coworkers? 
     
  • How do managers ensure that all team members are represented, even if they’re not physically in the room? There’s a tendency to exclude voices not present, noted Hughes, who managed a team with remote and in-person workers even before the pandemic.

    One of the tactics she found helpful was to hold meetings where everyone connected from their desks, regardless of whether they were in the office or at home. Avoiding having in-office team members congregate in a conference room helped make off-site workers feel more equally heard.

     

Individual employees and the organization at large need to reflect on these questions, challenging assumptions and biases, according to Hughes. “Then you start to engage in the process of being able to define what an inclusive workplace and culture is going to be for everybody, regardless of how you’re organized,” she said.
 

Plan how to integrate (and re-integrate). Be mindful that new employees will be meeting co-workers in person for the first time, and that employees will be together who haven’t seen each other in nearly a year. With some prep work, we can help everyone understand this dynamic. 

 

What’s your top takeaway for viewers on building an authentic brand and preparing for the future?
 

“Being authentic and leading by example,” Hughes said, noting that the more leaders can be themselves, the more others will be willing to speak up and share authentically. “It makes a huge impact.”
 

Be intentional about creating a space for honest feedback, Kensey said. We need to focus on honesty and true sharing, not just tasks and goals.  
 

“This goes hand-in-hand with trust and authenticity.” 
 


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