How chief people officers can lead change post-pandemic


‘People don’t like commuting, but so what’ was the comment from JP Morgan’s CEO when he announced the bank’s return-to-the-office plans earlier this month. Catherine McDermott looks at why this attitude can be damaging, and suggests how chief people officers should be meeting staff wellbeing needs.

The pandemic has added a new lens of uncertainty to our lives, reframing the way we think about our everyday interactions, changing the behaviours and habits of people around the globe.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2020, 25.9% of the population – or 8.4 million people – had moved to working from home, rising to 46.4% in London alone. Many want to continue doing so: a recent survey by the University of Strathclyde found that 78% of respondents would prefer to work in the office for only two days or less. Almost a third – 31% – said they would prefer not to spend any time at all in the office.

But while Covid-19 has changed attitudes to working from home for employees, attitudes from high-profile business leaders have taken a different tone. JP Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon expects an immediate return to the office, stating that “people don’t like commuting – so what?” without fully understanding the extent of how far the pandemic has changed our personal circumstances.

Lockdown has spread uncertainty and amplified anxiety. The ONS reported that through lockdown there was a marked increase in people feeling anxious, with the proportion of people self-diagnosing themselves with depression doubling. Employers cannot ignore the effects this period has had on its workforce.

Chief people officers should use this moment of upheaval and change to devise an employee wellbeing strategy that meets our current needs.

Empowering change

The chief people officer has the ability to be a force for change across an organisation, and the role should go beyond simply bridging the gap between employer and employee. This means driving forward an agenda that reflects new priorities post-pandemic, which are highly driven by health and wellness trends.

This should start with implementing an effective employee wellbeing strategy. At Reframe, we surveyed 2,000 employees and HR decision makers in the UK on how businesses are investing in employee benefits in light of the pandemic. Whilst 80% of HR decision makers said they are satisfied that their employee benefits scheme is highly relevant, only 28% of employees agreed.

A strong benefits system should address the five pillars of wellbeing. These are the recognised aspects of life which contribute to everyone’s sense of fulfilment:

  • Physical – having the physical strength and endurance to thrive in life
  • Social – feeling valued, seen and understood
  • Financial – feeling secure and having the ability to plan and cope with financial pressures
  • Emotional – having the mental strength, a positive attitude and sense of purpose
  • Professional – being able to communicate, contribute and grow as an individual

It is imperative that the chief people officer aligns the wellbeing strategy against these core pillars, in order to better support a diverse workforce. This will encourage and empower staff to take control of their wellbeing, building mental resilience through understanding.

The World Health Organization says resilience is shaped by the availability of supportive environments which are essential for people to increase control over their health and wellbeing. Low levels of resilience can impact employees’ health, cognitive capacity, and productivity at home and in the workplace. Worryingly, one in three employers does not offer a holistic employee wellbeing strategy. The more pillars left unsupported, the greater the overall impact will be for organisation, from sickness absence and presenteeism, to low morale and a decline in motivation.

Fostering a supportive environment in the workplace is key to a successful employee wellbeing strategy. It builds trust and loyalty between employees and the organisation.

Supporting a diverse workforce

As lockdown eases and a hybrid working model comes into full effect for many, the chief people officer must invest in practical ways the entire business can support its diverse workforce as part of its benefits scheme. This can range from mental health first aid training, allowing everyone across the business to understand and recognise when a colleague is struggling and how to support them, without judgement.

In their quest for things to return to normal, leaders cannot ignore the significance of the change that has occurred.”

Moreover, this could be in the form of further education on diversity and inclusion, or partnering with external charities and developing support networks for employees who are carers.

There are endless opportunities for the chief people officer to improve strategies to help create a more dynamic and efficient workplace that works for all.

This has been an incredibly challenging period for business and society. But, in their quest for things to return to normal, leaders cannot ignore the significance of the change that has occurred. The world is not the same as it was, and neither are the people. Instead, businesses must redesign their structures and reshape their priorities to match the needs of employees and consumers in the ‘new normal’ – putting their health and wellbeing above anything else.

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Catherine McDermott

About Catherine McDermott

Catherine McDermott is CEO at digital health company Reframe.
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