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4 steps you must consider to lead a divided workforce

The chair of Weber Shandwick’s Global Corporate Practice says that according to research, 80% of Americans believe businesses should play a role in bringing COVID to an end. The onus is on leaders to help lead us out.   

4 steps you must consider to lead a divided workforce
[Source photo: Westend61/Getty Images]
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In a time when the health and safety of a company’s workforce are at stake, business leaders are grappling with even more twists and turns in this pandemic saga. From beginning to see the cumulative, long-term effects of COVID-19 to the daily chaos of the highly transmittable delta variant (and the promise of others to come). To changing plans for how and when companies will bring their employees back to the office and now, tackling mandates.

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Under U.S. President Biden’s six-pronged strategy to help end the pandemic, businesses with more than 100 employees will be required to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require those who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work.  Additionally, employers must provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover from any post-vaccination symptoms. 

Day to day, leaders are faced with an ever-changing reality. But one constant remains: We’re living, working, and leading in a highly divisive time, with a workforce that’s undergone tremendous trauma and upheaval, shaped by a global pandemic, altered by advancements in technology, and demands corporate conviction and action. 

Many have lost loved ones, jobs, economic security. Others have assumed the role of caretaker or teacher, while working full-time. Compounded with social and civil unrest, times are stressful and for many, life feels unmanageable. And it’s unlikely to change soon. 

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Now is the opportunity for leaders to take action and redefine a new business environment. Employees are looking to leaders to help end the pandemic. In fact, 80% of Americans believe businesses should play a role in bringing COVID to an end, according to Weber Shandwick’s research. The onus is on leaders to help lead us out.   

The vaccination debate continues

Eight months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States, a little more than half of the U.S. population has been being fully vaccinated.1 As a country, we’re making progress but we have much more work to do. Employers included. 

From mask requirements to vaccine mandates to taking a stance on societal and environmental issues, employers are faced with big decisions and challenges including having an active role in encouraging vaccinations. Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research and United Minds, has been tracking trends and changes throughout the pandemic. One very clear fact is that deep divisions remain within our society. Divisions of opinion, of comfort levels and understanding, of politics, of DEI issues, and of public health matters, all of which lead to a more polarized, complex reality. 

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Since March 2020, many months before employers began instituting vaccine mandates, our survey data showed employers have earned unprecedented confidence. Around 70% of employees working remotely said their employers put safety above profits since early in the pandemic. However, vaccinations have since become a fault line. The vaccinated don’t want to be with the unvaccinated. And vaccinated Americans are favoring businesses with vaccinated workforces. 

Across different sectors, a majority of those who are vaccinated prefer to visit a business where they know all employees are vaccinated (50% to 70%, depending on the business in question) versus a business where the decision is left to employees. And when it comes to returning to the office, 69% of those surveyed in August do not prefer to be in the office full-time, with 39% preferring to permanently work from home. Among those employed, if their employer does not require all employees to get a vaccination or provide proof of a negative test result to go into work, 40% will be very comfortable doing so, followed by 29% feeling somewhat comfortable. And among those working remotely, 43% will be nervous and 41% will be stressed if their employer requires them to go into work when other employees are not required to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative test result. 

Our latest polling also shows bipartisan support for employer vaccine mandates or tests that ensure safe workplaces: 78% of Democrats, 57% of Republicans and 48% of Independents. 

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Opportunity to bridge cultural and societal divides

Beyond the great vaccination effort, today, businesses have a role to play in building consensus and making progress. From being a corporate advocate to actively bridging societal divides. 

What’s more: Employees expect action and will hold their employer accountable if they don’t practice what they preach. Based on our research, half of consumers have taken part in a boycott and 65% have made a purchasing decision based on a company’s response to the compounding crises of 2020.  Generationally speaking, the youngest members of the workforce want action with 53% of Gen Z’s and 64% of Millennials stating that businesses should play a role in bridging societal divisions.

Four steps to navigate divisions

Unlike the 2008 crisis when business was perceived as a culprit, today there’s unprecedented confidence in employers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, employees have had a high degree of confidence in employers, and according to our August polling, 61% of consumers and 65% of employees believe employers are a constructive force for positive change.

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With confidence in businesses to lead, what’s next for business leaders? Where do they go from here? What’s top priority for leading their workforce? And how do they ensure the future of their business culture is as inclusive as it is safe and successful?

Start here:

Prioritize employee safety. Continue to put the health and safety of your employees above all else. Embrace a mandate for vaccines and articulate your commitment to providing a safe environment for all.

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Listen like never before. Your workforce is under enormous pressure as uncertainty continues. Our August polling data shows mental health and burnout as key concerns with 58% of employees worrying about their mental health and wellness and 49% experiencing work burnout. Employees  want their concerns to be heard. First and foremost, this requires listening. Be empathetic and transparent in decision-making and follow the values and principles that guide your business. Provide maximum flexibility and give employees time to adjust.

State convictions. Take a stance and communicate what that stance is, often. Ground it in your values, not your positions on issues-stay above politics. And make sure to address those who won’t agree with you directly; show understanding for a different point of view while asserting with conviction.

Demonstrate values and inspire loyalty. Ensure business actions reflect diversity of opinions and thoughts and are inclusive of the competing interests of all stakeholders. Be prepared to defend decisions made; there is no frictionless path. 

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The greatest test lies ahead

The relationship between work and family, employer and employee, and business and society have been forever changed, as has the essence of leadership. To lead you must not just engage stakeholders, you must balance competing interests and earn their loyalty. 

In a time of increasing pessimism, COVID fatigue, and declining trust in government, employees continue to look to their employers for answers. And 63% of all adults (up 16 points from May polling) agree that ending the coronavirus pandemic is a very important issue for businesses and leaders to help solve. 

This fall, businesses will face one of their greatest tests. How leaders choose to act is their call. But the data is clear. Employees have confidence that business can lead the way out of this pandemic. And a new generation expects no less.

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Micho Spring is chair of Weber Shandwick’s Global Corporate Practice.