How companies can retain a thriving, healthy culture in the era of remote work

A wellness and corporate messaging expert shares practical steps every company can take to maintain desirable working conditions amid ongoing flux.

By Robby Brumberg      @robbybrumberg      

Every business is looking for answers right now.

Not the least of those concerns is, “How can we keep our employees happy, healthy and motivated?”

To find out, we connected with Mark Mohammadpour, founder and chief wellness officer of Chasing the Sun, which offers corporate well-being coaching, training and tactics. He says his own weight-loss journey and experiences as a remote worker inspired the founding of his company. “After losing and keeping off 150 pounds over the last decade and seeing an opportunity to help fellow communications and public relations professionals prioritize their well-being, I started Chasing the Sun,” he says.

Here’s what Mohammadpour had to say about supporting remote and hybrid workers during this stressful season—and how to maintain a thriving company culture amid ongoing uncertainty.

Managing change with compassion, consistency

How can companies and comms pros do a better job of helping exhausted colleagues navigate so much transformation?

One key is to maintain some semblance of consistency and clarity in your culture. That starts with defining what, exactly, your company stands for.

“Leadership needs to consistently share their values within their organization and work with their employees on how working conditions ladder up to those values,” Mohammadpour says, adding that it’s essential to “design an agreement on the daily norms [that] will increase trust, productivity, and advocacy, with the intent to reduce burnout, turnover, and financial cost.”

Mohammadpour adds that improving workplace conditions and morale hinges on folks in charge—including supervisors—doing a better job of listening.

“Executives should empower and allocate resources to train people managers to listen consistently to their employees through quantifiable and qualitative feedback, act based on their feedback, communicate how their feedback impacts action, and adjust as needed,” he says, adding that this should all be done “through an equitable and inclusive lens of your current employees with an eye for the values prospective employees seek in an employer.”

Even in the best of times, establishing this sort of accountability and facilitating meaningful dialogue can be a tricky proposition. Trying to do all this amid a massive shift to remote and hybrid work is difficult. But there are certain mistakes you can avoid. One blunder Mohammadpour says to steer clear of is to dictate which days everyone’s in the office. He says companies should clarify “why and how we’re spending our time together in one location” and provide more flexibility and nuance.

He references a client who announced a new hybrid work schedule—without hammering out the specifics with employees first. “As a result of an interactive conversation between management and staff, they agreed on an approach in which they will work in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and home on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

However, he explains the company took an extra step, based on employee feedback, to reserve meetings strictly to days where they were in the office.

“This approach gives employees Wednesdays and Fridays to work heads down on their projects with little meeting interruption. This approach also allows employees to take long weekends without worrying about missing out on in-person activities,” he says.

Mohammadpour says such an approach should be examined at the department level to provide appropriately customized flexibility. He also suggests setting up committees who can advocate for employee preferences and concerns. “The committee should include a DE&I expert, a human resources representative, workplace operations representative, and an internal communications representative. Their role is to partner with the leadership of each department to standardize, based on employee feedback, and develop the strategy on how to communicate their team’s hybrid work policy,” he says.

Supporting health and well-being in substantive, thoughtful ways

Of course, nothing gets done unless employees are in good health. To bolster workers’ mental and physical well-being, Mohammadpour says, “We first need to ensure we partner with our HR teams to strategically and consistently communicate those existing benefits. One way to do so is to focus on specific benefits in one communication vs. sending an entire and sometimes overwhelming list of all benefits at once.”

Scheduling is another key concern for employee wellness. Flexibility is crucial, but so is predictability and clear expectations. “Establishing core hours in which your team will be available will make it easier for your employees to schedule appointments, take time away from the screen, and focus on family and mental and physical health activities,” he says.

Communications, in particular, are in a great spot to shape what the future of work might look like. According to a recent Gartner survey, 49% of HR leaders said they do not have an explicit future of work strategy. Mohammadpour says this void means it’s primetime for communicators to shine. That includes establishing new expectations and standards for employee wellness moving forward. But whatever you pursue, it’s essential to tailor your approach to your unique workforce.

“Tailored messaging and solutions will be more effective for your organization,” Mohammadpour says, adding, “This process requires active listening through surveys and conversations that will solicit what employees want. Going through this experience will ensure that HR and comms teams partnering together will understand the pressure points that employees are experiencing and what they need/want.”

He says any content strategy offering wellness guidance should be crafted by somebody who’s credentialed and knows what they’re talking about. He also suggests inviting “outside contributors to share recommendations tailored specially for the organization, ideally as part of a series, so employees see a consistent message from the experts.”

Which perks matter right now

Right now, Mohammadpour is seeing more companies getting creative (and specific) with their benefits and offerings. As “The Great Resignation” rolls on, every company should be addressing what, exactly, they’re willing to offer employees.

One non-negotiable, Mohammadpour says, is “empowering people to take their time off.” He cites data from the U.S. Travel Association that says Americans leave 768 million days of PTO on the table every year.

He says this culture of overwork is a major issue for communicators, especially, many of whom are still struggling to strike a healthy work/life balance in our remote era.

Mohammadpour’s own research with public relations executives revealed that most took just between 0-3 uninterrupted vacation days in 2020. That’s a recipe for burnout—or worse.

“Not taking time off has profound health implications for employees, impacts productivity, and potentially raises insurance costs for employers. Guided information on how to take guilt-free vacations should be included in all employee training,” he says.

What else are employees looking for right now? Money is certainly a top concern, followed by flexibility, “guilt-free” time away from work, and “investment in helping employees with time management.”

Fighting the burnout beast

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for thwarting burnout. The symptoms and solutions vary wildly depending on your industry and type of workplace, but certain factors always apply. Mohammadpour points to meetings, which can be a nefarious burnout culprit. “When I speak with employees,” he says, “I hear how many meetings they have during the day that impact their ability to get things done,” explaining that many are having to compensate by completing their actual work after hours.

To fight this trend, companies should aggressively cancel “redundant tactics, meetings and other items that take up unnecessary time.”

Removing unnecessary burdens is a great place to start, but it’s important to consistently monitor employee sentiment. This is especially vital right now, as the world continues to operate in a state of flux.

“Listen to your employees, believe what they are asking for is essential, and show the company’s efforts towards meeting those needs,” Mohammadpour advises.

He also suggests companies reimagine how they’ve traditionally approached employee surveys. He says lengthy annual or semi-annual surveys are “cumbersome” and “not timely enough to make immediate changes.” Instead, “Design a mixture of quantitative and qualitative surveys shared with employees in a way that they can respond in 60 seconds.”

He heartily recommends using “short surveys that are quick to take, consistently distributed, and showing a feedback loop and actions taken based on the results.”

In our current moment of uncertainty, where guidance, protocols, rules and local ordinances can change overnight, that’s the sort of consistent feedback comms pros need to stay in the know.