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Dr. Robin Erickson: Fostering Optionality and Employee Wellbeing

This week’s episode covers it all: employee wellbeing, the great resignation/resume tsunami, optionality, sustainable work practices and so much more. Our host Rhonda Taylor was fortunate to sit down with Robin Erickson Ph.D. of The Conference Board, to hear her insight on upcoming trends in this new age of work.

Robin discusses how the employee experience has been affected over the past year and shares insights on the benefits of creating a work culture that allows for optionality. This episode also dives into the statistics behind employee wellbeing, and how business models that promote awareness and care for employees are vital to engagement, retention, and recruiting talent.

Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rhonda Taylor: It’s Rhonda Taylor. Today we’ll be discussing the talent experience and our guest today is Dr. Robin Erickson. Robin, I’m gonna just say a few things about you, but I want you to add because you are such an incredible researcher in the analyst field of HR. Robin has worked with the Deloitte Bersin, a long tenure there, and now she is with the Conference Board as a principal researcher. Her work is really well respected. She has been very busy during COVID, doing surveys and providing lots of data reports on the surveys. Before we get talking about the topic of this session, I’m just gonna say welcome Robin, and did I miss anything?

Robin Erickson: So, Rhonda, thank you so much for having me today. I’m thrilled to be here, and you hit the major highlights. Just as a little bit more background on me, I actually spent the first 20 years of my career in management consulting. As in this talent management space, and took a break, went to get my Ph.D., and I’m very thrilled to be a research analyst. At this point, I focus on multiple areas within HR, but the ones that I love the most are around the talent experience, employee experience and engagement, retention, also recruiting talent attraction. I have done a lot of work during COVID-19, but I also wrote about two other crises. The first was 911, and its effects on employees, all the layoffs that happened after that, and I wrote about the Great Recession as well. So this is the third worker crisis that I’ve had the opportunity to write about.

Rhonda Taylor: And you know, I neglected to say that you are also a very well-published individual, you have had articles in Forbes.com, the Deloitte Review, the Business Finance, practically every HR publication, HR World Congress. So congratulations on having such a track record with your writing capabilities.

Robin Erickson: Well, thank you. It’s all about the survey research. I’m very, very blessed to have this job where I get to look at what organizations are doing, and then write about those findings to hopefully help other organizations.

Rhonda Taylor: So today, Robin, we’re going to talk about the most recent survey, the Conference Board has just published, and it’s called The Reimagined Workplace: A Year Later,  Human Capital Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Um, first of all, before we talk about the meat potatoes of this research, tell me how your team went about doing the research.

Robin Erickson: Sure, in April 2020, during the very early stages of the pandemic, for those of you who remember March 6, was actually the last time I travelled for work. I was in New York City, and it was that day that the mayor of New York declared a state of emergency. State lockdown started in mid-March and the Conference Board was one of the first organizations to track human capital responses to COVID-19. In fact, we fielded a survey, the last part of April 2020, publishing our first report in May 2020, and Rhonda, as you know, survey research doesn’t typically move that fast. But we made sure that this survey report did because we knew that the data would be stale because so much was changing. Then six months later, we realized that COVID-19 was not going to be a short-lived crisis, so we repeated the online survey in September 2020 and publish those results in October. And then we realized well, COVID-19 still going on. So we conducted the online survey again in April and published our most recent report in May. And so the third survey was conducted online between April 5 and April 16, and had 231 human capital leaders as respondents, mostly from large companies. In several parts of our reports, since this was the third time we’ve actually published the same survey. We were able to compare our April 2020 to September 2020 and April 2021 survey results. Additionally, we also looked at two different types of organizations, those organizations that employ primarily professional and office workers, and those organizations that employ primarily industry and manual services workers.

Rhonda Taylor: Wow. So now that we understand the process that you all went through some incredible data came out of that. And, and before, you know, before we talk about everything, I just want to know, what was the key takeaway? What was something that really caught your attention?

Robin Erickson: So you know, I’ve been asked, what’s the newest news, so to speak, in this report, and I think the newest news is that employee wellbeing appears to be deteriorating. We asked about employee wellbeing for the first time and our September 2020 survey. And in three areas, we’ve seen those numbers actually go down, specifically in terms of burnout, in terms of work-life balance, and in terms of mental health. So I think that that’s probably the biggest piece of news and I’d be happy to tell you more about that if you’d be interested.

Rhonda Taylor: Well yeah, because it’s very trending right now, in HR departments. But you know, it’s funny, the media doesn’t want to talk about it.

Robin Erickson: Oh, I completely understand that, and to tell you the truth, when I’ve been sharing this research with our members, they’ve agreed that they are very concerned about employee wellbeing. We also believe that the negative results that we found are most likely related to increased anxiety and stress that result from many factors. You’ve got the global health crisis, the economic crisis, that many people are still dealing with. We had a lot of political and racial unrest in the last 15 months, and a lot of people are still struggling with the lack of childcare. We actually found that many organizations are reporting that the hours worked are longer for their employees. So just in terms of a couple of specifics. 76% of the organizations who responded to our survey said they’d seen an increase in the number of employees who identified as being burned out. 72% of those organizations said that the number of employees who sought mental health support had increased. 58% said that the number of hours worked had increased. We found that 30% of our respondents said that the number of sick days taken had increased. And 55% of the organizations reported that work-life balance had actually decreased since the onset of the pandemic. So I really think that as organizations are starting to think about their talent strategies as we go forward into what we do believe will be a hybrid workforce with a lot more remote work, that they need to be thinking about employee wellbeing.

Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, and, of course, with employee wellbeing being a number one issue in the workplace, which I really believe it’s, it’s going to evolve to, um, it’s going to create all kinds of ripple effects. You know, and can you talk about some of the ripple effects we’re gonna witness?

Robin Erickson: Sure well, I think we’re actually already starting to see some of those ripple effects. We found that the Conference Board actually predicted a year ago that we thought that remote work would be one of the most significant legacies of COVID-19 for organizations. We believe that even more strongly now, finding that a large number of organizations believe that a large number of their employees will still be working remotely a year after COVID-19 has subsided. Specifically, we found that almost 40% of organizations think that 40% or more of their employees will be working remotely a year after COVID-19 has subsided. So we’re gonna have these hybrid work models and we’re starting to find that organizations that allow workers to have the flexibility of working remotely or working from the workplace, they’re actually better able to retain employees and they’re better able to attract employees. So this ability to be flexible around remote work is actually I think, going to be a pretty big differentiator for organizations for part of their employee value proposition.

Rhonda Taylor: Right and I also, I think I read somewhere about with COVID there was the drain on the nursing in the medical world. Now there’s going to be new stresses, and it’s going to be on the mental health space. Yes. Did you guys discover anything or talk to that at all?

Robin Erickson: So we actually wrote a report last fall on the effects of how organizations can deal with this increased anxiety, and I definitely I mean, there’s statistics out there that show we do have a shortage of mental health workers right now, here in the US. So, you know, our recommendation is that organizations think about resilience and how can you help your employees bounce back from this really traumatic event. It’s not just the healthcare workers, it’s all of those frontline workers who put their lives on the line to keep our economies moving or the people who lost many loved ones to COVID. I think, you know, organizations have had to rethink their bereavement policies, because so many people had so many people around them lose their lives to COVID. And so I think we’re going to be feeling the effects of COVID-19 for a very long time, around mental health and wellbeing. I definitely think that organizations need to be thinking about what they can do, they need to think about their employee assistance programmes. Another suggestion that we have, is that organizations be following a continuous listening programme. If they haven’t already, we found in our survey, that the organizations that have surveyed employees in the last six months or more frequently, we found that 18% more organizations identified increased burnout when they surveyed employees than those that did not. We found that 22% more identified decreased work-life balance, and 22%, this one’s really interesting, 22% fewer identified decreased employee engagement morale. So the very act of doing that surveying allows organizations to respond to what is going on with their employees, and employee engagement increases as a result of that.

Rhonda Taylor: Right and you know, what’s interesting with what you’re saying there, we did a paper on titles of the future, and out of COVID, a lot of new titles have evolved. Who would have ever thought that a company would be hiring a director of well being?

Robin Erickson: Yeah, or I’ve got a report coming out in the next few weeks that looks at six lessons for organizations around organizational culture and employee experience. And one of them is to genuinely care about employees who would have ever thought a business report would say that the best way to increase your culture and your employee experience is to actually care about employees.

Rhonda Taylor: Yeah and saying that, we also see that companies are changing their dynamics in regards to addressing things that are coming out of the pandemic. In fact, I think it was today we saw an article from Apple where the apple employees are saying, we don’t mind working remote, or going into the office, but we don’t want to be dictated as to when we have to go into the office. And actually, I think the article that came out that there is the there needs to be a level of caring for the employee.

Robin Erickson: Well, and there’s also a new word that I learned recently called optionality, and the more optionality that organizations can give their employees about when they return to the workplace, the better off they’ll be. In fact, when I was studying resilience, there’s some data that shows that if organizations give their employees the choice about when they return to the workplace, it actually decreases the level of anxiety of the employees, because they have a little bit of control over when they can return.

Rhonda Taylor: Right, right. We spoke about productivity a little bit, but I like to go back because it seems to be the root of a lot of problems. I could talk from my own on stuff because as soon as the pandemic hit, I thought okay this is the time that we can turn on the jets to get the competitive edge and just work the long hours being strategic. Then, you know, all of a sudden, this wasn’t a race, it became a marathon. Right? And Productivity changed. There was such a level of frustration or “Gee, am I doing enough?” and did your survey address that? Because I wonder, you know, if that is also part of the wellbeing problem that exists today?

Robin Erickson: I definitely think it’s part of the wellbeing problem and I’ll unpack that a little bit. In our report, we asked the human capital leaders who responded, whether or not they thought they’re productive or their organization’s productivity, had increased, significantly, increased somewhat, decreased somewhat, or decreased significantly. We found that self-reported productivity has been increasing since our first survey in April 2020. In fact, that number went up in September of 2020 and is actually now more than double last year. So for example, in April of 2020, only 23% of organizations thought their productivity had increased. That makes sense, that was only a couple of months into the pandemic, people didn’t know if they were going to make their numbers, they didn’t know if this remote work grand experiment would work. Many of them were still trying to get their employees connected, right? They didn’t all have laptops, all of that. But by September, organizations knew these human capital leaders knew whether or not they were going to make their productivity. So I think I just said that 23% thought their productivity had increased in April 2020. Well, that number is more than double. By April 2021 59% of the surveyed organizations think their productivity has increased, but, and this is pretty big but. Simply because employees who were often confined to their homes, because of quarantines or lockdowns, worked longer hours; we know they work longer hours from the data that I mentioned earlier. It doesn’t mean that this increased productivity should be looked at only in a positive light. Because we do think that the increased hours worked and perhaps, I mean, while affecting productivity, it’s also causing a decrease in employee wellbeing. And like you said, this level of performance is likely unsustainable, and the impact on worker wellbeing has yet to be fully realized. Then last, but definitely not least, it’s hard to know which changes in productivity are attributable to the fact that employees were working from home, or that they were working in an economic crisis and were worried they would lose their jobs, or if it’s because they thought that the company was going to falter might not be successful. So everybody was trying to save the Titanic, right? Everybody was pitching in in order to make sure that the shift didn’t go down. And, you know, as I mentioned, the survey said that 76% of the organizations that responded said that the number of employees that identified as being burned out had gone up, and I think that number might be low. Because how often do you want to talk to your supervisor about being burned out, or an HR leader? So I really think that organizations need to be thinking about what is sustainable, what is not sustainable. And like I said, I think that if organizations haven’t already started doing regular surveying of their employees, they should. I also think that organizations need to ensure that their managers are talking to each employee one on one about their workloads, about their level of burnout, and then distilling that information up toward the C suite.

Rhonda Taylor: Right, and in these discussions, the discussions have a way of looking at the employee now, it’s changed now. Before we just talked about, you know, productivity and the demands of work. But now, you know, you have to care, you have to care about the daycare issues. You know, if they’re the sandwich generation, they’re taking care of seniors, you know. Or as you said, you know, that the number of families that got hit numerous times during the pandemic with losing someone, it’s a whole different way of looking at the employee now.

Robin Erickson: Yeah, one of the things that’s been interesting to me having been able to write about multiple crises, is that the great recession that started in 2007/2008 really was all about the finances, and whether or not an organization was successful. And it went on and on and on. And, you know, who knows exactly when the great recession ended, but it was at least four or five years and the focus was on the financial success. For COVID, I think the focus has been on employees and whether or not they’ve had what they needed. There’s this organizational crisis, I call it crisis goodwill. Organizations have it, in the beginning of a crisis organizations’ managers don’t say to their teams, have you made your number? Have you done what you needed to do yet? Have you met your goals? They say, hey are you okay, is there anything you need? And we all know about the supply chain challenges that we’ve had. But, you also had co-workers saying, “Oh, I understand that you know, Jim has to take care of young kids at home. So I’m gonna pitch in and I’ll help cover for him.” But that crisis goodwill, none of us have ever experienced a crisis that’s gone on for 15 or 16 months, the way this one has. I think organizations are starting to have to think about, well, what are we going to do for those workers who are being paid full time and not being able to work full time? So there’s just been an awful lot of stress and anxiety, like you were saying, and I do believe that there due to many factors.

Rhonda Taylor: Right, right. One more item before, we’re getting near the end. I have to have you address the recruitment and retention, because everybody is saying that once the ships are sailing the pandemics behind us, there’s gonna be a major migration. What did your, what did your survey say?

Robin Erickson: Our survey said the exact same thing. That actually right now, that not even in the future, but they said that right now 80% of the surveyed organizations who employed mostly industry and manual services workers, say that it’s difficult to find qualified workers. Although that’s only 60% in the organizations that employ mostly professional and office workers, but that’s still pretty high. Similar results, 49% of the organizations that employ mostly industry and manual services workers say that they find it difficult to retain workers, and 20% less say that of the professional and office workers. So that I think your prediction around the great migration, or a resume tsunami, or the great resignation, whatever we want to call it, I think it’s actually already started. And that’s going to make it very interesting for organizations. Again, we did find that more organizations are willing to hire remotely, to hire workers to be 100% remote. And that might end up being a good differentiator for them as they start to think about, well, how can we find more employees better employees? If they don’t have to be tied to one geographical location, they may be able to expand their labour pool.

Rhonda Taylor: Right, and Robin, you know, we’re getting close to the end. And I have to ask you that the question all presenters are given. It’s, you love what you do, and you’re excellent at it. What keeps Dr. Robin Erickson performing at 150%, day after day? In the position that you’re in with The Conference Board?”

Robin Erickson: Ah, I think it’s two things. I do believe in the mission that The Conference Board has, which is to provide insights for organizations for how they can help solve some of their biggest issues. In terms of personally, I feel like I found my vocation, I spent the majority of my life as a consultant. And when I saw academia, I never really saw the appeal for myself, of trying to solve problems outside of the workplace, but I get to have the best of both worlds. I get to use academic survey research methodology and try to solve real-world problems and actually help organizations as they think about some of these issues. So I feel like I have found the best job in the world for me.

Rhonda Taylor: It sure sounds like it, and you should do your job as though you love it. So this is Rhonda Taylor, saying goodbye. Stay true to the future, the sun is getting better. Bye.

We hope you enjoy listening to this episode of the Talent Experience Podcast with Robin Erickson! Look forward to sharing more learning with you.

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Interested in hearing more from Robin?

Robin was recently featured as a speaker at the FuelX – Talent Mobility Conference. FuelX features global HR thought-leaders and industry-leading organizations who tell their best-in-class career experience stories. Tune in, to hear Robin explore the future of AI and how it is changing career management and talent mobility.

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