Why has it taken a pandemic to care about people?

“It’s all about our people”, organisations say. But why has it taken a pandemic to make wellbeing or working flexibly a priority? The key is culture, honest leadership, new ways of working, and looking forward not back.

In early 2020, over 90% of people in the UK were based in offices; flexible working arrangements were rare. Recent research from McKinsey showed over a third of staff would avoid accessing wellbeing services because they didn’t want people at work finding out about their mental health problems.

Then came the pandemic: a once-in-a-lifetime fundamental change to how all people worked, whether confined to their houses or shouldering the risk of being among others for jobs which could not be done remotely.

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For me, watching BBC Studios teams keep The One Show on air uninterrupted, setting the standards for Covid production, was inspiring and humbling in equal measure.

For those at home, there were some benefits. Virtual meetings created greater intimacy, improved inclusivity and democratised meetings, making it easier for everyone to contribute. And the flexibility was a boon for many.

But collectively it was also an isolating experience. Without face-to-face interaction between colleagues and line managers, accentuated by worries about the health of loved ones, home-schooling and/or loneliness of lockdowns, nearly every remote worker struggled at times.

For us at BBC Studios, we quickly found it was not enough to bump up the frequency of internal comms and hold regular town halls, though these helped to create connections. The biggest lesson we learned was the role of leadership, and creating greater openness around mental health, culture and support staff needs.

With all in a similar boat, everyone from the CEO downwards was encouraged to open up about how they were coping, igniting honest conversations across the business, and removing the stigma of seeking help.

In this way, the pandemic quickly normalised difficulties in personal experience and issues with wellbeing, resulting in 85% of colleagues reporting they believed their managers care about their wellbeing in our engagement survey.

The pandemic has brought another key change though: the ‘life’s too short’ factor. People tasted the freedom of building their lives how they want. So they are demanding more from their employer (and future employers) as a result – including flexible working and access to training and development.

For us, combining the benefits of home with access to the office for collaboration is key to the long-term performance of our business, better engagement and ongoing staff development.

None of us chose to live through the specific challenges of the last two years, but it will have made lasting and powerful changes to what employees expect from their employer. So for those businesses planning for a return to the office, I believe the key thing to avoid is merely ‘returning’ to old ways of working.

To attract and retain the best talent, companies will have to be much more proactive about developing culture, engagement and leadership, encouraging honesty and inclusivity while devising a competitive offer of wellbeing support.

I believe this is positive momentum we can take forward to boost productivity overall, create a competitive advantage and have happier employees as a result. 

Jabbar Sardar is HR director at BBC Studios and ranked 18th on the HR Most Influential Practitioners list in 2021.

This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.