The way we think about the role of employers and colleagues has changed drastically over the past two years. The pandemic launched us into a new era, with new opportunities to revisit how we operate as a business – and how we provide for and interact with our employees.

As HR leaders, it has been a time for learning, but also an important time for unlearning the past. When I hear of companies going back to “normal” in any way, shape, or form, I worry for their employees and society as a whole. Every organization has experienced significant change over the past two years, with new learnings that cannot and should not be taken for granted or ignored.

Whether your company is starting over and rebuilding from the ground up, or adapting your workplace structure to create a more dynamic and inclusive work environment (remote or otherwise), if you are taking steps to implement meaningful change for your workforce, you are on the right path. To help get you started, here are some ways you can begin to build a workplace culture that has empathy and trust at its core.

Listen, Go Fast, Be Agile  

At Hootsuite, we have a ‘live out loud’ culture. We strive to make our company a place where everyone feels safe, welcomed, valued, and empowered to do their best work, without compromising who they are.

Putting this into action requires a deep understanding of our workforce. Everyone strives to be heard and, as employers, it’s our responsibility to listen to where our employees are at and to take the necessary steps to meet them there. What is most important here is the ability to be flexible; as decision-makers, it’s important to acknowledge that policies aren’t always written in stone and sometimes, success requires throwing out the entire HR policy book and starting over. Innovation and flexibility are the keys to survival – if your people are telling you there’s room for improvement, don’t be afraid to make changes.

“Every organization has experienced significant change over the past two years, with new learnings that cannot and should not be taken for granted or ignored.”

Effectively meeting employees where they are at requires continuous testing and learning. We know that what works today may not work tomorrow, and as employees continue to navigate the challenges that society and the changing workforce bring, employers need to adapt, test, and flex as needed. Organizations can do this by focusing on three key steps: 1) listening, by holding listening sessions and implementing employee surveys to get a pulse on workforce sentiment; 2) measuring the progress of the initiatives you implement, such as reviewing utilization numbers through your benefits providers; and 3) continuing to test, adjust and iterate these initiatives to create the most robust programs that best support your employees’ needs.

Mental Health: The Hidden Variable

Employees are the lifeblood of any business and need to be encouraged to bring their entire selves to work. The struggles that employees face both personally and professionally become the struggles of the entire organization, creating a clear business case for investing in the health and wellbeing of employees. A productive and healthy work environment depends on having productive, healthy employees, and employers that provide the space, time, and resources that employees need to combat the challenges they are facing and work towards a healthier future and are better off for it.

Especially in a virtual workplace, it’s easy to forget about the day-to-day struggles of life that affect our mental health — from parents juggling multiple responsibilities and trying to strike a balance between work and family, to people who are just starting their careers, and everyone in between. For many, the pandemic has changed the way we live and work completely. To add to this, societal conversations about racism, bigotry, marginalization, and hate have presented a very raw vulnerability for us all to digest and process. It’s heavy, it’s hard, and it’s often unseen. While this can be a discouraging fact, it provides companies the opportunity to shine a light on age-old practices that need to be redefined. That can be uncomfortable. But the wonderful thing about vulnerability is that it presents an opportunity for growth and change.

Now is the time to rethink what the future of work can look like — with input from employees and with mental health and wellness at the forefront. Supporting mental health is a muscle — you have to constantly work at it in order to keep, maintain and build strength as a business.

Trust is the Flotation Device for Culture

Without it, you can only tread water for so long before the culture sinks. Modern businesses have come a long way. Before the pandemic, the traditional micromanagement model thrived in the mainstream business world due to in-office workplace settings being the norm. Trust has evolved today but also presented new challenges that employers have had to overcome. With in-office presence being nonexistent through the pandemic, employers were challenged with having the same level of trust in their workforce, without the physical validation of their presence and without employees being able to see leaders day-to-day. In the early days, many employers got this wrong – adding new layers of micromanagement to measure their employees’ productivity, rather than providing the same level of trust that they did in the in-office environment –impacting productivity and culture.

What many didn’t realize is that trust is critical to employees’ psychological safety and sense of belonging which is foundational for a high-performance culture. Managers should lead with empathy and intention when it comes to building trust with their teams, and – especially in a virtual environment – take steps to understand what each team member needs and how they best receive information and make commitments to supporting them through these needs.

As leaders, we must promote a growth mindset — the idea that failure is welcome and learning from our mistakes is a skill. When we trust one another, we come to outcomes faster, bounce back from setbacks quicker, and are more agile as an entire organization.

There are a plethora of ways that you can spark change within your organization. Over the past two years, HR teams have shifted from being the best-kept secret superpower to being a front and center compass for navigating through the most difficult time many organizations and generations have ever faced in their lifetimes. We’re operating in a new environment, and while there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ fix to the challenges that employees are facing – and will continue to face in the near future – what will set the leaders from the managers apart is their ability to navigate uncertainty with agility, empathy, and collaboration.