How to Empower Your Employees as Agents of Change

People are pivotal to organizations

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Think back to October—ages ago in the era of coronavirus and protests around racial justice. The pace of corporate change was already in overdrive, with technology and automation upending industries across the board.

Against this backdrop, a research initiative began to better understand the massive shifts taking place within organizations. Most studies on transformation have examined its technological and digital roots, but we wanted a better understanding of its human components—a deeper knowledge of how people are both the casualties and the catalysts of change, a deeper understanding of the essential role that employees play in steering corporate transformation–a theme made more urgent than ever as employees demand accountability from employers over racial justice and expect their work lives to be better integrated into their home lives in response to coronavirus.

There’s a ray of hope, however, a much-needed optimism that, by focusing on the human effects of business transformation, specifically by responding with action to what employees want and need, companies can be both more resilient and more successful.

Employees are the overlooked drivers of disruption

The three primary areas of inquiry:

1. Are workers generally helped by change or are they mostly just victims of it? How, exactly, is transformation reshaping their lives?

2. To what extent are people as pivotal as technology when it comes to organizational change? Have we overlooked something important by focusing almost exclusively on technology?

3. How can employees be empowered in their role as agents of change?

Improving the workplace needs to be a priority

Well-run organizations have figured out that employees should be heard. Especially the voices of employees of color who, as we have been painfully reminded, are often too uncomfortable to speak up.

Well-run organizations have figured out that employees should be heard. Especially the voices of employees of color who, as we have been painfully reminded, are often too uncomfortable to speak up. The good news is that companies are becoming more responsive on this front. The research showed that corporations are increasingly focused on transforming themselves specifically for the benefit of their workers. More than a third (35%) of corporate leaders say a big driver of the change happening at their companies stems from a desire to improve the workplace.

A happier workforce is a better workforce

Organizations that place a premium on keeping employees healthy and happy do better. Companies are also increasingly expanding their view of wellness to include mental health, which marks a big change from the past. However, more than lip service is required. There’s a sizable chasm between what executives and employees understand about their company’s mental well-being policies. For instance, only 58% of entry-level employees believe their employers offer mental well-being resources, even as the vast majority (73%) of executives understand that to be the case.

Training is just part of the battle

Business leaders often discuss the need to retrain workers for an automated and AI-driven world. But companies need to double down on this effort while not overlooking the importance of mentoring.

It’s revealing to note the divide between what senior and junior employees say. When it comes to job preparedness and training, 90% of executives feel prepared for new roles they are assigned, but just under three-quarters (73%) of entry-level employees feel that way. When it comes to the career-building role of in-house one-on-one coaching, 74% of executives say mentor programs exist at their company, but only 56% of entry-level employees believe that’s the case.

Our highly charged political climate changes everything—and nothing

On a tactical level, corporations can see a huge return on their investment when employees are trained and retasked to exploit creativity, collaborate effectively and master abstract thinking and complex communication. In response to Covid-19, especially, we can see in real time how workers can be retrained and given new roles to quickly adapt to new realities.

But having a vision is also essential. During times of crisis, we see more clearly what effective leadership can do—and what happens when it’s missing. We see that focusing on the well-being of employees goes beyond job training and flexible work schedules. Companies must actively seek out and address the concerns of their workers, especially for members of traditionally disenfranchised communities who previously have resisted speaking out.

Now is a daunting but teachable moment. Senior executives are too often unwittingly out of sync with how their employees feel, as LinkedIn’s CEO learned the hard way during a recent company town hall on racial inequality that unleashed a torrent of angry anonymous comments. Beyond words, employees are also taking action, as we have seen from journalists who walked off the job to protest how a lack of diversity at newsrooms adversely impacts those organizations’ ability to cover racial justice.

The current climate has tested the ability of leaders to respond and communicate quickly and clearly. It has challenged the resilience of company cultures. And it has spotlighted how critical it is to be prepared, flexible and empathetic.