COVID-19 taught us how to build real human-first workplaces

15 Jul 2022 | Author:

And how to lead with empathy, understanding, and kindness — for ourselves and others.

A version of this story first appeared in Campaign Asia. Click here to read it.

Three years on and the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, remains a constant, all-consuming presence in our lives. It has impacted each one of us professionally and personally. But while the virus has not been kind to us, there has been a silver lining.

COVID-19 has uncovered long-buried inefficiencies and vulnerabilities at work by forcing industries to relook pre-conceived notions, standards and expectations of and from us as working professionals. It made us accept and embrace change, which accelerated conversations and real action around work-life balance, mental health and wellness, leadership and culture. I consider this a blessing in disguise.

Even now, COVID-19 continues to have an unexpected impact on how both individuals and organisations view work and the workplace — and the communications, advertising and marketing industry is no exception. I had the opportunity to explore this and more from both an individual and a leader’s perspective during the Campaign Leading Change (CLC) workshop and conference in Singapore recently.

The conflict: picking up the reality check

Personally, COVID-19 hit me hard. The lockdowns, the isolation, the fear — all of it really affected my mental and emotional health, especially when I had to have emergency surgery at the height of the pandemic. But through it all, I kept working, convincing myself it was at least better than being bored sitting at home.

It was the wrong way to think. I ended up working myself into crippling burnout. But even though it became apparent that I wasn’t alone in this, I kept my burnout under wraps. I was unconsciously judging myself and was worried how my burnout would be perceived. Would it cast doubt on my abilities? Would it make my gender seem weak? Would my team and peers think less of me?

I embarked on a journey of self-reflection, seeking to understand myself as a female leader, a role model and simply as a working professional. In the process, I thought about how I felt in trying to tackle this issue. Despite having the office’s full support, I couldn’t shake how alone I felt — even though I knew I was not alone. Eventually, I learned that this was just how many of us were and are wired.

Even though it became apparent that I wasn’t alone, I kept my burnout under wraps. I was unconsciously judging myself and was worried how my burnout would be perceived.

It was not an easy process, but I eventually managed to overcome my doubts and fears. I thought about how others in similar situations as me might feel. I wanted them to know that they were not alone. So I decided to speak up and share my experiences with full honesty and vulnerability.

I am fortunate to be in a company where we started asking similar questions as an organisation. How can we support our people? How can we create a safe space and open culture? How can we assure our teams that it is okay to not be okay? How can we break biases and perceptions, many times our own, to truly create real change? And what can we do as leaders to make these changes?

The epiphany: leading the human-first revolution

Leadership is more important than ever in shaping the workplace, whether operationally or culturally. It is proven that change comes from the top. As leaders, we have to lead by example and be open to conversations and suggestions.

There is also a pressing need to lead with empathy and compassion, which can only be achieved with diversity and fair, representative leadership. Diversity is integral to organisation-wide understanding and tolerance. That is why it is so important to embrace and support more female leaders to narrow the gender gap.

Similarly, it is crucial to have leaders from all walks of life, who bring with them different perspectives and worldviews.

Speaking at Campaign Leading Change on leadership in a COVID-19 endemic world.

How leadership builds culture

So much has been said about culture, yet so much remains to be explored — especially in today’s fast-evolving workplace. As leaders, it is on us to create and maintain the culture we want for ourselves and our teams. No more lip service! We must walk the talk in everything we claim to offer and more.

To do so, however, we need to first identify and acknowledge our own biases and perceptions, whether unconscious or otherwise. We must also be critical of ourselves — both in individual and organisational terms. Only then can we even begin to see and tackle issues borne of bias such as unfair hiring practices, the reprioritisation of employee happiness and wellness, or even the absence of a caring and welcoming work culture.

A communicative workplace is a conducive workplace, and it is a leader’s job to facilitate that. I can’t stress enough how important it is for leaders to reach and connect with their people across backgrounds, seniority, sexes and socio-economic groups.

People want to be seen, heard, and to know that they matter. It’s easy to make general or token gestures, but what the industry really needs is genuine, tailored actions in response to real feedback. Something I know we can accomplish!

There is a pressing need to lead with empathy and compassion, which can only be achieved with diversity and fair, representative leadership. Diversity is integral to organisation-wide understanding and tolerance.

Leaders also need to be able to empower their employees by giving them a voice and creating safe spaces so that they can be heard without judgment.

Take imposter syndrome for example — it can badly cripple a person’s self-confidence, resulting in more stress, lower productivity and reduced opportunity for growth. But if leaders champion the creation of safe spaces at work where people can share their problems, this supportive environment will help accelerate their journey to overcoming it.

Last but not least, everyone is responsible for building a human-first workplace. Leaders can set the intention and path forward, but it is equally important to convince mid-level and junior staff to join the cause by leading through example. It is crucial to get everyone’s buy-in as we can all hold each other accountable and ultimately be part of the change.

The resolution: moving with the times

I love this amazing industry I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of for over 12 years, but it has not always been the easiest to work in and I want to change that. After I spoke at the CLC, I received a lot of positive feedback from attendees who resonated with my messages. It validated my personal choice to speak up, be candid, and most importantly — be human.

Being part of the change I want to see.

What is certain is that COVID-19 has set in motion an evolution of the workplace that has and will continue to change work as we know it. It taught us just how untenable and unsustainable some of our existing practices are. We must accept that lesson with humility and embrace the change necessary to improve — because whether we want it or not, change is coming.

As an industry, we need to do better, together — for everyone — to build a healthier workplace of tomorrow. Looking at how we have rallied and changed through the worst of COVID-19, I know we can do it. All it takes is for us to stay hungry to learn, adapt with the times, and remember that we are human first above all else.