Creative And Innovative Appreciation Ideas For 2021

According to 2020 statistics from smallbiztrends, a full third of employees say they are minimally committed to their jobs. Several factors can explain this decline in productivity, including the global Covid-19 crisis.

However, 2021 brings new opportunities to rekindle employee engagement and get businesses back on track. Appreciation is a powerful tool in this regard, as it can reward employees for their hard work and motivate others to do the same.

But traditional recognition means won’t work — they are dated, old fashioned, and too predictable. Instead, try out these 15 innovative ideas for recognizing hard workers in your organization.

An organization’s culture influences everything from productivity and results in how early employees resume work. But more importantly, culture sets a baseline for everything that employees do. Appreciation comes more naturally in a culture that’s inclined towards it. One way to build a recognition culture is to appreciate workers as often as possible. Every time a manager, team, or employee is recognized, it adds to the culture until it becomes the status quo. Repetition leads to adoption.

A pat on the back behind closed doors is worlds apart from company-wide recognition. The latter announces that the company values its contribution, shining a bright spotlight on the worker. Besides the rush of positive emotions felt by the recognized employee, public appreciation can also motivate coworkers.

Opportunities to show appreciation exist in company events, monthly newsletters, a wall of fame, a space on the company website, or even small team meetings. The possibilities are endless.

This is one of the few traditional practices that still work. Celebrating with employees on select dates like birthdays and anniversaries make them feel loved. It also facilitates bonding among peers and fosters a culture of kinship.

Ideas include baking a cake, throwing a small party, or gifting a luxury item. Letting employees pick their gifts is also a safe bet. That way, they get exactly what they desire.

According to statistics from Deloitte, 59% of employees prefer professional growth opportunities as a reward for performance. Providing support in this area can fundamentally impact employee productivity, teamwork, and overall work satisfaction. Great ideas include a promotion, offering more responsibility, and access to professional courses that improve skills. Programs that focus on topics like emotional intelligence can also be created to foster personal growth.

Recognition programs make it easy to appreciate employees, both from a management level and peer to peer. One great peer to peer recognition platform is Lucky Carrot. It operates by a system that gives employees carrots. They are encouraged to reward coworkers based on metrics like teamwork, contributions, and others.

Recipients can then redeem the carrots for gift cards for services and fun activities. Lucky Carrot’s analytics also allows you to track employee contributions, a critical feature in today’s fast-paced workplace.

Initiatives like Lucky Carrot and personal growth programs are excellent and effective. But without feedback, you won’t know what works and what doesn’t. Workplace culture and employees vary, and it’s essential to learn which programs are most effective. Well-constructed surveys can be invaluable here. They gather employee thoughts and provide useful data for improving current initiatives. Administering the survey before launching an appreciation scheme can also facilitate a smoother launch.

Swag refers to useful items that are customized with the company’s logo. Swag is both a gift from the company and an opportunity for employees to show off their value. It also has the extra perk of advertising your brand to non-employees who encounter the items. Everyday items make for great swag; things like computer accessories, T-shirts, water bottles, backpacks, phone holders, and even sneakers.

A moving trophy can be any item; a classic trophy or a fun and quirky object that’s part of an inside joke. The traveling trophy can also be a perk like a parking space. The idea is to create criteria for earning the trophy and pass it around after a time period.

Traveling trophies are great because everyone has the chance to earn them and feel special. You can also combine two recognition ideas in your organization by awarding the trophy at a team meeting.

Customers keep businesses running. Many organizations say they value their customers but often aren’t any actions to back it up. When customer appreciation is followed up with meaningful action, it can increase loyalty as well as give you insight into how to serve them better.

The next few points are great ideas that you can use to show your customers love and commitment. And because the practice isn’t widespread, you’ll be ahead of your competitors.

With the age of the internet, thank you notes have given way to thank you emails and video calls. But their old-fashioned nature makes them more appreciated today. Mailing custom thank you notes to valuable customers is an excellent, unexpected, and refreshing way to show appreciation.

One step further would be to attach coupons, gift cards, and other mailable gifts. The benefit is that thank-you notes don’t need to contain poetic masterpieces; the execution is enough to send a message.

Exclusive events take customer appreciation to another level. This idea works best for businesses with a physical location and walk-in patronage. VIP events for customers in your area can be a dinner party or an invite-only sale.

It’s also a great idea to hold them around the same time every year. That way, your customers have something to look forward to, and they will strive to earn an invite.

Donating to your loyal customers’ favorite charity passes a multi-tiered message. On one level, you’re telling them that you are grateful for their support. On another level, you’re returning the favor of their continued patronage by giving back on their behalf.

A third message is that your business cares about the world, and you’re eager to do your part. Besides giving back to charity, you can also plant a tree or donate to homeless shelters.

Referral programs give customers a slice of your business’ sales. Loyal customers are constantly referring to new people in a company. Creating a referral program can show them that you see their contributions and are more than willing to give rewards.

These programs can also help your business generate more leads, so they are a win-win. Online businesses can use affiliate networks to run the program or create their own system. Brick and mortar establishments can simply give customers punch cards.

Great customer service is perhaps, one of the most effective ways to sustain patronage. To execute this, employees and managers need to work together. It involves knowing customers on a deep level, anticipating their needs, and listening to any objections or concerns they may have.

Many businesses already do this, but loyal customers deserve even more attention. After years of patronage, it’s natural to expect special treatment from your favorite company, and that’s something your business can provide.

We discussed swag items earlier, and they are not limited to employees alone. Gifting customers with branded items have even more of an advertisement-effect than giving them to employees. Combine two customer appreciation ideas by mailing the branded gifts with custom thank you notes.

Appreciation is critical for continued loyalty and dedication, both from employees and customers. These innovative ideas can help build the culture in your organization.

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How to manage virtual social anxiety

It’s normal to occasionally feel nervous or self-conscious in certain social situations, like a job interview or a big presentation in front of your team. However, social anxiety disorder – a common type of anxiety disorder – is more than these nerves or shyness.

It can leave you experiencing intense worry before an upcoming social meeting, fear that you will embarrass yourself, or panic that others may notice that you’re nervous. You may also experience physical symptoms, like blushing, shortness of breath or nausea.

With many of us still working remotely, social anxiety may look a little different. If you’re experiencing any of these emotional or physical symptoms before an online meeting or social gathering, you may be suffering with virtual social anxiety.

Coping with this mental health condition can be difficult at any time of year, but at Christmas there are extra events and demands that can leave you feeling even worse than usual.

A great way to keep your fears at bay is through regularly practicing relaxation and breathing techniques

Perhaps you’ve got a virtual Christmas party to attend over the next couple of weeks, or your team have planned social video calls to catch-up before the festive break. A video call can be particularly daunting, especially as it can feel like everyone on screen is looking at you all the time when they have their cameras on.

If you’re worried about any upcoming social events here are the best self-help strategies you can use to help manage your virtual social fears.

Recognise your fears

Try to understand more about your social anxiety by writing down when you’re experiencing it, what the exact symptoms are and what is going through your mind. It can be helpful to start a diary, so you can identify any patterns, or any situations that trigger your symptoms.

For example, if a particular online meeting has left you feeling sick, sweating or with a pounding heartbeat, make a note of these, along with exactly why you’re feeling this way. Was it because of the other attendees, or did you feel anxious about the content you were presenting?

It might not always be possible to work out what’s triggering it but try and write down as much as possible, as it can help you observe trends later on.

It is a lot easier to manage your anxiety when you have a better understanding of it.

Learn to relax

A great way to keep your fears at bay is through regularly practicing relaxation and breathing techniques. When you feel yourself becoming anxious, or if you’re on a particularly stressful virtual call, try some gentle breathing exercises. These should help to bring you back to the present moment.

Breathe slowly and deeply from your stomach and focus on having a steady breath. Not only will this slow your heart rate down and calm any palpitations you’re experiencing, but it should relax any negative thoughts you’re experiencing, too.

Over time, regularly practising mindfulness, meditation or any other relaxation techniques will help you face social situations – both virtual and face to face.

Face your fears

If you’re struggling with virtual social anxiety, one of the best ways to overcome your fears is to face them. Whilst this may be daunting, situations that cause you anxiety may actually help you to overcome these challenges, as they’ll give you a chance to try relaxation techniques or strategies, and identify which ones help most.

That said, you don’t need to expose yourself to social situations all at once – the key to overcoming your virtual anxiety is to face it gradually over time. Perhaps start off in the weeks ahead by participating in calls with smaller groups.

Then, when it comes to your virtual social Christmas gathering – you could prepare by making a list of possible icebreakers or any questions you could ask your colleagues.

Seek additional support

If you’re still experiencing physical and emotional symptoms and it’s impacting your daily life, it’s time to seek support. Social anxiety in any form is a common form of anxiety, so you’re not alone.

Asking for help can be difficult, but it’s important to speak to your GP, as they’ll be able to help. They’ll ask you about your feelings, behaviours and symptoms to find out more about your social anxiety. Alongside your doctor, opening-up about how you feel to a loved one or close friend can really help, too.

There are also several treatments available for social anxiety, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, also commonly known as CBT, or medication.

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Younger generation critical to economic recovery

The younger generation could be the key to economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and reverse mentoring could help drive positive change, says new research by Barclays.

Over a third (34%) of business leaders have reportedly noted the significant role that the younger generation will play in helping businesses survive and thrive post COVID-19.

LifeSkills, an initiative launched by Barclays to help young people attain the skills they need for work, outlined the attributes business leaders believe young people offer to struggling businesses.

Energy and enthusiasm (51%), aptitude for technology (46%), and creativity (40%) were the most common and desirable qualities leaders said young people would bring to work.

Lack of diversity attributed to fewer young workers

The great Millennials myth: The secret to motivating young people

Challenges HR faces with generation gaps

Just over nine in ten (91%) business leaders also said they would be interested in learning from the younger generation or those entering the world of work.

Over half (54%) had heard of the concept of ‘reverse mentoring’, when junior staff are paired with those more experienced to swap insights and add perspective on tackling business challenges.

However, fewer than one in ten (9%) business leaders say that reverse mentoring is already in place in their organisation.

Speaking to HR magazine, Kirstie Mackey, head of LifeSkills, said the research’s findings are really positive for HR as they show just how impactful mentoring is for people at all stages of their career.

“Reverse mentoring programmes can provide a forum for both parties to have open and honest conversations with colleagues who they wouldn’t necessarily interact with,” she said.

Mackey argued that switching up the traditional hierarchy can bring together the different skills of each generation and can shake up preconceived notions of each other’s challenges and perspectives.

“The mentors can add value now, helping current leadership to tackle the challenges of today and those being mentored can in turn, ensure that the younger generations feel respected and have the confidence and skills to effectively run the businesses of tomorrow,” she said.

The survey was conducted by Censuswide between 14 September and 2 October. The sample of the survey consisted of 552 business leaders/senior decision makers.

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Instead Of New Year’s Resolutions, Try This Instead

How to Make the Most of 2021 (and Beyond)

Many of us, champagne glasses in hand, toasted 2020 as the year everything was going to change for us. 2020 was going to be our year. But that’s not quite how it turned out. At least, not for many of us.

There is a well-known Taoist story of an old farmer that goes as follows:

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.


The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

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Daniel Mangena, CEO of Dream with Dan, teaches that external circumstances only determine our fate if we let them. While Covid-19 was arguably the worst thing to happen to most of us in our lifetime, Daniel would say, “Maybe.”

For every story of a business going under because of Covid-19, there’s another story of a business flourishing, doing better than ever. No, not the toilet paper or vaccine companies, or unethical businesses that tried to take advantage of their customers, but businesses that had to literally change the way they did business in order to survive.

Businesses such as restaurants, whose primary source of revenue was indoor dining, moved outdoors. And when outdoor dining was subsequently closed down, they made their delivery experience that much more convenient and inviting.

People who made a living speaking on large stages created video-based conference experiences that allowed a much greater and wider audience to attend from their own living rooms.

Major performers performed for smaller, more intimate audiences, and the elusive Broadway ticket was replaced with theater brought directly to our televisions. Family and friends connected more intentionally, and acquaintances that were in our lives only because of convenience, dissipated. Yes, for many this was the year to cocoon, to go back inside, and build back bigger and better.

Mangena teaches how to put down the sad story that there’s something wrong with 2020, and to recognize that in each and every moment, there’s a beautiful opportunity to create something new and wonderful. And it’s not by putting blinders on to the suffering of hundreds of thousands, but about being focused on one thing — the choices we make.

Daniel Mangena teaching to a room of onlookers in San Diego.
Daniel Mangena teaching in San Diego. BARRERA PHOTOGRAPHY
Here’s how we can turn adversity into opportunity.

Step 1. Take Responsibility for Where You Are

First of all, take responsibility for everything in your life.

No matter where we are and what we’re experiencing, put the responsibility where it belongs. Stop blaming Donald Trump, or China, or our skin color, or our gender, or our sexual preferences, or Covid-19, or global warming, or Mom. When we blame others for our conditions, we’re giving them the power over our lives. Take back that power for ourselves.

Even if we live in a situation in which we only have a few choices, we still have a choice, no matter how limited. Because the only people keeping us in our boxes is us.

Yes, there’s systemic racism, and sexism, and many other -ism’s that do exist, just like Covid-19 exists, but we still have a choice. Take responsibility for that choice.

This upsets a lot of people, Mangena warns. People argue that they didn’t choose to be poor, to get molested, to be robbed, to lose their jobs. Though that may be true to their conscious minds, 95% of what we bring into our lives, according to Bruce Lipton, Ph.D. comes from our subconscious minds.

So even if the conscious 5% of our mind is desiring good things in our lives, 95% is working under the surface playing scripts over and over such as, but I’m a woman, but I’m too tall, but I’m too short, but I’m not worthy.

Everything you’re experiencing right now is happening because you are spiritually and emotionally aligned with. What we do follows directly from what we think and believe, and what we think and believe follows directly from what we feel and where our energy and vibration is.

But, because that’s the case, if we start to make a change in how we’re feeling, in our energy and our vibration, we then start to make a change in what we’re thinking and believing. And that makes it infinitely easier for us to start showing up differently and make different choices, which, as a result, leads to a different reality.

Step 2: Know What You Want, As Precisely As Possible

Wanting more money is not enough. If it were, finding a dime in the street would fulfill it. Unless you know exactly what you want, it’s not going to happen.

It’s like getting into your car saying I’m going somewhere. And then just driving. You tell yourself, I can’t wait to get somewhere. Maybe you stop and do some yoga or meditation. Then you get back in your car and continue driving, telling yourself, I’m going somewhere. And then soon enough, you realize you didn’t get anywhere. So you blame the car, or the meditation, or the yoga.

Rather, you need to accept that this is your car, and, unless you tell your car where to go, it will never get there.

Step 3: Match Your Feelings, Beliefs and Actions to What You Want

If there is such a thing as real magic, then this would be the closest thing to a magic formula for creation. If you know what you want, and you can feel it consistently, and believe that it will happen, and your actions follow along with that, there is nothing that you can’t create.

And it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world outside. It doesn’t matter what’s happening with your mom and dad, your spouse, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your children, or the stock market.

It’s not that complicated. What gets complicated, however, is though we want to feel it, we have trauma. We want to feel it, but we’re up one day and down the next. We want to believe it, but success happens for other people, not us. We want to believe it, but look at all this evidence in our lives that everything always goes wrong. And then we want to do what we need to do, but we’ve got story after story telling us why it won’t work, so we keep acting in the same way and doing the same things. And then we just get the same outcome.

Most of us have reservoirs of stories between where we are and where we want to be in the form of past experiences, improper mirroring, and limiting beliefs.

When a baby enters the world, it doesn’t come with a story of why it can’t have what it wants. On the contrary, it cries and its parents try everything on earth to assuage it. It doesn’t think, well I was born a girl, and that means I’m only going to earn 81.6 cents on the dollar, and well, if I cry too much, I’ll upset these gentle giants who are around me most of the time, and they’ll start to resent me, and stop feeding me, and maybe send me out of this nice comfortable crib I’ve been enjoying, so I won’t cry too loud and draw unwanted attention to myself. No, a baby has no story preventing it from asking for what it wants and getting it — without even speaking. Now, that’s magic!

So how do we get rid of the stories of not being enough? By staying in the present. After all, our stories are either about a past that cannot be changed, or a future that hasn’t happened.

In order to help us stay in the present, Daniel provides a five-minute meditation available here that takes us back into ourselves and the present moment.

Once we’re in the present, we have to ask for what we want, and believe that we are going to get it.

Finally and arguably most importantly, we need to wake up each morning and look for the one action that’s going to move us closer to what we want, and take that action.

And we need to anchor that action and our results in a new feeling and belief by witnessing how the results are showing up into our lives and celebrating it.

Celebrate that you made an uncomfortable phone call, even if the results are different than you desired.

Celebrate the adjustment to your bank balance that gifted you an additional $9.17.

Yes, it’s not the 10K or 20K a month that you want to make, but it’s how it starts. Wishing for 10K a month, and expecting it to land in your bank account in one fell swoop while you’re sleeping is the bailiwick of dreamers, not achievers. Achievers measure, celebrate, and recalibrate when needed in order to reach their destination.

When we spend more of our time consciously choosing where we want our thoughts, beliefs, and actions to be, then our thoughts, beliefs, and actions don’t have the time to be where we don’t want them to be.

It’s not easy to let go of our stories and limiting beliefs. But, even if we don’t really believe that what we want to achieve is possible for us, simply by defining our vision and asking ourselves what, from that vision, can we step into today, will set us in the right direction.

For instance, if we want to make a million dollars but don’t believe it’s possible for us, maybe we can start by asking ourselves what can we do this week to make an extra hundred dollars, or this month to make an extra thousand? Momentum is a marvelous thing, and your mind doesn’t know the difference between manifesting a dollar, or a hundred dollars, or a million.

Step 4: Control What You Can, and Let Go of What You Can’t

Let’s face it, things happen. You decide to take the sailboat to Catalina but the wind has a different agenda. The experienced sailor adjusts her sails in response to the wind in order to still reach her destination. The wind isn’t bad or good. It acts regardless of our feelings about it. It’s what we do with the wind that determines whether we reach our destination. In fact, without the wind, the sailboat wouldn’t even be able to leave the harbor.

Step 5: Consistency is Everything

Once we learn to become present, raise our feelings and vibrations, and from that vantage point, look at our vision and decide what feels like the best next action to take, we can progress toward achieving it, regardless of what’s happening in the world around us.

The final step is a relentless consistency. Every day, preferably more than once a day, intentionally recall what it is you want, raise your feelings, your vibration to match it, engendering the belief that you can achieve it, and take the best next step.

It’s not enough to feel good. All this good feeling behind the wheel of your car, without pressing on the gas, will never drive your car.

And, when you’re on a 2,000-mile road trip, you don’t get to mile marker number 20 and say, that’s it, I give up, I’m never going to get there. Rather, you keep driving toward your destination, taking necessary detours when the road before you gets washed out, or Waze sends you on a wild goose chase.

You wouldn’t pull up the first sprouts of a new planting to see if its roots have taken shape. That kind of impatience kills what you’re trying to create. Rather, celebrate the sprouts and know full well that there are forces in nature that cause things to grow when we plant the right seeds, attend to them, and ultimately get out of the way.

According to Daniel Mangena, with this formula we can achieve anything we want. What, then, do you plan to do with your one wild and precious 2021?

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HR Transformation in 2021: It Starts with Practitioners

It’s that time of the year when everyone focuses on next year and predicts what HR must do or not do. The pandemic has accelerated the need for change across all HR functions, large, medium or small and whilst the drive for a digital world will be a key focus next year, for me any transformation has to start with the HR practitioners themselves. This is about whether they ‘fit’ with the new mindset and business demands that will be expected from them.

Drawing on the extensive research for my book that was released earlier this year, ‘Introduction to People Analytics’ (Kogan Page) I believe that all HR practitioners must be critiqued against the ‘6 C’s of HR’. The key principle throughout is that the HR function must operate in a commercial way in everything it does; after all greater digital tools means that more data will be available than ever before and the expectation of business leaders is that HR will become a value creation function, not merely a cost and efficiency function.

The 6 C’s
Curiosity: It’s vital that HR practitioners are constantly curious about the business in which they operate. The HR function needs to be able to give a comprehensive synopsis of the business environment within which the business or organization operates and clearly be able to focus upon those aspects that drive competitive advantage.

A comprehensive understanding of the business and its’ challenges will also enable appropriate prioritisation when it comes to determining where best to invest in the HR function. The pandemic, if nothing else, has shown that disruption and accelerated change is a part of everyone’s world. HR needs to be at the forefront of those issues and be able to proactively anticipate how best to help the business future proof itself against those challenges.

Credibility: Every HR practitioner needs to be financially literate; this drives true business credibility in the eyes of senior executives and leaders. That means being able to interpret financial statements, financial terminology and the financial indicators that drive the business and organisational outcomes. The key is being known as a colleague who can “add value” whatever subject is being talked about and whatever decision is being made rather than just being a talent expert. This isn’t about being a financial expert but about understanding the key imperatives that drive the organization’s balance sheet and being able to align HR’s activity to those aspects that it can impact upon the most, its people.

READ:: Collaboration is the Future

Confidence: Any transformational shift will require confidence across the HR function to make change and projects happen. After all, not every project realizes every anticipated change, but there must be an inherent confidence across all its practitioners that the approaches and solutions being offered are those that will drive the required improvement in performance.

It’s at this point that the HR function does need to demonstrate that it is “on top of the numbers”. This means being very conversant with the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or ‘People Metrics’ that are used to determine the success or failure of a section, team and department. Measuring performance against KPIs, especially in the form of ratios, provides the evidence to highlight strengths and weaknesses and this requires confidence to not only interpret the data but also to challenge and question the business about the observations identified.

Courage: The HR function needs to be continually focusing on generating, evaluating and then implementing new and better ways of working, especially with the increasing demand for automation. This means having the courage and bravery to identify performance improvement opportunities and different ways of doing things and not just within the HR function.

Connected: Being collaborative is important in bringing together different functions, ideas and leaders. This is where interpersonal skills – influencing, presenting, negotiating, leading, facilitating – are as important as the ‘hard’ skills around finance and numeracy. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of commerciality is a firmness of purpose, a tough mindedness to make things happen, to seize the initiative and to take tough decisions when needed.

The head needs to rule the heart by explaining to colleagues and direct reports what they need to hear not necessarily telling them what they want to hear. Being connected isn’t just about having effective relationships, it’s also about having those difficult conversations that sometimes need to be had.

Capability: Continuous development of capability is becoming more important across the whole workforce and the HR practitioner is no exception. Apart from improving financial understanding, there are several other important topics such as having a good grasp of business strategy and how it is formed, being conversant with operational effectiveness techniques, knowing what process improvement is all about and keeping up to date with the continual technological advancements that change almost on a daily basis. Add to that the shift to a more data-based approach and there is a critical change agenda for all HR practitioners during 2021. Remember, high performers never stop learning!

It’s an exciting time for HR with the pandemic providing challenges but also opportunities for transforming businesses and approaches that have ‘had their day’. Focus as much on changing and improving the capability of the HR practitioner as driving new transformations across your organizations. One can’t fully work without the other!

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The truth about long-term WFH

Working from home went from an occasional perk to a mandate for much of the white-collar workforce across North America practically overnight this year. And after an initial period of adjustment, many of the same executives who had once resisted remote work for their employees began to vocally embrace the benefits of working at home.

They marveled at their own improved productivity—”No more commuting!” They began to tout other potential benefits to the organization: access to a wider talent pool, savings on office space, more-efficient meetings, as examples. They postulated that their own sense of productivity gains was shared by all employees.

One by one, large companies began embracing various forms of permanent WFH: Google announced WFH until July 2021. Twitter and Square are offering permanent WFH options to their employees. REI sold its HQ campus as it shifted large numbers of its people to a permanent WFH environment.

Are they making a big mistake?

A different perspective
Not everyone is so enthusiastic about long-term working at home. Research has shown that many workers feel burned out and less engaged from juggling work and home demands.

And that good news about productivity? It appears to be a function of longer hours at work. WFH has extended the average workday by two to three hours, research from NordVPN and Microsoft (paywall) has found, citing distractions at home and the increased effort required to stay connected with colleagues. Many also find that boundaries have increasingly melted away—that lunch hours and an accepted “time to call it a day” have disappeared and that video meetings just keep expanding across all hours of the calendar.

Yet it is easy to understand how executives miss this countertrend to their experiences. They are often insulated by their own comfort (well-appointed home offices, older children, a spouse or partner who stays home, and high salaries that enable expenditures on additional household support services). And remote work itself and highly structured meetings makes it more likely that they will be unaware of frustrations of employees further down the corporate ladder.

People in senior roles also tend to already have strong networks in their companies, making it easier to continue to exert influence in the organization in a remote setting. However, due to either lack of rank or tenure, people without such a network may find it challenging to build one in a decentralized team. Over time, this leads to a strengthening of existing networks, not expanding or creating new ones. Virtual meetings leave fewer opportunities for quieter team members to make personal connections or for spontaneous chitchat. These interactions, particularly between junior and senior team members, are critical in building trusted workplace relationships.

Diversity and inclusion efforts can also be hampered, as members of underrepresented groups may hesitate to speak up in virtual discussions. For people who too often feel like outsiders, remote work can exacerbate that feeling of distance.

Closing the gap
Understanding and addressing the inequities and increased challenges that most employees face while working from home for extended periods starts with investing time in active listening. Coffees, lunches, and happy hours have long been ways to connect with colleagues on a more personal level. In a remote work environment, leaders need to work harder to create an open dialogue in which workers feel comfortable sharing their real fears, concerns, and challenges.

Start by scheduling virtual one-on-one sessions to check in on people’s health and well-being. Focus on listening, not providing solutions. Here are a few questions to get you started:

How are you and your family?

Do you have the support and resources you need?

What do you miss most about working from the office?

You can also help employees better engage and raise their concerns in a safe environment by rethinking and redeploying the engagement tools you and your company already have in place. Here are some ways we see companies effectively using existing tools and networks:

Create open channels within a central communication platform (such as Slack or Yammer) to address top-of-mind topics for employees.

Incorporate partners and children into virtual forums. For example, Vox Media introduced daily virtual story time, and Cisco hosted town halls on mental health for employees and their families.

Update employee engagement surveys to reflect the current environment by incorporating questions on mental health, willingness to return to the office, and productivity.

These actions alone will not correct the imbalance of power and privilege exacerbated by COVID-19, but they are a necessary start. For those companies committed to permanent shifts to working from home, there is an obligation to think deeply about how to offset the unintended consequences of these swift and seemingly efficacious moves. What may seem like a myriad of unexpected advantages to an executive often feels entirely different to an employee in a different stage of her career.

For those companies in the midst of decisions about permanent WFH, we might add the words of the crossing guard: Look twice before you cross this road.

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How (and why) to develop employee career paths

A generation ago, the typical employee career path was the classic “ladder,” with a series of clearly defined rungs for employees to climb. Now, with new technologies and disruptions creating the need for new skills and roles, career paths aren’t so clearly defined.

Your organization may benefit from defining career paths within your company, to keep your people engaged and loyal and to decide how to invest in your employees’ development. Without the old-fashioned ladder structure to guide you, career pathing requires a holistic approach and careful planning.

What makes a career plan different from employee development?
Before mapping career paths, it’s important to review the differences between employee development, succession planning and career pathing. These three practices are related but each has its own distinct goals.

Employee development, also called career development, identifies each individual’s role in the organization and the skills they need to keep contributing. It also includes what their interests and goals are and how do those align within the organization.
Succession planning identifies the right people to step into leadership roles when the time comes and ensures that they develop the skills they need for those roles.
Career pathing gives employees a map to the ways they can move within your organization, based on their interests, skills and personal career goals.
When is career path mapping most useful?
Any organization can map career paths, but it’s especially useful for companies that need people with a specific or hard-to-find set of skills and experiences. Career pathing can also be helpful for supporting internal promotion from entry-level and junior positions.

For example, if your business needs people who are in short supply, like data scientists, or people with a particular set of certifications, like social workers, career pathing can help you build an internal pipeline for those careers.

With clear career maps in place, your organization may also have a recruiting advantage. When you can show candidates their options for vertical and lateral moves within your company over time, as well as cross-training options, they’re better able to envision a long-term career there.

What are the potential pitfalls?
One caution to keep in mind, especially if you’re focused on career pathing to build internal pipelines: Take steps to make sure you’re also building a diverse culture.

If your internal career pathways are full of people with the same or similar backgrounds, educational experiences and lifestyles, your company’s innovation and brand appeal can stall.

It’s also important to leave enough room in your career paths to avoid creating overly restrictive requirements for education, experience and skills. Career paths are about guiding, not gatekeeping.

Flexibility in your pathways allows managers to identify people who can move along the paths with the right training, coaching and support, even if they don’t tick every box.

How do you plan career paths?
Start with your organization chart, to get an idea of the general career paths available within your organization for different roles.
2. As you’re mapping paths, use your company’s compensation policy in conjunction to keep your pathways as consistent and fair as possible.

3. It’s a good idea to include your HR people in your career pathing exercises, to help you identify the training and support that each pathway may require.

4. Keep in mind that not all pathways will be vertical. There may be opportunities for someone to shift sideways in your organization.

What might that look like?

Consider a community health care system that needs to use data analytics to schedule staff efficiently and improve patient outcomes. Rather than draw only one career path, from junior IT staffer to analytics, the employer could also create a lateral path for nurses who want to get trained in informatics and analytics.

5. Finally, step back from your career paths to think about how employees’ progress along them will affect your whole organization.

For example, how does moving someone from IT into data science affect your company’s infrastructure? If one of your nurses moves into an analytics role, what needs to happen to maintain patient care?

How do you talk to employees about career paths?
You can use your performance review schedule to discuss career path options with your team. You can then tie those discussions into your succession planning.

Keep notes on each employee’s preferences and performance toward their career goals. By comparing their goals and current skills to the path they want to follow, you can identify the best next steps.

For someone who’s underperforming but wants to do more, getting a clear idea of their preferred career path will help you see which skills and trainings to prioritize.

For an employee who’s a high performer, special projects can help them build skills to move along their desired path. These projects can also help them stay engaged even if there’s not a new position for them to move into just yet.

What about employees who are happy where they are?

Special projects are also a good option for them, to keep them engaged without the pressure to move up or sideways. As a bonus, these projects can help them build skills they’ll need if they ever do decide they’d like to make a move.

How do you set expectations?
Discussing career pathways with employees and candidates can be exciting. It’s important, however, to use those discussions as an incentive and for planning purposes without overpromising a particular outcome.

The existence of a career path doesn’t mean that every employee along the path will follow it, or that they’ll follow it from end to end. It’s crucial to be clear with your people that simply meeting the criteria to move up or sideways doesn’t mean that move will happen automatically or right away.

For example, if a social worker attains a new certification that allows them to advance to a managerial role, but there are no open roles, the employee will have to wait.

Career path conversations don’t need to be formal or follow a rigid schedule. You can check in with your employees in casual chats between performance reviews to see:

How everything’s going
Whether their goals are changing
Where they see themselves in a year or so
Then you can help them make the most of their journey along their career pathway.

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Workplace neurodiversity: the power of difference Creating a fully inclusive workforce might create a more innovative

According to research undertaken by The Institute of Leadership and Management, the workplace is not a happy place for many neurodivergent people. The majority of diagnosed autistic, dyspraxic and dyscalculic employees who responded to the survey, reported that people in their workplaces behave in ways that exclude them, with just under half of dyslexics and people who have ADHD/ADD having similar experiences.

Workplaces are far less inclusive of neurodivergent people than neurotypical people believe.
The private sector seems to be the least friendly place for neurodivergent people, as the research indicated that the third and public sectors seem to be more inclusive places. More neurodivergent people are employed, or it seems to be more acceptable to be open about the conditions.

Not being able to bring your true self to work is not a situation an enlightened employer should find acceptable. Hiding one’s true self requires energy and can be anxiety provoking; energy that would be better spent on one’s work, and being anxious about relationships with colleagues adds to the complexity of collaborating with colleagues.

Addressing the perception gap
This disquiet with the work environment reported by neurodivergent people is one that neurotypical people seem unaware of. A key finding from our research is that workplaces are far less inclusive of neurodivergent people than neurotypical people believe. The majority of neurotypical employees believe their workplace encourages behaviours that are inclusive of neurodivergent people, but half (or fewer) of autistic people, people with attention deficit disorders (ADHD/ADD) and dyscalculics don’t agree.

The extent to which a workplace is perceived to lack inclusivity varies according to the nature of an employee’s neurodivergent condition. Autistic people consistently report worse experiences compared with people who have other forms of neurodivergence. Dyscalculics and people who have ADHD/ADD are also inclined to say that the workplace lacks inclusivity. Dyslexics and dyspraxics enjoy a better workplace experience than other neurodivergent employees – although even their experiences are not as positive as neurotypical people believe.

Many neurotypical respondents are confident that reasonable adjustments for neurodivergence are made during recruitment and selection processes but many autistic, dyscalculic and dyslexic candidates disagreed. This suggests that leaders and managers may believe they are making adjustments for neurodivergent people but are either not making sufficient adjustments or, perhaps more importantly, not making the right adjustments. They are therefore not attracting and recruiting sufficient talented neurodivergent people because the processes, not the applicants, are wrong.

Respondents to the study claimed a high level of awareness around neurodivergent conditions. More people were very knowledgeable about dyslexia than other forms of neurodiversity. The majority knew at least a little about ADHD/ADD, autism, dyslexia and Tourette’s, with fewer than 3% saying that they had never heard of these conditions. Dyscalculia and dyspraxia are the least known conditions.

A perception gap between what managers think is happening and how that is experienced by others in the organisation, is a consistent and recurrent finding almost irrespective of the issue being researched. Nevertheless, this research highlights how detrimental this perception gap can be on the day-to-day experience of neurodivergent employees at work.

Unconscious bias
Although our findings show there are varying levels of inclusion in different sectors, there is a serious absence of references to neurodiversity in official policies and procedures. With one in seven people estimated to be neurodivergent, this must be impacting talent acquisition and retention. If recruitment and selection processes are not adjusted to be inclusive of neurodivergent applicants, they will be excluded without anyone being aware that this has happened.

While not receiving feedback form employers is a complaint of many unsuccessful job applicants, organisations rarely seek feedback from people who don’t apply for positions to understand whether there are actions that could be taken to be more inclusive and so widen the talent pool.

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The SolarWinds Breach Poses Five Urgent Cybersecurity Challenges For CIOs

If you compare cyber firefighting with battling wildfires, then the recent SolarWinds security breach is like an incredibly serious blaze that demands all hands to the pumps. Former federal officials say the attack could turn out to be the worst ever cyber breach of U.S. government systems.

More details of the hack will likely emerge as investigators continue their work, but the broad outline of what happened is already reasonably clear. The attackers, who are widely believed to be linked to Russian intelligence, found a way to hide malicious code in a software update for a product called SolarWinds Orion, which enables IT teams to monitor and manage the operation of computer networks through a single digital dashboard. Having gained access through this route, they were able to then compromise other areas.

The intrusion let the attackers monitor internal email traffic at a number of different agencies and it’s possible they were also able to get their hands on other sensitive information too. The incident has already triggered a far-reaching review of systems across U.S. government departments, including the Pentagon, the Treasury and the National Security Agency (NSA). According to a report in Politico, the hackers were even able to breach the the government agency in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. President-elect Joseph Biden has said he will “not stand idly by” while the U.S.’s national security is jeopardized.

A grave risk
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has recommended that federal agencies “disconnect or power down” SolarWinds Orion products. On December 17 it issued an update saying that it had determined that the federal government, state, local, tribal and territorial organizations, as well as critical infrastructure entities and private sector organizations all face a “grave risk” from the threat.

Although government agencies are in the eye of the storm, CISA’s warning makes clear businesses also have plenty to worry about. SolarWinds, which has said in an S.E.C. filing it believes 18,000 customers downloaded Orion-related code containing the malware, also counts plenty of large companies among its clients. The malware was present between March and June this year, but the hackers will have had access for far longer to Orion.

The hack could not have come at a worse time, with companies stepping up tech-driven innovation in response to the pandemic and government agencies leaning more heavily on digital solutions. Security experts and CIO-watchers say that tech leaders will need to focus on multiple priorities as part of response efforts. Some of the most important are:

Rolling back changes made to networks
Clearly any organization that thinks it may have been affected should follow the CISA recommendation and stop using the Orion software. But the challenge goes further than that. The attackers will almost certainly have used the malware to establish a persistent presence inside companies’ networks.

The challenging task facing CIOs and CISOs, says one former U.S. homeland cybersecurity executive who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, is to work out what was the last “known good” state when they can be sure the hackers were still on the outside. “These [hackers] appear to be pretty good at erasing their tracks, so it’s going to be a tough risk calculus figuring out that point.” Once decisions about how far back to go have been made, CIOs may have to rip and replace significant amounts of software and hardware in an effort to create “clean” environments.

Taking steps to contain hackers that have accessed networks
CIOs and CISOs should be looking at ways to minimize the interconnectivity of vendors’ software into their computing environments, say security experts. They should also be reviewing egress controls and the set of assets, from network servers to internal databases, that should not be able to communicate externally in order to reduce the risk that hackers can export sensitive information from them.

Finally, they should be limiting access to digital credentials such as administrator passwords that can be stolen to gain admission to other areas inside a network. “You want to keep the attacker stuck on the asset they initially ‘pop’,” says the CISO of one large U.S. company who also requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of the subject. “They literally can do nothing of harm if they can’t move laterally.”

Working out what else hackers may have accessed
CIOs and CISOs will be leaning heavily on backup plans and scrutinizing other areas of their tech infrastructure—as well as the applications running on it—for evidence of intrusion. Spotting this will partly depend on the quality of the digital records that companies keep. “Organizations should not only know their environments now,” says Alex Holland, senior malware analyst at HP, “but [also be] retaining enough data to retrospectively look for attacks.”

Striking a balance between short-term innovation and security
With the pandemic getting worse before it hopefully gets better, business leaders will want to keep digital innovation engines running in top gear. But CIOs who have been using the Orion software in question will likely want to throttle back digital projects while they are still conducting emergency reviews. Managing this tension will test tech leaders’ diplomatic skills in the weeks ahead.

Assessing whether other supplier code has been compromised
CISA’s statement today revealed it has discovered additional “access points” that the hackers had exploited. It didn’t say what these were but did make clear that it expects to uncover more. Some of these could well be in the form of other software supply-chain vulnerabilities.

Microsoft has revealed that it has notified more than 40 customers whose systems it believes were targeted and compromised by the hackers using what it calls “additional and sophisticated measures.” It said its investigations, which are ongoing, have found no evidence that its own systems were used to attack others. Other big tech suppliers are also conducting internal reviews. On December 18 Cisco said that while it doesn’t use SolarWinds for its enterprise network management or monitoring, it had “identified and mitigated affected software in a small number of lab environments and a limited number of employee endpoints.” It added that there had been “no known impact to…offers or products” so far and that it would contact customers if it uncovered any need for them to take remedial action.

“When you buy software, you’re buying a matryoshka doll of various vendors’ products nested inside and connected to the product [that] you think you’re buying,” says Joel Fulton, who was the CISO of data company Splunk before leaving to build a startup called Lucidum. “Your relationship is between you and your supplier’s unseen tertiary pyramid.” Combing through all of those pyramids is practically impossible, so CIOs will likely have to rely on random checks.

Racing against time
Unfortunately, it may already be too late for some organizations to frustrate the intruders, who will have used the access gained through SolarWinds Orion to blow away or bypass other digital defenses. Given the headstart the hackers had, CISA’s comment in its statement that it will be “highly complex and challenging” for organizations to remove the intruders from compromised environments is likely to be one that plenty of CIOs and CISOs find themselves repeating in the weeks ahead.

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When Communicating Bad News, Real Leaders Take Ownership

At your next corporate event, consider how best to leverage the CEO’s role during the presentation. Delivering only upbeat messages — while side-stepping any touchy subjects – is surely not the best choice. Real leaders take ownership of difficult announcements.

After the CEO speaks out first, to break the difficult news, a sequence of follow-up presentations, from several speakers, may be orchestrated to support the company’s storytelling. But the CEO has a unique role to play in the overall choreography of speakers. Shielding him or hear from carrying difficult topics, while farming to other speakers, can send an unwelcome message about leadership at the company – ‘passing the buck’. It’s up to the CEO to take ownership of difficult announcements, while trying to connect with the audience, to lead them forward.

Whether the audience consists of employees, shareholders, or potential investors, connecting with them during a presentation is crucial. Working backwards from an audience’s needs and expectations is the best way to generate audience engagement. Be empathetic. What does the audience fear, what does it aspire to? Put yourself in their shoes and try to address their concerns head-on.

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CEOs have a unique opportunity to shine, and to lead, when the news in bad. Resist the temptation to hand off difficult topics to others in the organization. In business, when the sea is smooth, even an inexperienced sailor can captain a ship. Real leaders tend to emerge, and be forged, during challenging times.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of those challenging times that revealed the strength of some leaders, or the weakness of others. Consider the effective crisis leadership in New Zealand, or the lack thereof in the United States or the United Kingdom, during the same period.

Some business leaders have stood out, by responding immediately to the challenging environment. Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner, shut down the basketball season in March, while GM and Ford transitioned their automotive factories to making ventilators. The strong leadership skills exhibited here include facing a crisis head-on, acknowledging health risks, and facing up to economic losses. These business leaders did not make excuses or try to sweep underperformance under the rug. They took ownership of a situation, even when it was dire. If you are spending too much time shifting blame, making excuses to explain underperformance, the posture itself becomes the message – i.e. to use an anatomical metaphor: when you point a finger, your fist has three other fingers pointing back at you!

Honesty is the Best Policy

It may be tempting to bury negative performance reports in the middle of a presentation, hoping no one will notice. Warren Buffett said, “The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” In communications work, to stop digging means to tell the truth, simply and effectively, so you can move forward, or, up and out of the hole. Many communications professionals are hired to help spin or hide ant unpleasant messages. The West Wing television episode titled, “Take Out the Trash Day” showed the press secretary planning to offload potentially embarrassing announcements on Friday, to feed them into the less viewed weekend news cycle, hoping to go un(der)reported.

However, strong leaders do not deny or hide when faced with negative news to announce. Leaders cut to the chase, and we consider them leaders precisely for doing so. A technique to remember is BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. Or alternately: KISS — Keep It Short and Simple. These approaches to messaging remain best practice in all circumstances, regardless of message content. “We thought X would happen. Y happened instead.” Audience reassurance comes first from acknowledging reality rather than denying it. As listeners, we are open to hearing explanations and analysis of why results differed from expectations if, and only if, the speakers seems honest, transparent and accountable – three other attributes of great leadership. Maybe the company is “on the right path, showing growth, but aspect X needs more time”. Continue to tell your story in short sentences, with no jargon. The storytelling approaches listed above will build more trust from your audience..

Strong Leaders Keep Moving Forward

Keep in mind that results, whether positive or negative, are already behind by the time we are in a situation to report on them. We can never change the past. Therefore, rather than crying over spilled milk, a better use your time in front of an audience is to pivot your storytelling to the future. As CEO, lead your employees and your investors forward. To quote leadership coach Brian Tracy: “Followers think and talk about the problems. Leaders think and talk about the solutions..” Use your presentation to press the reset button, and build a new point of reference from that moment on, to maximize the next phase of your growth trajectory.

CEOs, as leaders of their organizations, play a key role in delivering messages about company performance, both internally and externally. Unfortunately, and often through no fault of their own — simply because of the ups and downs of the business cycle — not all CEO announcements can be rosy. However, by engaging with their audiences, and addressing concerns head-on, and then pivoting our storytelling towards the future, leaders may be able to ensure that negative messages stay contained in the past.

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