2020, where to begin? What to conclude from it, is perhaps an easier question to answer. As I write this, there’s a real sense of hope and excitement for what this year may bring. When you have time to exhale (thanks to the kids being back at school and not having to make a twelfth round of pitta bread just before your meeting starts), you have time to reflect. Undoubtedly it’s been the toughest year to get through, but one that we have all done together and one that has left us more in touch with ourselves and those around us than ever before.

Ironically, despite the physical distance that has been wedged between us, we have been brought closer to each other’s private worlds through a screen just inches away. We’ve met partners, children, housemates, shameless cats and impatient pups — all brought into the frame with an excited wave for another human from the seemingly distant world outside.

This year has taken away some of the distractions in life and for some people, cranked up the pressures. Whether you’ve been lucky enough to breeze through lockdown or, like the majority of people, found the months unbearably tough, one thing is for sure: we have all been forced to seek out ways to get us through the day. To remember what we love doing, to learn what keeps us well, rests our mind and brings us balance in life. I passionately hope that these learnings resolve the issue of work-life balance and bring in its place a clear understanding of how to achieve a better life overall, one that is as vibrant, complicated and all-encompassing as that might be.

"I have stripped back every process to focus first on the individual, a person."

At SevenC3, we have always talked to people about ‘the whole of you’. All 121 conversations begin by asking: “How happy, how confident, how stressed do you feel?” This helps open up more meaningful conversations than a simple “How are you?” might bring. These conversations happen regularly and form the foundation of career progression, target-setting, training and access to mental health and wellbeing support.

Thankfully, gone are the days of simply setting smart objectives, which have been replaced with an appreciation that everyone is driven by different things and those influences change over time. I have stripped back every process to focus first on the individual, a person. Not Tom the Account Manager but Tom with his previous experiences, a passion for freshwater swimming, a tendency to bouts of anxiety and Tom’s wishes for the future.

"Having the confidence to feel it’s okay to communicate when you’re not okay to an employer can be life-changing."

As individuals we’re constantly changing because of our ever-shifting lives and the lives of those close to us. Being in tune with how this may be affecting you and having the confidence to feel it’s okay to communicate when you’re not okay to an employer can be life-changing. Half of our employees have leaned on the support of our CBT specialist over the past year and all have been encouraged to have open conversations about how they are coping generally. Needing emotional support is talked about openly at all agency meetings as an everyday part of life.

My wish is that our approach helps people to be themselves and to open up as much as they feel comfortable to do so. We shouldn’t have to hide parts of our identity in order to fit in at work. When you feel you can be yourself, whatever that self may be, it leads to a reassuring sense of belonging and inclusiveness, a richer more diverse environment and one that breeds creativity and great results for individuals and the business as a whole. So, there’s no question for me that it should be the core ethos driving our people strategy and culture.

"We shouldn’t have to hide parts of our identity in order to fit in at work."

It is by chance that our approach in supporting and developing people at SevenC3 has been cemented and practised due to the events of the past 12 months. Every workplace is different and the culture and individuals that make up that culture vary, but here are my tips to help grow a culture that embraces individuals as a whole and drives performance by starting with placing the person first. Once fully embedded into your culture, it will help get you through almost anything.

1. Make it personal right from the start.

Candidates are looking for somewhere they will fit in, where they can be themselves and can see evidence that consideration and decency towards others are encouraged. Try to weave in a sense of personality and inclusivity into job adverts. Bring this point through in interview questions to ensure you’re hiring people who have an appreciation of how to work with different characters.

Openly talk about flexibility in working patterns. Thinking of flexibility beyond childcare needs makes it okay for individuals to find that balance between work and wider passions. Share any wellbeing support that you have for employees and talk about how you can support those who have worked through mental health challenges in the past.

2. Make it real.

To avoid token gestures, make sure you have the right support and approach in place if an individual does put their hand up to say they are not okay.

Does your absence policy rigidly penalise those who need time off? This can be a huge factor in individuals pushing on through.

Do you have a wider support network for individuals to talk to?  This could be a CBT specialist, counsellors or other professional support and advice.

We all react differently when our mental health has taken a knock. Some throw themselves into work, some become short-tempered, distracted and make more errors, some appear to be the life and soul of every party, while others totally withdraw and it’s very hard to know what is going on and what might help. The point is to avoid defaulting to looking purely at performance. Take a step back first and consider what might be the cause of any changes in character and performance and what would actually help in each individual situation.

How do you support individuals who are training in other areas outside of work or who have hobbies and passions that they would like to fit in during the working week?

Just check in on how flexible the culture is and if presenteeism is the measure of performance, then you may be inadvertently placing barriers in front of some groups of individuals. 

3. Raise awareness of mental health, diversity and inclusion.

There are many mental health first aid training providers that can help to increase knowledge in a wide range of mental health topics that arise in the workplace. We are training a number of people via Mental Health First Aid England and you can find a number of fantastic learning aids as part of their My Whole Self campaign on their website. 

Train senior leaders and all managers in approaching conversations with a more holistic approach. Importantly, also raise awareness and review commitments to diversity and inclusion.

Share any useful tips, tools and apps that will help and encourage employees to find ways to create balance in their lives.

4. Share experiences.

Actively encourage employees to talk. At SevenC3, we run coffee chats as a chance for mixed groups of people to get together socially, virtually, during lockdown. Sometimes the chats focus on a topic, such as “What are you doing to keep well?” or “What are you really struggling with at the moment?”

We’ve also organised group sessions for working parents to talk, vent and see that others are going through the same issues.

You could also run quick breakfast chats, where individuals can share their passions, learnings and experiences. It helps us all get to know each other better and shows the diverse lives that we lead.

5. Cultivate a culture built on trust and flexibility.

Flexibility shouldn’t be seen as something given just to support childcare. It gives people the freedom to work in a way that brings out the best in individuals. Be that making time to visit the allotment, taking a mid-morning run or giving your time for a volunteering project, it empowers people to set their own boundaries for their working day. For me, that is trying to keep mornings for meetings and creative thinking, afternoons for admin and research and trying to find time for a walk or some exercise during the day, whenever that might be. The ideal way of working differs from person to person but if a business operates through a core sense of trust in individuals to get the work done, then people are truly free to create their optimal working environment.

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