Welcome to FNEI Insights, the FiscalNote Executive Institute’s monthly thought leadership blog where we interview executives about top issues affecting companies, including sustainability; diversity, equity, and inclusion; digital transformation; and ESG. This month, we spoke with Jamie Bell, PAC Director at AstraZeneca, and Malcom Glenn, New America Fellow, about the challenges and opportunities in how companies can create and support community and connection among their employees.
Has your definition of community changed since the pandemic started? How do you now define community after everything we’ve been through the past couple of years?
Glenn: I think the pandemic has made clear just how much deliberate effort it takes to build real and lasting community. When things are going well, it can be easy to think that positive engagement between employees and a culture that appears as if it’s thriving are the explicit result of actions from leaders. But when everyone is stressed, on the precipice of burnout, and the external challenges seem overwhelming and never-ending, then you get a sense of which organizations have real communities embedded in their culture and for which ones it’s superficial.
Because to me, community is the degree to which there’s a sense of support within an organization. Do people feel like they can prioritize their well being without repercussions? Do leaders model behaviors that help employees understand how to lead their own teams? And is there a sense of pride that folks feel around the work they’re doing and the institution they’re representing? The more “yeses” in response to those questions, the stronger the sense of community. The last two years have been a crash course in dealing with tough stuff, and I think we’ve gotten a real sense of what organizations are made of and how much community truly matters to them.
Bell: During the pandemic, work relations became digital and felt a little bit more transactional, through all the different technology we were using. I think that really impacted morale, the feeling of being a team, and mental health for a lot of folks, too. At home, not feeling that time for community (that we shared in the office) was … a realization that I had, because I wanted and needed to feel that at home, too. But it was just sort of this busyness, this rushing. Building community takes time, it takes effort, it takes knowing that we are human beings at the end of the day; we can’t just be doing and producing all the time. I would define community as connection and closeness with those around you. This takes effort, relationships take effort, they need to be prioritized and nurtured. And it’s really a give and take.
In your experience, what are companies getting right, when it comes to helping employees feel connected and like they’re part of a community? Where could they improve?
Glenn: Community isn’t something that can be created out of thin air; it takes long-term investment, ongoing emphasis, and it’s something for which both leaders and rank-and-file employees need buy-in. Companies whose employees have effectively leaned into community during the pandemic are ones that built that sense of community and culture for years, well before the pandemic. And it’s been particularly fascinating—if not particularly surprising—to see so many companies stumble through trying to show that community matters to them, when it clearly doesn’t.
Never was that more apparent than in the aftermath of the social justice protests during the summer of 2020, in the days and weeks following George Floyd’s murder. Countless companies that had never, ever meaningfully considered the experience of Black Americans—let alone their Black employees, however few there were—were putting out statements and making commitments that have been proven exceedingly hollow in the 18 months since. Unsurprisingly, as the global outcry from non-Black Americans has died down, so has the willingness from companies to square their actions with their words from that moment. For far too many companies, the appearance of community was and is far more important than the reality. Real community means putting in the real work behind the words—and, importantly, not just when people are paying attention.
In general, how do you think companies can create more connection and community among their employees? Are there specific benefits you feel really matter here that you can speak to? What about activities or ways of communicating?
Bell: Opportunities for team building, both within your immediate team and across teams, is really important in developing that sense of community, those relationships, and expanding your internal network. Good benefits are vital … in attracting and retaining talent. … At the end of the day, we are human beings … so much more than our work lives.
Really taking care of us, as people, too, and our families, is incredibly important. I have seen a lot of companies really step up in the last year or so. And realizing that you have to take care of your employees … This goes beyond making sure that people have adequate vacation days and holidays and have sick leave, not just for themselves, but for, you know, their loved ones, if they were to get sick, that they can have that time away to care for loved ones. … Another benefit that I applaud companies for offering these days – and I’m seeing it a bit more – is a sabbatical. … I’m seeing that offered more after several years of tenure at a company, where folks are just granted some time off.That extended time off to rest and to reflect and to do some creative projects, it’s really fulfilling to us as human beings, and also as employees.
Can you talk about the concept of leading by example, as it relates to community mental health and taking care of employees?
Bell: I think it’s our leaders taking the opportunity to to be vulnerable, to be authentic, to share their experiences, and also to really have an ear open to listen to their employees to receive that feedback, whether it’s through surveys, one on ones … to really take that pulse on where their employees at, how they’re feeling. What are their needs, how have things evolved? That’s incredibly important. And I think we’ve seen too, you know, employees having a little bit more leverage these days, employee activism at companies. I think this can really be a good thing and can make our workplaces more viable and more sustainable and healthier and happier places for all of us for the long term.
Glenn: Community can’t be adjacent to a company’s strategy or how it operates; it needs to be an integrated part of the company’s approach. And importantly, it doesn’t stop there: it’s paramount for employees to be both aware of and be bought in on that integration. Practically, that means leaders need to do a few basic but important things: regularly make themselves available to answer questions from employees, be transparent with employees about the decisions they make and why they make them, and provide ongoing updates when things are going well and when they’re going poorly.
Ultimately, creating more connection and community is really about treating employees like the thoughtful adults that they are, and giving them the resources to thrive. Not doing this simply isn’t a sustainable way to run a business that’s likely to succeed long-term, and I’ve always believed that companies that undervalue their employees will inevitably face a reckoning. When and in what form that reckoning takes place varies from company to company, but the fate of so many companies makes it clear: cultivating true community is a rare instance of the incentives being mutually aligned for everyone involved.