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It's Time We Made Space For Vulnerability In The Workplace

This article was originally posted on Forbes.


Author: Christopher Cabrera , CEO and Founder, Xactly Corp, the leader in sales performance management that delivers planning, execution and optimization to top enterprises.

It seems there's nothing the pandemic hasn't touched — our health, our economy, our relationships and so on. Coming to grips with living in the middle of a global crisis is difficult enough on its own, but pairing that with the sheer uncertainty of what lies ahead is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed.

Though conversations are beginning to shift toward reopening the economy and transitioning back to the way things were, the truth is that society will look fundamentally different on the other side of this. Change will be gradual.

We can't push forward with business as usual without acknowledging this strange, even harsh, reality. A reality that has not only professional implications, but personal ones, too. It's time we talked about them candidly.

A 2019 report from Mind Share Partners revealed that 86% of employees felt it important that their company culture supports their mental health — but 60% hadn't talked to anyone at work about their mental health in the past year.

Today, mental health concerns are rising across the country. According to a new survey from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than half of Americans reported experiencing anxiety (53%) and sadness (51%) more often now than they did before the pandemic. ICF reported that worries about the spread of COVID-19 were tied to a higher number of bad mental health days.

These psychological impacts are rendering it more essential than ever that workplaces foster a culture of openness around mental health. That starts with leadership getting comfortable with vulnerability and giving employees the space and support they need to express themselves.

Here's how I've tried to embody that mentality, and how you can too:

Ask people how they really are.

When I join a virtual meeting, I replace the customary, small-talk script with something radically different. With intention, I ask everyone to take a step back and tell me how they're actually doing — and encourage them to be honest with me. To be human.

The other half of the bargain is that I am fully transparent with them in return.

We're experiencing this bizarre journey together, and there's no formula for how to navigate it. Why pretend to be fine if we're not? Struggling is a natural reaction to something as stress-inducing as a global pandemic.

For my fellow technology and business leaders, I urge you to do the same in your daily exchanges — and also, more broadly, to take a regular pulse of how your employees are feeling through surveys. While the business might be operating efficiently on paper, it's critical to remember that employees have more than usual on their minds outside of work. Proactively checking in, and giving them a forum to tell you what they need, will ensure that work isn't adding more undue pressure onto their plates.

Set a realistic pace.

If remote work is to become a more permanent norm, we have to slow down. Without physical separation between home and the office, it's far easier to overwork ourselves in this paradigm.

Since transitioning to working from home, my calendar has been filled with twice as many meetings as before. Video calls, by necessity, have replaced face-to-face interactions, which means instead of walking by a co-worker's desk to ask a question or have a conversation in passing, we are confined to a chair, staring at a screen for hours on end.

When possible, I've started taking meetings while walking outside, and I encourage my teams to adopt this as well. Not every call has to be a video call; we should provide people with the trust and autonomy to find a structure that works for them.

That said, sometimes more than just small breaks are needed. Now more than ever, it's important to take mental health days. However, if made optional, many employees may not feel comfortable enough to ask for them or to go fully offline if they do.

If it's feasible for your business, my advice is to close your office. I made a decision to give all my employees a wellness day in April to provide a much-needed and deserved rest. It was so successful that we had another one in May, and are planning to build them in regularly moving forward. Ultimately, taking time off breeds creativity and productivity.

Provide flexibility.

When companies do eventually consider returning to office spaces, they should provide employees with the option to determine their own personal timeline and balance. Just because there will come a day when we are allowed to open our offices doesn't mean we should force people to fill them.

Our internal surveys have shown that folks are evenly split on returning to the office: Some can't wait to get back, while others prefer working from home, whether for convenience or peace of mind. Others are simply looking for more flexibility to divide their time equally between the two spheres. I am of the mindset that each camp should be empowered to decide which route they'd like to take.

Ultimately, giving your employees permission to be human means leading authentically and by example. There is so much happening in the world beyond our control right now, making it imperative that we lean on the things we do have control over — like treating others with empathy while finding and honoring our own personal boundaries. That may look like declining a Friday afternoon meeting that can wait until Monday, or letting your teams know that you are muting your Slack notifications for a couple of hours.

The notion that vulnerability in the workplace is a sign of weakness is outdated. Thankfully, that sentiment is changing — I'm seeing it every day in my interactions with colleagues. And while, like anyone, I still struggle sometimes, I have been finding silver linings. The brightest? Seeing my professional relationships become a little more personal, and a little more human.

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