In the early-20th century, Henry Ford paid his workers above the industry average. In exchange he expected them to be “sober, thrifty, and maintain a positive attitude” both inside the factory and out. Ford’s Education Department surprised employees at home with spot checks and docked pay if they didn’t meet those standards.
Johnson & Johnson’s “Live for Life” 1979 health program set an early example. Its weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs extended some carrots along with a faint shadow of a stick. After doling out 36,000 pedometers, the company proudly reported fewer absences and lower healthcare costs.
Company wellness programs have long been eyed with suspicion for about as long as firms have taken an interest in how employees live off the clock. Startup culture hasn’t exactly helped advance the concept of employee wellness and so-called “work-life balance.” Chef-prepared dinners, chair massages, and on-site yoga classes feel less like a helpful nudge to stay healthy and more like a shove to stay in the office.
Of course, productivity is a major concern with an all-remote workforce. And due to the global pandemic, most of us who are fortunate enough to continue working are remote workers. But this isn’t the time to cuff employees with Fitbits or finger-wag at unhealthy eating habits. Rethinking how to support workers beyond the office is key to surviving the pandemic (without costly turnovers).
These days, half of U.S. companies now offer a wellness program, and research touts the benefits such health programs bring to the bottom line. But what really kills worker productivity? According to a 2015 study, on workplace health and well-being: “lack of sleep, financial concerns, and giving unpaid care to family members or relatives.” In other words, the culprit is not what we think of as an “unhealthy lifestyle”—it’s the all-too-familiar realities of life and family that often get in the way.
This is how our company followed a path toward prioritizing well-being these past few months.
The “make-or-break” moment
By the end of March and still in the early days of lockdown, it was clear our staff needed a boost to maintain their resolve. As a globally distributed company of about 200 people with offices in San Francisco, Paris, and Tokyo, most of us had worked from home or an airport lounge, but this was different.
The coronavirus sent some people to hunker down with extended family, separated others from their kids, and left some stranded abroad with roommates for company. While everyone presented upbeat expressions on our weekly all-hands online meetings, the pandemic situation felt decidedly more like the premise of No Exit (the image of workers miserably chained to their desks) than The 4-Hour Work Week.
Employee well-being is baked into our company DNA (even our coffee cups say “Work Hard, Play Hard, Eat Well and Amaze the Customer”), but our pre-pandemic program needed a reboot. After all, what good is a discounted gym membership if facilities are shuttered? What’s the point of travel perks when you can’t leave home? This is when we decided to funnel funds from the old perks into something everyone needed—a wellness makeover.
Leaders putting their skin in the game
Our CEO, who is of French heritage, believes that the time spent on activities he feels passionate about (such as kitesurfing or sailing) is as important as when he logs on for work.
The French expression bien dans sa peau, which translates to “good in your own skin,” is about confidence and feeling good about yourself rather than focusing on your appearances or weight. The phrase imbues new meaning to the workplace. For our company, “good in your skin” equates to workers embracing space and confidence for themselves to explore intellectual areas of interest, as well as to face failure.
Our leadership team embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, and our employees feel comfortable, without guilt, to take the time to pursue their passions as well. Scality’s leaders take it upon themselves to lead by example.
Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve given employees even more time and, yes, money to spend on creative outlets outside of work. This year, the gym allowance can be used for exercise equipment or online workout classes. More importantly, people who would rather forego dumbbells and Pilates classes can use the money for creative pursuits. The company presentation announcing this policy featured a 7,500-piece Lego Millennium Falcon, in order to let people know their pick could be something fun. As a result, staffers have purchased musical instruments, video games, and rock-climbing gear, while others have used the stipend to embark on home improvement projects.
Discourage around-the-clock work
Our CEO tells us point-blank not to work all the time. The mentioned 2015 study makes another interesting finding about presenteeism: About half of workers who felt they were subject to “unrealistic time pressures” were literally more stuck at their desks. In the current climate, that’s a fast track to costly burnout.
To help facilitate companywide well-being, we’ve made a few additional tweaks to our perks. For example, the language classes once offered in-person have gone virtual, for safety purposes. We also amended our donation-matching program for approved charities and nonprofits—an effort that’s given our staff a renewed sense of purpose and has grown twofold since the start of lockdown.
Commit to health benefits
In light of the pandemic, priorities may shift—from the coral-reef gardeners we supported with donations last year to frontline health workers today—but it’s important to maintain a vested interest in the communities where we work and do business. And let’s not overlook the fact that some priorities deserve to remain priorities—in our case, we’re staying committed to covering 100% of employee health insurance premiums.
As we all take a look at what it means to foster well-being in our companies, it will pay off in the long run to modify the programs already in place rather than putting them on hold or shrinking them. Now is the time to double-down on well-being for sake of our businesses and the humans who bring life to them.
Roxanne Crossley is Scality’s chief of staff and the right hand to the software company’s CEO. Roxanne directs the execution of the company’s strategic initiatives and is responsible for creating and maintaining the cross-departmental relationships to enable leadership’s success.