Kicking off our project cycle in March 2020, the entirety of this year’s Best Workplaces in Ireland study was framed within the context of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, from a research perspective, it was a year like no other. Established ways of working were upturned overnight, carefully-laid plans shelved until further notice, and future of work trends kicked up a gear.

In total, more than 52,000 employees are represented in the 2021 Irish project, serving to highlight the extent of the commitment made by Irish organisations to developing high-trust cultures despite the year’s historic challenges. At the global level, more than 10 million employees across 97 countries are represented in the worldwide study, with eight Irish organisations appearing on the World’s Best Workplaces list.

Staying connected

The necessity of sustaining a sense of meaningful connection with a cohort of suddenly dispersed employees is made manifest when we look at some of the areas where Ireland’s best workplaces saw their most significant increases over the past year. An area that particularly stands out is the category of communication and involvement, which has seen one of the most significant increases on the 2020 study. Encompassing aspects such as management involving people in decisions that affect their jobs or work environment, and the tendency for management to keep employees informed about important issues and changes, this highlights the extent to which Ireland’s best workplaces ensured that employees were provided with regular and relevant updates throughout a rapidly changing and uncertain time.

Providing employees with a suitable workspace was a central conversation in 2020, with one of the highest percentage of respondents within the best workplaces agreeing to the statement I am given the resources and equipment to do my job. Despite the challenges of providing a traditional onboarding experience, another high sample were in firm agreement that when you join the organisation, you are made to feel welcome.

Keeping employees in the loop wasn’t always possible throughout 2020, particularly since for a significant period of the year, organisations themselves weren’t fully certain what the coming months would bring. Nonetheless, workplaces who had previously put in the work had built a ‘trust reservoir’ they could draw from – employees felt that their companies were credible and would act in their best interest, as evidenced in the increases across the categories of ‘management’s actions match its words’, ‘management delivers on its promises’ and ‘management is competent at running the business’.

Interestingly, the area where Ireland’s best workplaces stood out most from the average workplace benchmark over 2020 was in their response to the statement “This is a fun place to work”, which had the largest margin between their scores. Despite everything that 2020 threw at us, the organisations who are recognised on this year’s list appreciated the value of taking the time to retain an informal and playful sense of connection across their teams. Within a wider context where overwork and burnout are becoming all too regular, it’s heartening to see that ad-hoc workplace relationship remains a priority.

Challenges of 2020

The difficulty of providing meaningful in-person interactions over the past year is reflected in the only two statements that saw a decrease among Ireland’s best workplaces overall this year – “This is a friendly place to work” and “People celebrate special events around here”. However, the fact that these statements saw only a minimal decrease again serves to indicate that these workplaces have found creative and innovative ways of retaining a sense of togetherness despite the barriers.

While best workplaces as a whole saw a decrease across only two statements, organisations on the Small list (between 20 and 100 employees) warrant additional focus in the area of career and development, with numbers agreeing that “I am developing professionally working here” and “I can fulfil my career aspirations working here” both trending slightly down on the previous year. Smaller organisations may not have had the same bandwidth as larger ones to consider these areas over the past year, but as society begins to reopen over the course of 2021, it would be of benefit to them to begin leading that conversation internally.

Line management

Performance conversations were an area of note across the very best of the Medium and Large lists, where the percentage of employees agreeing that “My line manager gives me regular feedback on my performance” saw the largest increase. The best of the Small organisations actually saw a decrease here, again highlighting the challenges faced by smaller workplaces in this area.

However, what particularly stands out across the top of all three lists is the value that high-quality line managers have had on the employee experience throughout 2020. Interactions such as showing appreciation for good work and extra effort, genuinely seeking and responding to suggestions and ideas, and delivering on their promises have been key drivers across the scores in the very best organisations. Under ordinary circumstances, mid-level management plays a critical role in bringing the organisational strategy and cultural vision to life for the employee level, and this has become all the more pronounced when a remote or distanced workforce is the norm. Line managers at Ireland’s best workplaces have been essential at checking in with employees and ensuring they retain a sense of connection to their organisations over 2020.

High-trust culture

This year’s research findings are inevitably filtered through the lens of how these organisations responded to the ‘new normal’. Recognising that the best response to the pandemic was to continue their commitment to building trust through credible and consistent action, the organisations on the 2021 list of Ireland’s best workplaces accepted the challenge, and embraced the opportunity.

As we move forward into a year in which we expect to see a gradual reopening of society, it’s critical for all organisations across Ireland to take the time to reflect on what we can learn from the past year, and apply themselves to delivering on the fundamentals: a credible high-trust culture where all employees are empowered to do their best work.

 


Best Workplaces 2021 - A special supplement with The Irish Times


This article originally appeared in ‘Best Workplaces 2021‘ a Special Report from The Irish Times, published March 2021.

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