A GREATER FOCUS ON EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. There are very few positions that work in silos — most of us work in teams. Your teammates are likely the best resource you have in helping you increase your wellness. That means there will be an increased focus and training in understanding each other’s personality types, burnout cues, strengths and weaknesses to help us all stay healthy, motivated and engaged.

The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and to work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose one — life or work — at the cost of the other. Working from home brought life literally into our work. And as the world now goes hybrid, employees are drawing firmer boundaries about how much of their work comes into their life. Where does this leave employers? And which perspectives and programs contribute most to progress? In our newest interview series, Working Well: How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness, we are talking to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, leaders, and thought leaders across all industries to share ideas about how to shift company cultures in light of this new expectation. We’re discovering strategies and steps employers and employees can take together to live well and to work well.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cecilia Williams.

As Halbert Hargrove’s Chief Operating Officer, Cecilia manages the day-to-day operations of the firm. Her role requires a deep understanding of clients’ needs as well as Halbert Hargrove’s internal operations. Some of her responsibilities include recruiting and managing the firm’s wealth advisor and operations teams — specifically, fostering an environment of exemplary client service. In addition, as Chief Compliance Officer, Cecilia is responsible for oversight of Halbert Hargrove’s compliance strategies firm-wide.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Tell us about a formative experience that prompted you to change your relationship with work and how work shows up in your life.

After working in the wealth management industry for over 16 years, I would like to say that my formative experience was years ago when I was too young and inexperienced to know any better. As I now know, growth doesn’t always happen in a straight line. It was a very abrupt and recent personal wake-up call that prompted me to reevaluate my work/life relationship.

In 2021, our family was expanding: I was several weeks pregnant, and we were excited about our son having a little brother or sister. At the same time, one of the firm’s largest initiatives was on my plate: It was a complete revamp of our advisor compensation, which took months of research, due diligence, and sessions with our Chairman and CEO. We were in the final stages of delivery, which meant individual meetings with each advisor to walk through the changes.

The compensation meetings were going well until one morning I woke up with pain so excruciating I couldn’t walk. My husband and I raced to the emergency room, where within what felt like a blink of an eye, I was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, yet I was back to work within three business days. I too quickly jumped back into business as usual and my ability to recover properly was significantly delayed because I continued to push myself too hard.

I would like to say that after that incident I immediately re-evaluated my relationship with work and made changes for the better. However, it took months of self-reflection and coaching to unwind years of unhealthy habits. And today, I’m still a work in progress. The good news is I also work for an amazing firm of people who show up in the best ways for our associates. In my time of need, there was no issue in pushing back meetings and delaying deadlines –I received unbelievable support as I recovered. My peers gave me all the time I needed, but I was the one who was too stubborn to take it. Knowing that now has helped me have a healthier relationship with work, create more boundaries for myself, and ease the guilt of knowing I can’t, nor should I have to “do it all.”

I know I’m not alone; especially while we’ve been remote, many of us have suffered personal challenges, adversities, or trauma that we faced alone. My biggest takeaway? Just like our clients, employees shift through different life phases throughout their lives. And if you hope that your employees will work for you for decades — which we profoundly do — you’ll likely experience those shifts with them and will need to support them. It’s the mirror image of how we’re there for our clients: Everyone faces times in their lives where work needs to take a back seat, and that’s OK.

Ultimately, my own experiences have brought home for me that our employees work incredibly hard at their craft and it’s important to build a workplace that supports them — and let them know it!

Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and to assess their employees’ mental, physical and financial health. How does your organization define wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?

Our company’s motto is the ‘fearless pursuit of well-lived todays and tomorrows’. That is not simply reserved for our clients: We’re focused on living that with our employees as well. This means recognizing that work plays a large role, but is not our employees’ whole lives. At the organizational level, we also recognize that we have the financial means and the decades of experience to help guide our employees on the path of wellness. Even when they may not be cognizant of it yet for themselves, we try our best to provide guidance and set the right example as a firm.

We measure wellness in many ways, but the most obvious and impactful is through feedback. While we have an open-door policy — right now online as we’re not yet back in the office — we realize that some associates may not always feel comfortable voicing their concerns. So we try to create many opportunities for them to share feedback: we issue anonymous surveys annually that measure work/life balance, we conduct one-on-one meetings, and we provide mentorships as well as group settings that facilitate conversations on how we can improve.

Of all these measures, I can’t overstate how important it is to simply have a manager who takes a genuine interest in listening and helping those they manage to fulfill their wellness goals. As I mentioned, it’s our job as a company to use our experience and resources to help our employees.

A personal example I have is pre-pandemic, when mortgage rates were at what we thought would be all-time lows. I was so busy with work and managing my family that I knew I should get around to refinancing, but could never seem to get around to it. One day, my boss pulled me into his office and told me he had done a cost-benefit analysis. He showed me in dollars how much money I was leaving on the table by not refinancing immediately. He also put me in touch with his mortgage broker who could facilitate the refinance quickly. Those are the not-so-small things that can have a huge impact on someone’s financial well-being long term, and show how much the company cares about your personal wellbeing.

Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?

A huge driver of productivity and profitability is employee retention. The average tenure of our associates is more than 10 years, and I really believe it’s due to our focus on wellness. The current job market is a testament to that. It’s very clear that employees have options, companies are hungry for talent, and people can now literally work anywhere in the country or world. If employees are not happy or don’t feel like their workplace is conducive to wellness, they have many other options. Our hope and goal is to quantify the impact of wellness in the workplace by our employee longevity. Employees will stay not because they have to, but because they want to.

Another impact on productivity is an increase in capacity, and I’m speaking of capacity in a broader sense. It’s not just a function of how many tasks you can complete or your ability to get your email box down to zero. Capacity also means having the emotional and mental wherewithal to take on new and challenging projects, continue with further education, and engage in improving the organization at all levels.

Lastly, you see this impact in overall engagement. Employees who feel that they are taken care of have higher levels of engagement — with their teammates, with their managers, and with clients/customers.

Even though most leaders have good intentions when it comes to employee wellness, programs that require funding are beholden to business cases like any other initiative. The World Health Organization estimates for every $1 invested into treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. That sounds like a great ROI. And, yet many employers struggle to fund wellness programs that seem to come “at the cost of the business.” What advice do you have to offer to other organizations and leaders who feel stuck between intention and impact?

When you think of wellness in terms of programs or perks, you already start to pigeon hole yourself into a standardized set of benefits that you spend time analyzing in terms of cost, impact to bottom line, etc. It can definitely be paralyzing. In reality you should think about this as a wellness mindset. It means flexibility. It means fearless conversations with associates to determine what they actually need. It means having empathy and truly caring about your employees in ways that allow you to create plans that work for each individual vs. blanket benefits that may or may not help most employees in an impactful way.

This does not mean in any way that a mindset is less costly than a traditional wellness program. It’s actually the opposite. It takes time to really engage with associates and ensure they are truly supported, but we believe in the end the payoff is exponentially higher.

Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?

We focus on each candidate’s actual needs — we always ask them what they are looking for in a company. We do as much discovery as possible, so we can get a good gauge on if we’d be a good fit. Employers can often forget that the interview/recruitment process is a two-way street. We should all be looking to ensure that we are the right place for the employee as well. Questions like “what work environment do you work best in” or “how do you like to be trained” are key in determining if we’ll be a good fit, and it also gives candidates the opportunity to ask more about the firm and if they feel it would be a place conducive to their work philosophy and skillset.

We’ve all heard of the four-day work week, unlimited PTO, mental health days, and on demand mental health services. What innovative new programs and pilots are you launching to address employee wellness? And, what are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.

  • Mental Wellness: It’s a hot topic lately, but mental wellness cannot be discussed without addressing the elephant in the room: return to office. There is a lot of anxiety out there focused on this and we think that it’s due to the lack of flexibility. Employees may want to return to the office, but they also want to maintain flexibility — which is key to mental wellness. Taking care of your family, pursuing further education, fulfilling personal commitments, or taking time for yourself doesn’t always fit neatly within after-work hours and weekends. Allowing flexibility for associates to work remotely gives them access to take care of themselves or others in ways that may not be possible if they are in the office every day.

Our goal is to create a plan that allows us to engage and keep our corporate culture alive, yet offers a lot of the flexibility that employees grew accustomed to over the last two years. This means getting together in or out of the office socially, reducing meetings unless content is impactful (no more “fluff”), and trusting that our associates are able to use the flexibility with discipline to make them more productive at work and home.

  • Emotional Wellness: We engage every new associate with a mentor right from the start, so they have a supportive colleague in the firm to help them navigate their new role. We know it can be scary (especially if starting remotely), and we hope providing an extra support system for associates helps to provide an outlet that promotes more emotional wellness. For existing associates, we also utilize an external business coach that associates have access to on a recurring basis who can help them navigate team issues, client issues or personal development and goals for themselves.
  • Social Wellness: We encourage associates to continue to interact — especially while working remotely. The firm sponsors get-togethers outside the office since we don’t see each other most days. But we also encourage associates to take each other out to breakfast or lunch (on us!) so they can stay engaged with others whom they may no longer interact with on a recurring basis.
  • Physical Wellness: Unlimited PTO has become more commonplace these days; we think there’s a big difference between marketing unlimited PTO and following through and encouraging it. We try to follow up with associates to actually check that they are using their vacation time. And if they aren’t, we really motivate them to do so.
  • Financial Wellness: We increased our monthly childcare reimbursement from $400 to $1,000 per month during the pandemic. Whether it’s an in-home caregiver or daycare costs, we want to give families financial support here. We know this translates to more mental and emotional support as well. We also make 529 contributions to associates with children. We feel it’s important to do our part in helping save for the education of our future generations. And lastly, we also support continuing higher education for our associates. Whether it’s their MBA, or credentials like the CFP or CFA, Halbert Hargrove fully covers the costs of these programs.

Another thing that’s important to note about any benefit: You learn by trial and error. We try not to shy away from innovations if we think they can be impactful — but sometimes they don’t turn out as we expect. As an example, a few years ago, we adopted a no-meeting policy on Tuesdays/Thursdays to create more focused time for associates. That ultimately failed; it’s hard to balance client meetings as well as internal meetings in the context of three days a week for a firm of our size. But this led us to encourage associates to block off their own calendars individually, for times that work best for them, to give them opportunities to regroup and catch up. This is a clear instance where a one-size-fit-all benefit simply didn’t work, so we fine-tuned and allowed associates to book time for themselves, which we think has worked well!

Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?

Happier and healthier employees stick around longer and will work harder to help companies accomplish their goals.

How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?

  • Listening. We have a very honed-in discovery process that we use with clients and prospects to ensure we are capturing what’s most important to them and how we can dive deeper and really help them. Our management team has also gone through this discovery training in order to use those same principles with employees.
  • Leadership by example. It’s hard not to respond to your boss if you’re checking your phone late at night and you see an email from them. So we try our best to make sure we’re setting an example by not sending late-night or weekend emails. Even if there’s no need to respond, reading a work email in your off-time is distracting and takes you away from dedicated time away that you need to recharge. Reminding ourselves of that is often difficult, but something we try to practice and preach.

Ideas take time to implement. What is one small step every individual, team or organization can take to get started on these ideas — to get well?

  • Have a fearless conversation. Whether you are the manager or the employee, you both have a responsibility to each other to ask for what you need. Companies cannot read your mind. If you don’t speak up, you are leaving an opportunity on the table. At the end of the day, we are all people, and we try our best to help each other succeed, so I would encourage everyone to take that next step in being candid about what can be done to make things work better.

What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”

  1. WORK FROM ANYWHERE. During the pandemic, our family traveled throughout the western U.S., first in a travel trailer, and later through vacation rentals when it was too cold to sleep outside. Because of the technology we have, I was able to work seamlessly without a blip, and then enjoy my evenings and weekends in a completely different city or state. I think those opportunities can be offered more freely in the future, especially to those who want the opportunity to live in different areas.
  2. MUTING NOTIFICATIONS. Whether it’s your Apple Watch, email, text, or instant message, there are countless ways that you can be contacted when someone needs you. Some of them are made specifically to help you in your wellness habits, but it often feels like they do the opposite as they distract you from focused time. I try to mute as many of these as possible and review them only at select times so I stay focused on the task at hand. That helps reduce the feeling of stress and anxiety and the constant need to respond rapidly.
  3. A GREATER FOCUS ON EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. There are very few positions that work in silos — most of us work in teams. Your teammates are likely the best resource you have in helping you increase your wellness. That means there will be an increased focus and training in understanding each other’s personality types, burnout cues, strengths and weaknesses to help us all stay healthy, motivated and engaged.
  4. SCHEDULE FLEXIBILITY. We work with clients and are tied to U.S. stock market hours so it would be a reach to say the future would allow complete schedule flexibility- but I’m definitely optimistic that there can be movement along the edges that can make a big impact. I personally have loved the ability to start my workday earlier than normal while my son is still asleep, but get a 15-minute break around 8 am to see him wake up and get dressed for school. I hope we see more of that flexibility not just for employees with families, but for everyone who needs to be strategic about their day in their search for wellness.
  5. DYNAMIC MEETINGS. We hope we’ve made progress adjusting our meetings and scheduling so employees rarely feel like they sat through a meeting that could have been an email. We do our best to make sure meetings are relevant and encourage conversation. As we transition back to the office, we are trying to mix up the settings of our meetings, some virtual, some in-person, so we can have more well-rounded experiences with each other — that save time but also allow us to connect in real ways.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?

In general, I think people are taking more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. We all understand that we’re living longer, but in order to add more life to your years, you have to take care of yourself now. So that coupled with a mindful workplace that focuses on wellness can lead to longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives for all — and that’s a win-win for everyone. Longevity for individuals will easily result in longevity for employers.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or reach me via email at [email protected]. You can also check out our website, www.halberthargrove.com.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.