Trust: Our employees have flexibility because we have trust and that means autonomy in their role and no micro-managing. We expect to see many companies embodying this in the future.

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 Ed Holroyd Pearce, president and co-founder of Virtual Internships.

Ed co-founded Virtual Internships alongside Daniel Nivern and brings over fifteen years of experience helping young people gain global work experience to take charge of their careers. Having delivered 10,000 in-person internships in their first business, Ed and Dan saw that there were significant barriers to global work experience for certain audiences and realized there must be a better way. Through building a remote-first organization, Ed understands the challenges businesses face when creating a culture that supports wellness and has spent the last few years trialling and testing different methods to ensure a well workforce.

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

I’m sure this is the same for many people — KIDS! My husband and I had twins through surrogacy in the United States. That process itself could have been a full-time job, let alone the years afterward which included all the usual diaper changes, feeding, and nurturing. It’s cliché, but when another human being (or in this case two of them!) depends on you for survival, everything else has to be taken within that context. This made me more efficient, better at prioritizing, and certainly less prone to anxiety or wild swings of emotion when something went right or wrong work-wise.

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?

It all starts with our culture; we are very upfront with each new candidate that our culture is unique and defines who we are, how we work, and how we operate. It is not a marketing tool for new candidates by any means, it is to provide transparency. Joining a new company can often invoke feelings of imposter syndrome and uncertainty about what to expect and how they will fit in. From a mental well-being perspective, it is really important to us that we try to minimize that feeling by being upfront before any candidate joins the company. To measure wellness, we have created transparency in our culture wherein managers regularly check in with their team to encourage conversations around wellness.

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?

Without sounding cliche, for us, it’s all about a happy workforce equalling a productive workforce. But, what accelerates that for us is that our mission of helping to bridge the gap between education and the workforce is so heavily embodied by our workforce: the very tools we are developing to make the change, we are also using. From the small things like giving an extra day off for birthdays through to our professional development budget that increases each year, we value long-term career progression which is reflected in our retention rate. Many of our interns have become longstanding employees and fundamental people within our organization.

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?

Firstly, it’s important to recognize that we still have plenty to do and we are also on this journey. Secondly, our advice would be to make sure you are dedicating time regularly, however short, to changes you can implement and commit to small changes that, over time, will lead to positive outcomes. Addressing a topic as big as this in your organization can feel overwhelming, but it’s better to focus on constant improvement: what can you start today that will make an impact over time?

In time, we plan to introduce regular mental health check-ins within the team so that we will then be able to cross check with productivity and results to see the impact this has on the business and its growth.

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

Before applying on our careers page, we have a dedicated “VI Commitment to Applications” where we are transparent about the service we promise to deliver to applicants from the outset. Throughout the recruitment stage, we strive to ensure every single candidate receives a response, positive or not, as well as the option to have a call for feedback if the candidate doesn’t proceed past the first interview stage — once again, embodying that we are on a mission to help people develop in their careers. If they aren’t successful in their application to VI, they should be provided with feedback to help them on their journey. In our company knowledge base, as part of each new employee’s onboarding folder, we include a dedicated wellbeing section on how to avoid burnout and prioritize well-being through a range of helpful tips, recommendations, and resources.

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: We are trying to develop a habit of ‘radical candor’ across our organization where employees and managers are able to give direct feedback but care personally. We are training our leaders to give the type of feedback where the personal attribution is removed: it’s not you that needs to improve, but it’s the work that needs to improve.

Emotional Wellness: We are focussing on celebrating individual wins and sharing company-wide shout-outs of appreciation and gratitude on our internal channels.

Social Wellness: We encourage and facilitate virtual coffee chats within our organization to ensure that employees who wouldn’t normally connect through their roles have the chance to meet and learn about one another. We also encourage in-person meet-ups whenever possible, which is wonderful to see when you have a global organization.

Physical Wellness: Being remote-first, we encourage our employees to plan their day around their optimum wellness. For example, we have an employee who found she really benefited mentally and physically during lockdown by dedicating a full day a week to a day of vigorous exercise, so we worked with her to adapt her part-time schedule to fit best around this.

Financial Wellness: All of our employees are entitled to paid parental leave and paid sick leave should they need it. It is a standard part of our contracts and demonstrates our commitment to the financial wellness of our employees.

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?

In line with offering paid parental leave, we make sure we mention and showcase the life milestones of our employees as much as we celebrate work wins. This is especially important at a leadership level as it helps to reduce the barriers between upper management and employees. Essential leave policies are exactly that, if you need them, they are there for you and we will support you.

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

Jason Kan, our COO, is an incredibly positive force for change and improvement in this area; he is always looking at the best practices among a range of organizations and bringing them into our organization to implement. One such practice is upskilling our leaders to give direct feedback, whilst ensuring the personal attribution is removed.

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?

Embody the Japanese practice of Kaizen, improving by 1% every day. Making small positive changes that lead to a bigger impact over time. Something you could start this week? Ask each team member to shout out one other employee for something they are grateful for.

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

  1. Flexibility: Our company operates with no set working hours, albeit as long as there’s a short overlap with your reports to manage teams as necessary. One of our alumni-turned-employees found that during the lockdown, she benefited from dedicating a weekday to a challenging exercise regime, so we worked with her to adapt her schedule to allow for this day each week.
  2. Trust: Our employees have flexibility because we have trust and that means autonomy in their role and no micro-managing. We expect to see many companies embodying this in the future.
  3. Remote Working: Whether you want to work from home to spend more time with family or be a digital nomad, traveling from place to place — we don’t decide where you work from and it doesn’t affect your ability to do your job.
  4. Mission alignment: People care about the culture of a company more than anything else these days when applying for roles. That’s why we are very explicit about our culture and mission, and we expect to see this happen more and more across organizations in the future.
  5. Company inclusion: Everyone in our organization is very keen to get together and connect in person, our conferences and events facilitate that but this is something we hope to expand on in the future with regular company off-sites. I feel this is going to be a big part of attracting people to remote roles in the future.

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

The in-office culture was a construct created a long time ago based on the fact you needed to be closed to a wired telephone connection in order to do your job, but this culture puts people in a box. Through innovation, this way of working is no longer necessary for successful organizations, and by removing the commute and ‘box’, you let people function in their optimum environment, allowing them to find their deepest levels of productivity, and celebrate their individuality. Innovation and creativity are a force for wellness and this is my greatest source of optimism.

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?

Follow Virtual Internships and me, Ed, on LinkedIn and our other social channels (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and we just launched TikTok too). We are welcoming more and more companies to partner with who are looking to learn to build and manage remote teams, as well as reskill and upskill their employees in a sustainable way.

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