Remote Optional: Companies will need to accommodate a range of demands from returning workers. It may be that requiring a reason to work from home will be off-putting enough in the future to risk losing employees. I don’t think the corporate sector has fully let go of the 20th-century approach to things like office attendance.
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 Ron Rock.
Ron Rock is CEO and Co-founder of Philadelphia-based Microshare, a leading provider of smart building data solutions to multinationals, governments and other institutions around the world. A serial entrepreneur, he brings three decades of experience as a bridge builder between new technology strategies and legacy enterprises. Prior to founding Microshare in 2013, he founded Knowledge Rules, a business process management (BPM) firm sold to Accenture in 2010.
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.
My first job out of college was as a salesperson for IBM selling personal computers. I had a quota to hit every month and every quarter. Soon I realized that even though it was the weekend or the evening, even if I were out on a date, I would be worried about hitting my numbers. This was a big change from my previous job in college, when I worked as a cook at Denny’s. I worked the graveyard shift from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. You’d work like crazy and it would be really stressful, but when you were done, you were done. My IBM job didn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. It had results that had to be delivered. And so from a very early age, I learned to be results-driven. This led me a few years later to put one of the first cell phones in my car. It took up half the trunk of my ’85 Honda Accord, but it allowed me to get work done whenever and wherever I wanted, boosting my productivity and results.
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?
Microshare’s interest in wellness extends beyond our own employees for the simple reason that we actually provide data solutions that track wellness for our clients. Our specific product in this vein, EverSmart Wellness, creates data that in the first instance helps HR, wellness and facilities management pros understand the true health and safety of the indoor environment, including air quality, sanitation, density and traffic patterns, as well as automated anonymous ways for staff or tenants to register complaints, note their satisfaction or report issues. The anonymous part is so important: No one wants to be the person reporting a clogged toilet or temperature problems in a room. But these are critical issues for the mental and physical wellness of occupants as well as a company’s need to reassure staff that the hard lessons of COVID-19 have been taken to heart. After an initial remediation period, we also enable the sharing of this data back out to the occupants: in effect, democratizing wellness data via an app or dashboard. Nothing reassures like empirical data.
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?
We use a variety of tools, the most important of which is culture: No one who reports an issue is stigmatized and it is common for Microshare employees to feel empowered to go directly to me, the CEO. That’s part of our startup legacy, of course, and may not be sustainable as we scale, but I want to keep as much of that spirit as possible. Beyond that, we use surveys, both by name and anonymous, and we invite our employees to view the data that’s being created by our own products about things like air quality or water use and energy efficiency. We’re seeing great interest among our younger staff in understanding things that might be called “Wellness MACRO” — things like our carbon footprint, who we source products from, and other ESG and sustainability metrics. In many ways, our Smart Building product is about bringing transparency and data streams to places they’ve never been before. So we really need to walk the walk.
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?
Again, with all due respect to traditional wellness programs, I believe that COVID-19 has completely elevated and changed the definition of wellness. It’s not enough to fund gym memberships, offer HSA plans or do regular team-building events. Nor to hold Zoom meetings about issues like burnout or mental health. All of these things we do and have done for years. But the pandemic has raised real concerns about the safety of indoor spaces, the employee-employer relationship and, indeed, whether an office and commute really are a necessary evil. Existing employees need to be reassured and their concerns addressed with more than words; it takes data to retain and recruit the best. So we see the move toward smarter, more responsive buildings as a vital part of wellness.
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?
No one we’ve hired since the second quarter of 2020 has agreed to an interview without asking, “What are your offices like? What is your policy on remote working?” This is simply part of the “new normal,” and happily we’ve been talking about these issues for years, not just since COVID-19 emerged.
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 may sound trite, but we have a policy that allows employees to keep their cameras off during the Zoom and Teams meetings that have proliferated during COVID-19. I personally do so myself, and I try to chide managers who violate this rule or shame people who do it.
- Emotional Wellness: PTO is taken seriously at Microshare. Of course, we track it like any company, but no one who ever needs time off for personal reasons has ever been fired. We try to cultivate a “family” culture and when we’ve had major health issues arise that might have meant the end of a career elsewhere, we have found a way to keep our people on the books within the strictures of health and disability regulations. In short, I think our people know Microshare has their back.
- Social Wellness: Our staff is encouraged to do volunteer and pro bono work that accords with their own beliefs and values. This is not an organized program, but line managers know that requests for time to do such things should be viewed favorably as much as possible.
- Physical Wellness: Our facilities, as described above, are outfitted with leading-edge sensors that monitor the health and wellbeing of our staff and the environment they work in. This is what we do; and we do it well.
- Financial Wellness: Everyone who joins Microshare immediately becomes a shareholder, and our stock options just keep coming. There’s a quid pro quo in most technology startups — slightly lower pay in exchange for the chance at a bonanza. We’ve tried to avoid the lower pay part when possible, and to reward people across our diverse workforce with bonuses and rewards regularly.
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?
The upside potential of creating a responsive, data-producing workplace is boundless. Before the pandemic, we tried to convince facilities managers and IT teams of these benefits, and it always came down to “How much money will I save?” The beauty here is that not only will all the Smart Building data solutions we offer save you money or mitigate risk, they’ll also reassure your workforce, make them safer and more liable to stick around. These are no small issues in the current tight labor market. Microshare brings a double bottom line in that way: the usual accounting metrics on ROI, of course, but also, more importantly for this moment, data that shows the workforce that their employer gets it…that this is not back to business as usual.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
I can honestly say this is inherent in everything we do: from our marketing and sales messaging to the products we’re inventing and the client fulfillment and support we provide. Wellness is our business, and staying abreast of the demands of the new workplace is a key component of our success.
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?
Look closely at your company’s mission statement. Maybe look at its most recent ESG disclosure, too. Are you proud to work for this company? Do its values truly align with your own? If not, leave.
What are your “Top 5 Trends to Track in the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Data-Driven Smart Buildings: The world now realizes indoor spaces are not just inert environments. Similarly, buildings are not just brick and mortar, they have brains, circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems. The performance of all these systems can be measured and optimized with Internet of Things (IoT) and other sensors — and the data that results can be used to make them as safe, responsive and healthy as possible.
- Remote Optional: Companies will need to accommodate a range of demands from returning workers. It may be that requiring a reason to work from home will be off-putting enough in the future to risk losing employees. I don’t think the corporate sector has fully let go of the 20th-century approach to things like office attendance.
- ESG-Forward: Millennial and GenY workers now form a majority of the Western workforce. They are not the value-neutral, plug-and-play employees of old. If your company’s values do not align with their values, they will leave. And they hit the corporate headquarters with a round of bullets as they drive away via Glassdoor or other social media.
- Wellness Is Not Fitness: Obviously, wellness has always been about more than physical health. But health and wellness plans now need to take into account the post-pandemic concerns of viral spread, room density, cleanliness and other issues highlighted by COVID-19. That means making sure that indoor environments are equipped to provide reassurance and that staff is intimately involved in the change management process when renovations, relocations or other changes are considered.
- Getting Spaces Wrong Is Now a C-Suite Issue: Indoor environments that don’t adapt will be the subject of lawsuits. CFOs now care intimately about things like occupancy patterns and configurations as they seek to determine what the right amount of leased space may be. CEOs fear the shareholder meeting at which they have to explain why 40% of their leased space is unoccupied. HR and wellness professionals now rank the health and wellness of physical assets — offices, factories, warehouses — as a major component of recruitment and retention. And the Chief Sustainability Officer is now a C-suite title and hungry for data to prove that staff, tenants, customers and other occupants are being housed in the safest possible spaces.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
The interest we have from giant global corporations who understand that they cannot get their best people back to the office unless there are visible and verifiable signs that management has ingested the lessons of the pandemic. Data is the way to do this, and it must inform changes in workplace routines, infrastructure and culture.
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?
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.