Flexible Work: The ability for employees to choose where they want to work — not just home or the office, but coffee shops, other cities, and coworking spaces too. Employees may live in a city where the commute is too burdensome; it doesn’t mean they prefer working from home. Companies will have to give them other options to do their best work.

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 Zerzar Bukhari.

Zerzar is the founder & CEO of Zynq, a workplace management platform designed to promote healthy work culture. Prior to founding Zynq, he worked as a Product Manager at Google & Microsoft on platforms to make people more productive at work. His career of high-pressure roles means he is no stranger to burnout and work-life balance challenges.

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.

Early in my career, I was chosen to lead an international project that required frequent cross-continental travel and work with teams across in many time zones. This was an incredible opportunity and one that I was really excited about. But many flights & sleepless nights later, I felt that this feeling of excitement had turned into dread. The flights, meetings at odd hours of the night, and constant pressure gave me little time to focus on myself, my family, and my wellbeing even though it was great for my career. Although I was grateful to my superiors for giving me this opportunity, I couldn’t help but wonder — was it possible to be successful in my career without having to give up almost everything else? Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with answering that question and what it means for the society we want to build for our children.

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?

We define wellness as the harmony between how an employee would like their relationship with work to be, versus what their actual relationship with work is. How many hours someone works, when they work & where they want work will differ depending on the person — we don’t want to come down with a one-size-fits-all approach. The important part is to ask employees what they would like — what are their goals, not just from a career perspective, but from a life perspective. And enable them to achieve those goals holistically, instead of treating it as a trade-off between life and work. We regularly ask our employees how we are doing in this regard, and our employees are encouraged to share their life goals with their managers to help provide that context and understanding when setting goals.

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 are strong believers that motivated employees are better to improve the business’ bottom line than any other single factor. And the best way to have motivated employees is to invest in their wellness — to ensure that they are getting out of their career what they desire without putting undue burden on other parts of their life. When we ask employees for goals, it includes their career goals (for example, a promotion or salary or trajectory) as well as life goals (for example buying a house or traveling). Their objectives are then set in a way that aligns with their overall life. What we have seen is that this leads to much higher retention as employees don’t get burned out — plus, when they are working, they are much more effective and productive because they are highly motivated to achieve the objectives they set out for themselves.

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?

First, I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is for leaders to instate regular, mandatory mental health awareness seminars at work. Nearly every American will, at some point in their life, suffer from a mental health crisis and one in every five Americans will have a diagnosable mental health illness. Once a company’s leadership can appreciate these realities it can trickle down to create a positive attitude towards holistic wellness. Companies need to create a culture that is mental health ready, aware and proactive.

Once the groundwork has been laid for everyone to be on the same page when it comes to mental health and wellness, programs and initiatives will quickly produce success stories if the stigma around mental health has been eliminated or reduced. Staff need to be able to speak up about utilizing the mental health resources the same as they can acknowledge using company sponsored health insurance. When you have a company culture that is mental health ready, aware and proactive, the $1:$4 ROI will quickly become manifest as stories to share and celebrate.

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?

There are three things that are core to our culture which we mention to everyone considering our company:

  • The flexibility to work when & where you want (job-permitting).
  • Benefits to make sure you have access to the support you need, mental & physical.
  • Flexible PTO — unlike “unlimited” PTO which often ends up being zero PTO, we have a minimum (but no maximum) vacation policy.

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: Flexible workloads, instead of a binary “working” or “not working” state, employees can choose to take half-days, or work reduced hours on weeks where they may want more time to themselves.
  • Emotional Wellness: The ability to choose where & when to work. Access to resources for support, no matter what they need.
  • Social Wellness: Established “office hubs” where employees can get the facetime they need to socialize & collaborate if they choose to. In addition, the opportunity to join the team at fun off-sites throughout the country.
  • Physical Wellness: Unlimited sick days & access to care & prevention as needed.
  • Financial Wellness: Alignment of financial goals with performance & company objectives. Access to resources to learn & plan their financial future.

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?

I think the biggest recommendation I have to employers is to rely on your employees to help define the best policy. There is no silver bullet that will work for everyone. The first step is to establish a relationship of trust and then to ask your employees — how would they like to work? Not every company can do this to the full extent but working with your employees will still get you to the most effective policy for your specific circumstance, instead of following the latest trend or what worked for the Fortune 50.

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

First through policy and second through attitude. By policy, we require everyone to attend a mental health and wellness awareness seminar as part of employment. This is not an online session that can be glossed over but a half-day interactive session done with your colleagues. This sets the groundwork for the right culture around holistic wellness. By attitude in the sense that everyone who has a report takes the time to check-in about more than just work deliverables. People don’t produce good work in mental silos. Often a person’s best work comes out when they feel life is generally going in the right direction and pace.

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?

If you lead a team, take the time to get to know your employees beyond their work lives. Understand what they want out of their career, what their life goals are and what role the company plays in that. Even if you think you have no power to change anything immediately, just having that context goes a long way into creating a culture of wellness that pays dividends.

As an individual contributor, be open to sharing your needs & goals with your company. Don’t wait for your company to ask you. Most leaders want to know and to help create a better work culture, but they can’t do that without understanding what’s needed.

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

  1. Flexible Work: The ability for employees to choose where they want to work — not just home or the office, but coffee shops, other cities, and coworking spaces too. Employees may live in a city where the commute is too burdensome; it doesn’t mean they prefer working from home. Companies will have to give them other options to do their best work.
  2. Wellness Surveys: A greater emphasis on understanding the overall wellbeing of employees instead of just their productivity or opinion of the company’s management or performance. We like to run these at least once a quarter to ensure we can react quickly to any changes especially in the current uncertain environment.
  3. Group Recreation: As the decline of 9–5 office working will lead to less facetime with colleagues, more companies will come up with creative ways for employees to socialize and bond, such as office sports competitions, fitness classes, board game nights, etc.
  4. Practical in-office amenities: If the office isn’t required, there needs to be an incentive to come in. While in the past, ping pong tables and stocked fridges were touted as the perks, companies will now look to invest in more relevant perks, such as nap rooms or daycare where employees’ work lives can be integrated seamlessly with the demands that life places on them.
  5. More Recognition: The lack of in-office celebrations will mean companies have to find creative ways to celebrate and share the success of their employees. Zoom meetings are not enough — many other tools such as a recognition program, award ceremonies, etc. will be used to make sure employees are recognized for their contributions.

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

I think COVID-19 has made the world question many of the assumptions they had around work culture for the better. Leaders are much more open to trying out new strategies, and much more responsive to their employees’ needs. I think what we will see in the future are more experiments at different companies, and that means we’ll have more data to see what works well at scale which will help not just the employees themselves but the companies they work for too.

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?

I would love to discuss this topic with anyone via email — I can be reached at [email protected]

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