Emphasise the employees: that's a distinct characteristic of the post-pandemic future, one underscored by the noticeably better performance of companies that focused on workforce well-being over the last two years. One critical bridge between the employee-first strategy and high performance is empowerment: the idea that employees are trusted to make decisions for the benefit of the business and stakeholders alike.
People Matters asked Charise Le, Chief Human Resources Officer of global energy management and automation firm Schneider Electric, about SE's employee empowerment strategy and how she sees the employer-employee relationship evolving in 2022 and beyond.
Schneider Electric's people strategy first took a concentrated focus on employee empowerment in 2017, when the company decided to emphasise that aspect of its employee value proposition and started trying to shift individual and collective behaviours – starting by training top leaders.
“Trust is instilled both culturally and behaviourally and starts at the top,” Le explained. “In all our communications with employees, our top leaders reinforce trust and empathy. We drive certain behaviours from both our employees and our managers which is supported by our guidelines and culture..”
The strategic need for empowerment
One of the major reasons – and enabling factors – behind the empowerment strategy is the multi-hub management model that the company uses. Schneider Electric has four separate headquarters corresponding to its key regions, located in France, Hong Kong, the US, and India. With this arrangement, employees and leaders need to be able to make decisions that benefit the local community and customers, Le said.
“It not only helps attract and retain the best talents from around the world but creates the most diverse leadership teams with a true multi-market knowledge and culture,” she pointed out.
“By empowering our employees we’re also enabling much quicker decision making. At the same time, this encourages much more creativity to unleash the potential of talent to lead to better accountability, engagement and performance overall.”
In 2022 and the years to come, this approach will be all the more valuable, Le believes, because the new ways of working normalised by the pandemic are here to stay. And so the people strategy needs to remain centred on digital acceleration, the multi-hub model, hybrid work, and well-being, with the immediate focus being trust and transformation.
“The nature of work, the workplace and the relationships between companies, customers and employees have dramatically changed,” she said. “First, we need to strengthen trust through a meaningful purpose, ethics, fairness, health and safety, well-being, and employee experience. Second, we must accelerate the transformation of our culture, leadership and new ways of working.”
She highlighted two initiatives that have successfully advanced the empowerment strategy: one is an AI-driven platform, dubbed Open Talent Market, that matches internal talent with projects, jobs, or mentors across the organisation to give employees more choices in determining their development and career paths, and also to give multiple business functions additional access to talent.
The second initiative is an innovation challenge, titled Dare to Disrupt, where employees can form their own teams and pitch business ideas. Successful teams can receive support from the company's internal incubation team to start their own external businesses, or have the option to develop the idea internally. On the employees' end, it's a further opportunity to pursue career development; on the business end, it works to build a culture of innovation.
Matching expectations around leadership and agility
As employee expectations evolve – with flexibility and hybrid working now a common expectation and even a non-negotiable for some – employers have to keep up.
One of the most effective changes any business can make is training and preparing the leadership for the new normal, Le said.
“Our employees all lead their own unique lives, so the role of our leaders becomes even more critical. Where the state of normal is always in flux, they must lead with both ‘high touch’ and ‘high tech’ and build human connections in a digital world,” she explained.
“Leaders need to drive more disruption and acceleration while ensuring a human connection through strong coaching, caring and collaboration across their teams. It will require them to abandon some behaviours and reset and renew others.”
These requirements, she said, are not necessarily new, but must be accelerated and intensified, specially to support hybrid and digital ways of working with customers and teams. “The connection between leadership and our culture and new ways of working is paramount and we need to clarify and amplify this and to reinforce a collective accountability for leaders.”
A second very important change, she believes, is to embrace agile, flexible and smart ways of working that support higher performance, greater inclusion, well-being and stronger resiliency.
“We trust and empower people to work smartly, manage a hybrid work model and their unique life and work,” she said of Schneider Electric's philosophy around smart working. “Employees should be held accountable for the work they do, not the hours they work. Teams will also need to adopt new and smarter ways of working to maintain and improve productivity, innovation and collaboration so we support our people to work seamlessly and effectively no matter where they are.”
How can this approach be made to stick? It's somewhat self-reinforcing, Le said – the concept of local empowerment in the multi-hub business model has already brought much more regional talent into regional leadership positions than previously.
“This helps ensure we don’t revert back to a ‘one size fits all approach’ where key decision-making does not allow for the needs of local markets,” she explained.
The face of empowerment going forward
Le and her team plan to focus on two main areas in the development of the employee empowerment strategy. One is entrepreneurship, building on the Agile methodology – a decentralised approach that gives teams the autonomy to make process and product decisions without extensive leadership involvement – to continue improving the culture of innovation.
The other is an ongoing overhaul of the rewards and recognition system to cater much more comprehensively to employee choice, using technology to enable flexibility and making sure that programmes and solutions are flexibly designed.
“Over the last two years people have re-evaluated their needs relating to their work and personal lives, and employees’ perception when it comes to “total rewards” has also changed,” Le explained. "In addition to compensation, employees are talking about flexibility, work-life balance, the option for remote work, and room to focus on personal and family responsibilities. Organisations must ensure that we can support all of these from a technological standpoint.”
“From a rewards and benefits standpoint, we need to provide more holistic and flexible choices to our employees. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to employees. It’s more crucial than ever that we deliver the best employee experience. Providing the element of choice in our mental well-being programmes, financial well-being programmes, career choices and benefits will help empower employees to make the right decisions and choose what makes sense to them and fits their unique life.