I took my dad to lunch this week. We stopped by a deli and he ordered a Rueben as big as your head. I wasn’t sure what to order until I noticed a salad bar. I’ve never once been excited to see a salad bar. But here I was, after nearly 2 years of covid, and I was giddy to see a salad bar.

Salad bars aren’t the same during a pandemic. You only get one trip. You glove up before they let you touch the tongs. But it was weirdly exciting to go through there and fill my bowl, topped off with a nice balsamic vinaigrette.

Dad and I enjoyed our lunch and I was just about to finish my last bite when a big piece of lettuce, covered in balsamic dressing, dropped off my fork and fell into my lap. It hit my shirt 3 separate times. I know this because my shirt was bright white oxford cloth, and each bounce of lettuce left a stain on my shirt.

I loudly declared my displeasure and Dad just looked at me and smiled. “That’s why I only buy shirts in two colors, cabernet and marinara.”

My Dad delivers a lot of wisdom through hilarious (if sometimes off color) quips, and this one belongs in the hall of fame. And it’s not just good fashion advice (especially for a clumsy eater like me). It’s good employee relations advice too.

The world of employee relations is full of accidents and slip-ups

Every day brings some challenge, obstacle or frustration that must be overcome. The companies that perform worst do the employee relations equivalent of wearing a bright white shirt to a big Italian feast.

These companies fumble over and over with common operational bottlenecks or seasonal changes in work volume. They stub their toe dealing with legitimate and predictable complaints from employees in work areas with unavoidable frustrations.

And don’t forget that the world of work has changed dramatically during the pandemic. Work behaviors that would have been unthinkable just over a year ago are common today. No-call, no showing used to be rare – in many companies it never happened. Today people ghost their company all the time – often before their first day of work!

But many of these challenges and frustrations are predictable

And the best companies go out of their way to look for these challenges, identify the core issues, and then game plan to solve or mitigate them in advance. They do the employee relations equivalent of grabbing their marinara or cabernet shirt.

Your company undoubtedly faces challenges with how you recruit, hire, orient, and onboard new workers. You probably face challenges around distancing, mask and vaccine mandates. I bet you also face equity concerns as you try to balance the need to desperately attract new talent while incumbents wonder why they aren’t receiving the same consideration. Your business must also be impacted by the logistics and supply chain challenges triggered by the pandemic. I can confidently say this is true because I’m hearing it every day from every client.

Today a big part of how we help our clients deliver on our core purpose of creating extraordinary workplaces is to help smooth out these friction points. We help them proactively look for these pain points in their current employee relations environment. We prioritize the biggest issues and then game plan how to prevent them. Or how to effectively communicate about the ones we can predict but can’t prevent.

Focus on the key motivators

Another important component is understanding the key motivators of your team. I spoke about this in my keynote presentation at the recent CUE conference. There are key emotional needs we all share. At work the three critical ones are the need for power or control, the need for affiliation, and the need for achievement. The better you understand these motivators, and how they map to your workplace, the better you can tailor your actions and communications in a way that will retain and engage your team.

The one thing I guarantee you will face over the next few years is near-constant change. Even if we somehow manage to get back to some version of “normal,” that’s still going to be a big change from where we are today. And I don’t think we’re ever going back – the world has fundamentally changed in ways that we probably won’t understand for decades.

What is predictable is that these constant changes will cause friction and issues at work, and those issues will pop up in some common areas. In other words, you’re headed to an Italian feast – time to break out that marinara shirt.

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