The future of healthy workplaces needs to involve social and emotional learning

Keep your team dynamic and inclusive with these three practices!

In Practice

December 02, 2021
Justine wears a grey shirt and smiles at the camera.
By Justina Schlund December 02, 2021

When asked which skills they look for in job applicants — and often have trouble finding — employers over the past decade didn’t prioritize technical know-how or industry expertise. Employers listed communication, self-direction, the ability to work in teams, problem-solving, and integrity — in other words, social and emotional skills that create healthy workplaces.

Social and emotional skills are connected to a wide range of positive outcomes related to adult well-being, including education, employment, and mental and physical health. These skills help us better understand ourselves and others, achieve our goals, build relationships, and find solutions to personal and community issues.

When we practice social and emotional skills throughout our interactions and relationships, Flower Purple we also create more inclusive and supportive environments.

So how do you go about strengthening social and emotional skills? If you have children or spend time in schools, you may have heard about “social and emotional learning” (or “SEL”), which focuses on creating experiences and environments that develop these skills. Demand for SEL in schools has surged in recent years, particularly as the pandemic has raised concerns around children’s learning and well-being.

But while often discussed as part of children’s education, SEL is a lifelong process. Adults continue learning and practicing SEL at their jobs, with their families, and in their communities. It’s no wonder thriving, healthy workplaces are often ones that cultivates adults’ social and emotional learning. 

Unfortunately, office cultures may not always promote healthy communication, stress-management, problem-solving, inclusion, or teamwork. While employers may seek out social and emotional skills, bringing SEL into the workplace can seem daunting or awkward.  

Here’s an easy place to start: the routine office meeting. 

Many employees spend at least some of their day meeting with others in the virtual or physical office. The way those meetings are run often reflect the workplace culture. Take a look at the meetings that you’re in: Are different perspectives heard and valued? Does everyone feel a sense of purpose and community?  Do colleagues offer support to each other and resolve disagreements effectively?

One way to build SEL into the workplace is by creating intentional opportunities for relationship-building, reflection, and perspective-taking. Here at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), we use our SEL 3 Signature Practices as a simple meeting structure to help us practice the social and emotional skills needed to make our workplace inclusive and engaging. With a little planning and intentionality, you can use these to bring SEL into any office:

First, welcome all voices into meetings.

How often have you been in meetings where one or two voices dominate the discussion? When you begin meetings with a welcoming activity, you bring everyone’s voice into the room. Welcoming activities are brief, interactive relationship-building experiences that connect to the work ahead. This might be a quick check-in that helps participants get to know one another, or an opportunity to reflect in pairs on a question that sets the tone of the meeting (e.g. “why is this topic important to you?”). 

HackPlusgreen To set a collaborative tone and bring more voices into the conversation, start meetings off with a welcome activity or question

By taking a moment to build community, each meeting begins by bringing everyone into the conversation and lays the foundation for deeper teamwork. Over time, teams that interact this way also get to know each other better and feel more respected and understood by their colleagues. 

Next, use engaging strategies that balance time for interaction and reflection. 

We’ve all experienced draining meetings that seem better suited to a concise email. Those who’ve led meetings have also felt the challenge of glazed-over eyes and inattentive listeners. 

Engaging strategies ensure meetings are not only productive and informative, but are responsive to our neurological, biological, and social and emotional needs. This includes opportunities to process and make sense of new information, to dialogue and build upon different ideas, and to pause and regain focus. For example, rather than present numerous slides sharing pertinent graphs and numbers, a data reflection protocol can give participants opportunities to dig into the data more deeply and discuss insights with each other. 

“Brain breaks” are also particularly important in the era of video conferences and virtual meeting fatigue. When meeting participants have breaks to look away from the screen or move around, they’re better able to digest material and enhance creativity. 

Brain Breaks

Brain breaks can be individual — like encouraging people to quietly reflect on the topic at hand — or social. The key is providing space for our minds to refresh and stay open to learning. For more ideas, check out this list of examples to incorporate into your meetings.

Simple engaging strategies like these promote social and emotional skills such as self-awareness and responsible decision-making, while helping maintain focus and energy throughout a meeting.

HackPlusgreen To boost creativity and limit zoom fatigue, incorporate brain breaks throughout your meetings.

Last, end your meetings with optimistic closure. 

Too often, meetings end without closure as everyone rushes onto their next appointment. Ending meetings with intentionality builds a deeper understanding of the work ahead and provides a sense of accomplishment.

An “optimistic closure” invites all participants to contribute their reflections about key takeaways, next steps, or a connection to their own work. Whether the reflection is shared publicly or not, this closing activity helps team members leave with feelings of appreciation and energy.

Optimistic Closure

Optimistic closure provides a sense of accomplishment and aids future work by reflecting collectively on the importance of the work and listing next steps.

Traditional workplace meetings may not have a reputation of social and emotional attentiveness, but wise employers see the positive impact that social and emotional learning can have. That is why corporations like The Allstate Foundation and LG Electronics are strong advocates for SEL in today’s digital world.

Our increasingly interconnected digital world will continue to call upon deep social and emotional skills — not as nice-to-have employee attributes but as foundational to healthy workplaces. Regardless of the mission or industry, organizational leaders and team members will need deep levels of self- and social awareness, dynamic relationship-building skills, and thoughtful decision-making. While SEL alone may not revolutionize the office meeting, it will be a key component to meaningful careers and healthy workplaces.

Justine wears a grey shirt and smiles at the camera.
Justina Schlund, Senior Director of Content and Field Learning, CASEL

She leads the translation of CASEL’s learning and expertise into content to deepen and expand SEL knowledge across the education field. Previously, she served as executive director of Chicago Public School’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, and was a teacher, school administrator, and education journalist.

She leads the translation of CASEL’s learning and expertise into content to deepen and expand SEL knowledge across the education field. Previously, she served as executive director of Chicago Public School’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, and was a teacher, school administrator, and education journalist.

Related Articles

Communication Excerpt Race
4 insights from Celeste Headlee’s new book, Speaking of Race

Learn practical guidance for how we can have conversations about race and racism.

Culture Diversity
Calling all leaders! To celebrate diversity, first, support diverse teams

Acknowledge employees’ unique experiences to create a culture where everyone belongs.

Equity Safety Self-care
Radical self-care as DEIB in the workplace

Disrupt systemic inequities that strip people from being their authentic selves at work.

Equity Gender
Advancing gender equity at work, from bias to paychecks

Four strategies to advance gender equity at work.