Employee engagement post-lockdown: A temporary fix or the new norm?

Jun 17, 2020 / Media

Just months ago, there’d be a few raised eyebrows if your cat decided to walk in on your video conference call. Now, it’s practically expected.

Company culture has changed quickly as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The terms of employee engagement had to adapt as the new normal of lockdown encroached, bringing with it a multitude of issues that were understandably difficult to predict.

In the second of our Culture Series of video discussions partnered with Wharton Business Consulting, Natalie Wharton, CEO, Wharton Business Consulting hosted a conversation between Dr Helene Roberts, CEO, Robinson Plc, Russell Atkinson, CEO, NAHL Plc, Kieran Callan, CEO, InnovaDerma Plc and Sam Smith, CEO, finnCap Group.

In this episode, our panel discusses ‘enhancing resilience’ – looking at the longer term shifts that reflect how communication across businesses has fundamentally changed. We explore how those cultural shifts look set to develop and evolve as some of us return to the office.


Watch the discussion in full

“When this all kicked off, we split our response into three,” explains Russell Atkinson, CEO, NAHL, who appointed a specialist manager to lead their change programme. “The first was ‘React’, in other words, get yourself sorted out – that’s behind us now. The second was ‘Respond’ and how we calibrate that reaction and move forward. The third is ‘Recover’, and that’s where we establish what the new norm looks like.”

All in it together

In terms of the general public, with COVID-19, we are quite literally all in this together. That feeling is a great leveller and it’s reflected in our employee engagement strategies.

We’ve seen a steep increase in the connectiveness between firms and their people over the lockdown period. Receiving a call that is just to say a genuine and sincere “Hello, how are you?” from one’s CEO is at first a nice surprise and second a welcome and delightful change for staff.

Dr Helene Roberts, CEO, Robinson Plc explains how the fundamental change has been that their communication style is less hierarchical, more all-inclusive, and more about people. As we discussed in the previous Culture Series video (watch it here) on changing leadership styles, it is emotional intelligence in leadership that is, quite literally, winning hearts and minds.

With the spotlight so dramatically shone on employee health and wellbeing, communication from the top down has naturally become more personal, collegiate and emotionally guided. There’s more sensitivity to family time, for one. There’s more sensitivity to the physical and mental health impact of lockdown. Many businesses quickly implemented solutions for online GP access and wellbeing support for their staff.

Businesses also found themselves becoming more flexible with their communication styles, balancing the needs of different work patterns of a workforce that might be in equal parts ‘on the ground’, in the warehouse or manufacturing facility, working from home, or furloughed.

“We’ve changed our communication style,” continues Dr Helene Roberts. “It’s much more open, and I don’t want to lose that.”

Our friend, video

In creating resilience and connectivity, video has been the undeniable pack mule of lockdown, doing the heavy lifting and accompanying us as we figure out our way across a new terrain. It’s not just enabled virtual face-to-face meetings, it’s also enabled – perhaps even forced the hand of – increased creativity in communications. Whether that’s a Zoom interview to catch up with how a client is doing or a thank you video to all staff to let them know your appreciation.

Video communication has been a great international leveller, too. Kieran Callan, CEO, InnovaDerma Plc, whose operations span Australia and the UK, remarks on the differences between how the two countries reacted to the outbreak. Borders were closed and lockdown initiated much quicker in Australia and despite the stark differences in the outside world, nevertheless those teams needed to interact across those two locations.

“We became much more collegiate,” comments Kieran. “We found we could use this ‘down time’ to put a lot of energy into our new product development process. We created ‘big team events’ where we pull together from across the globe, focusing a big team video conference on one task and distil it down to a short number of action points that one team member can run with. That is something we want to do more of.”

Kieran explains that his team have been encouraged to be more entrepreneurial in their thinking, taking into account and adapting to the bigger picture in their planning conversations – for instance, in their case the considerable strain that has been put on the consumer and retail sector by the crisis.

“We pivoted quickly to our digital channel,” Kieran continues. “But sitting beneath that you’ve also got the situation that e-tailers and retailers not normally in our category are beginning to push into our space.”

What’s the new norm?

Returning to something resembling the norm of course carries with it additional challenges for how we continue this more empathetic version of corporate communication.

“The biggest challenge is that we don’t know yet what that norm will be,” says Sam Smith, CEO, finnCap Group. “The challenge is communicating that in a way that offers structure. How to tell your staff what is going to happen next is very difficult. But, we did a staff survey to include staff in the decisions, to get buy-in from staff about what they wanted to do. The vast majority were actually very nervous about coming back – issues like how they get to work, and whether they have family on the vulnerable list. So we gave them choice and options. This was interesting as it gave an overall picture of what people really wanted, which managed our expectations.”

Indeed, for finnCap this presents quite a change. Financial services is not an industry that is noted for having flexible working patterns, but this is a shift that senior management are now aware will likely be coming. They can prepare accordingly and also provide staff with further confidence and clarity on what’s to come.

In the spirit of being all in this together, what is certain to come is that it’s not just financial services; this kind of disruption will span every marketplace, soon and at pace. Having that empathy amongst each other extends as much to our clients across the sectors, which means anticipating and being sensitive to how our clients are transforming, where their disruption will come from and where do they want to be as a business, looking forward.

“What will your products or services look like even in 12 months’ time?” asks Sam. “Everybody’s got that question in their mind and it’s quite a different skillset to crisis manage and manage for growth and disruption all at the same time.”

Now that we’ve met with the challenges of home working and increased flexible working going in to lockdown, coming out again presents an equivalent challenge. Now that everybody’s more or less used to working from home, coming back out of lockdown presents its own issues of maintaining resilience with people coming in very different ways and with very different outlooks.

But what has been made starkly apparent is that resilience stems from how we treat ourselves. Ultimately, COVID-19 has been a human experience and a humanising experience. The way we each relate to each other and support each other has become priority number one in what constitutes meaningful and motivational employee engagement. Long may it continue.