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Employee Engagement In The ‘New Normal’: What To Expect (Video)

Employee engagement is at the core of a company’s long-term strategy. Businesses that understood that point have been more likely to attract Millennial and Gen Z talent and have thrived in a happy environment. However, some of the core things teams could do together, such as volunteering, might be off the table for a while. So… what now?

In our weekly KindLink webinar, we discussed employee engagement post-Covid-19, what it will look like and how companies can best prepare for it. Carole Hogan, Managing Director at Carole Hogan Associates, and Cadence Willis, Global Head of Employee Engagement and CSR at Collinson Group, shared actionable insights on employee engagement and how to keep employees motivated, productive, and well during the crisis as well the steps businesses should consider as they are coming out of quarantine.

  • Leadership is even more significant now in ensuring employee engagement as it provides guidance for the team to cope with the crisis and prepare a safe return to work.
  • People have shifted towards virtual volunteering, either by dedicating time or directing money for outings towards charities they support.
  • Employee engagement, mental health, and storytelling on reporting progress and overcoming the crisis should be prioritised.
  • Employers should focus on learning and development so their team develops new skills for the ‘new normal’.
  • Team connection which has been developed during the crisis leads up to new rituals that bring members closer together, reducing formalities.
  • Fear and anxiety remain issues that need to be addressed, demanding empathic communication.
  • Sustainability is going to be more important as companies reassess things.
  • When furloughed, it is best that people remain connected and should be encouraged towards learning and development.
  • The crisis can set the premises for a balance between being in the office and working remotely. People are more engaged and productive when working at a pace that suits them best.


What will employee engagement look like after the coronavirus crisis?

Cadence Willis: The situation is changing daily. I don’t think we’re going to a see a one-size-fits-all approach. Every industry is different, we’ve seen a lot here in the UK, we’ve seen the construction and manufacture industries start again this week. They have got very obvious needs from a health and safety point of view protecting their people and returning in safety back to work. At Collinson, our employees have been able to work from home and they will continue to do so until the foreseeable future. We have found new ways of connecting and we regularly keep in touch. We are continuing online but also trying to plan how we can safely return in our offices.

Carole Hogan: Engagement and connection are vital in this time, particularly managers and leaders need to connect with their employees. Sometimes these leaders need to be upskilled in this area. In order to be effective, I think managers and leaders need to put on their ‘energy mask’ first. We’ve organised lots of webinars with managers helping them to focus on themselves first and see how they cope and give them strategies to help their employees cope. In webinars, we talk about how to engage in secure-base leadership and – most importantly – how to demonstrate empathy because that can be quite difficult at times like this.

Cadence Willis: I agree with that. We’re doing a lot of bite-size learning and remote learning, some tailored specifically for leaders. Leading through a crisis is difficult and requires a different skill set. We use Workplace as our internal communication space and we share lots of tips there daily around mindset and how to work remotely from home. There is a bit of humour in there too, just to keep everyone going.

Carole Hogan: Being enthusiastic and being positive is important, because there’s so much negativity out there. Leaders and managers are role models, we connect with them for guidance so it’s really important that they maintain a level of balanced positivity.

Leaders are indeed crucial in this time and driving everything forward. Do you have any tips and tricks for them?

Cadence Willis: We’re seeing lots of different ways people are connecting. Not all leaders are the same, everyone has their own leadership styles, even being on video can make some people uncomfortable. In my team, we try to have a set time every day where we catch up with the team. We also introduced a new series called ‘Ask me anything’ and we are making our rounds with that and have started with the CEO. We have virtual drinks happening and we are encouraging our leaders to have their regular stand-ups. And we are also getting people to notice if someone has been quiet for a while to just reach out and give them that virtual tap on the shoulder. We are about to also introduce a global ‘leaders call’ to give our leaders the chance to connect with each other and ask questions.

Carole Hogan: It’s like a community of practice, really, because you’re learning as you go along. Values are extremely important to help people get through this crisis as well. Having forums or means of communicating with each other is hugely beneficial for helping people feel less lonely.

Cadence Willis: The mental health impact Covid-19 is having on people is huge and we are finding that hard. As a parent, I am working at home and homeschooling my kids too and that is hard. It’s mental health awareness week this week so we are going to organise a Tea and Talk series of interviews next week to just get people to talk and show that we are not alone in this. Showing that you are simply being human is really important now.

Carole Hogan: People need social support – it is core to mental health. They also need perspective. And sometimes a leader or a manager can help them gain perspective and they can also give them some agency as well. To help them feel they have control in their lives. I think that’s really important.

How do you see CSR and sustainability practices changing right now? What are the likely changes we will see in the future?

Carole Hogan: Just today a client rang me and asked me about performance management and I said: “we don’t need performance management, we need performance conversations“. I think that’s probably the route that HR is going to have to take. I know it’s very important for strategic KPIs to understand where the organisation is going, but I think that should be adapted based on this particular crisis.

Cadence Willis: I’m seeing everything adapting based on the situation. On the CSR part, we have a lot of people who are committed to important causes and they haven’t been able to physically volunteer or fundraise even though they have been training for events such as The London Marathon. We’ve seen a shift towards virtual volunteering and we’ve also seen people shift from the way they continue supporting. We have a lot of people who have been furloughed and as a result, they now have more time on their hands for volunteering, which we are absolutely encouraging.

We have also seen people changing the way they do things. Some people have changed their job in this period and the tradition is to go to the pub and for colleagues to get the person a small farewell gift but one of the guys who left us yesterday asked the team instead to make a donation to his particular charity. He raised just under £1000 within 24 hours for a charity helping caregivers.

Cadence Willis, Global Head of Employee Engagement and CSR, Collinson Group

Carole Hogan: This is such a good, actionable example. One particular company I work with support Down Syndrome Ireland and one of the things they organised was a quiz. I think they got 150 people involved and raised 2,500 euros.

Who should identify these opportunities?

Carole Hogan: We conduct surveys that suit the needs of people. We tune in with them and find out from them what is the best approach. I think it’s best to get the ideas from employees so you can guide them and that also creates the engagement.

Cadence Willis: We have what we call our strengthening our communities, this is about supporting our people support the causes that are important to them, we don’t prescribe what charities they should be supporting. We give them the platform to promote, we encourage people to get involved, we match donations up to £150 and encourage them to tell their story. We also have our official charity partners, we do work with them on a particular range of products throughout the year but because we are multi-national we try to set up a global scheme and we work with in-country managers and we try to work with people who really know what the needs are.

You mentioned KPIs. What will HR KPIs look like?

Cadence Willis: I think the things that have always been important are more important now. Things like employee engagement, how people are feeling, what are they focused on, their sense of purpose, their sense of value, whether employees are moving towards a common goal, whether they are understanding the company’s objectives, things that have always been very important in maintaining an engaged employee. I think mental health and wellbeing is going to be so critical. I think another element which is important though less measurable, is storytelling.

How are we going to get out of the situation that we’re in, what is the trajectory, how can you personally make a difference and continue to give reports on progress. I think we should try to move in together so people don’t feel they are being left behind.

Carole Hogan: From an employer point of view, this is the time to double up on your spending on development. We learned from our mistakes in the last recession when we cut budgets. I think we need to focus on how we can develop our employees because new sets of skills are going to be required to ‘new normal’. I think it’s really important to tune into that. Some of the things we’ve been doing around now are online mentoring, online coaching, peer coaching, peer mentoring, reverse mentoring. These work really well online. Development is key for individual performance. That is going to be different, our skills will require different skillsets for the future so we’ll need to be upskilling our employees at this stage rather than tie them down on performance objectives.

Cadence Willis: Diversity and inclusion remain front and centre. We have been looking at how we can bridge any gaps and we need to make sure that we are not forgetting about the various communities that are being impacted by the crisis.

When it comes to employee engagement, how do you make up for the ‘human touch’ that often keeps the team together?

Carole Hogan: It’s important to have a video connection and making sure that you are checking in on a regular basis. Ask people how they feel and look at the individual. One particular organisation we know they got a ‘virtual kitchen’. It’s a good thing to go online to the virtual kitchen and check-in, meet people and just build relationships. The video is a magnificent lifeline for people when they can tune in. When you’re online talking to your people watch out for compassion fatigue, watch out for when they are feeling excluded. Just by asking questions ‘how are you?’, listen empathically, ask questions. It is really important to reframe things if people are feeling negative, try to reframe this and ensure they understand that you’re listening, agree about what can be done and follow up what can be done. Encourage honest conversations and sometimes people don’t want to discuss stuff but try to bring it out in the open. It’s useful for managers to have a bit of training in that beforehand.

Cadence Willis: We have been working a lot with Teams and we are working on developing a Teams etiquette like ‘have your video on so you can connect with people’. The new rituals of which I can mention our Friday night drinks, anyone can join, you jump on.

In these sessions we don’t talk about work or Covid-19, we are actually seeing a little bit of each others’ house and learning a little bit more about each other. That’s actually one of the benefits of this situation. We, as a company have become a little bit closer, we have all met each other’s kids, dogs, partners, gardens, flats. I think some of the formalities have been put down.

We’re going to launch a survey we’re going to conduct every month to find out how everyone is feeling. It is going to provide a red-amber-green on how your mental health is and it’s going to signpost you to various support. We are in different countries so the support is different but I think that sometimes you don’t really know how you are until you’ve gone through a few questions and if you are down, sometimes you don’t even realise how down you are. This will also give people support without putting the pressure on management to always draw that out.

Carole Hogan: We had one team member who was really disaffected. They asked if we could provide a mindfulness program for them. It worked out really well and it also provided them with the space to think and reflect. That could be really good for your mental health. It’s about reaching out to people, finding out what they want, rather than us imposing what we think they need.

Will we go back to the stiff suits and formal office wear?

Cadence Willis: We have never had an old-school office culture. When I speak to my friends and colleagues from other industries, a lot of progress has been made in regards to flexibility and the use of technology. What this situation has done is perhaps showing the naysayers or people who were a little bit reluctant about how well it can be done and how productive and effective people can be. I am hoping we will go back to a nice culture where we work both from the office and have the flexibility to work from home. 

Carole Hogan: I am coming from a more formal environment and I can now see the value of a less formal environment but I agree there needs to be a balance in how we introduce this back after the crisis.

What are the challenges of re-engaging employees into the office? What about on a personal level since people have been in isolation for months?

Cadence Willis: We’re thinking of guidance for managers, any practical toolkits and guides that will support them to support people getting back to work. Giving them a checklist to go through and re-introducing the things people loved to do before, while keeping in mind social distancing. We know we cannot wait to have a big get-together to welcome everyone back. We don’t know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, so we are taking it day by day and putting health and safety first. Keep communications up.

Carole Hogan: I think the fear and the anxiety are a huge issue that we need to address. It’s all going to be about human connection and empathising with people and understanding where they’re coming from, getting their views on how they can integrate. Nothing will ever be the same ever again and people need to accept that. Communicating honestly is very important, be transparent about it. 

How can employers best engage with furloughed staff? How do they engage with them as they are coming back to work?

Cadence Willis: We’re encouraging our people to stay connected while they’re furloughed and not working. We also encourage them to do learning and development, signposting them towards learning platform and anything specific that’s relevant to them. We’re really trying to work with our managers to make sure that they’re checking in with people who are furloughed, to see how they’re doing, keeping them up to date. We do need to put in some thoughts on how to support the furloughed individuals as they are coming back to work. It might be that it is as easy as giving them a summary of what has been going on. Listening to them is hugely important and asking them what they need.

Looking at the things we have learned during the crisis, what are some of the things that companies will take forward?

Carole Hogan: When you have talented people working for you, the question is around employee engagement. As we are moving forward, it is important that managers focus on their talented people and elevating top performance and keeping average performance on track. So keeping top performance elevated is key.

Cadence Willis: We are all coming up with innovative ways of dealing with issues. Maybe it is not perfect, but people are collaborating in ways in which they have never before. The politics is not there, the egos are not there, we are all working together no matter the team.

Carole Hogan: The hierarchies are not as clear anymore, which is good. There is greater respect coming from the older generation towards the younger generation for their resilience, for the quick ways in which they come up with ideas. 

Cadence Willis: The role of honest transparent communication is. What people are seeing is the important role of honest communication even if it is in a less than perfect way. If you do that, if you do that with meaning, people will understand and support you.

The element of trust is key. We are all in this together, we don’t have all the answers but we are collaborating. Yes, the polish has come off but it has been replaced by more honesty.

Carole Hogan, Managing Director, Carole Hogan Associates

If we were to imagine what the new normal would look at for employee engagement and wellbeing in a year from now?

Carole Hogan: HR will probably not be the same, the development will be key in this process and mental health will also be crucial.

Cadence Willis: I think what we’re doing now will become much more normal. What I’m hoping is that this will become more inclusive, there would be lots more people to participate in this way of working. I think we’re going to see a balance between being in the office, working remotely, trusting and supporting people in ways they work for them. People are more engaged and more productive when they’re working in a way that works for them. On the CSR front, I hope it will shine a bigger light on why is it so important for organisations and charities to work together to support, to respond to crisis, and really rally together. You bring the right people in a room and amazing things happen, I am optimistic.

Carole and Cadence answer attendees’ questions here.


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