The silver lining of deeper employee engagement....and other stories of humanity

Every crisis has its silver lining, where some good comes of it, and in the case of Covid-19 it could well be the humanity that companies have discovered. Over recent weeks we have heard many heartening stories, mainly from corporate comms/affairs and internal communications directors, about the herculean efforts that companies are making to assuage the anxieties of their employees, to keep them safe, to monitor their health and well being and to keep them engaged and connected.

There is a genuine concern about the situation and environment in which so many employees find themselves – that they are anxious, uncertain, isolated, often alone, possibly suffering from bereavement and trying to work in an environment that is not always conducive to work. From what I am hearing, leaders are much more attentive to the psychological welfare of their employees, and they have, in many cases, stepped up to and gone beyond their duty of care responsibilities. Companies are showing that they are only human after all.

Although employee engagement, both as an activity and a measurable outcome has existed for several years, it has probably been characterised more by process and mechanistic initiatives than by any real attempt to create emotional connections with employees. But this crisis has brought out the best in companies and elevated the importance of stronger employee connections and deeper engagement to the number one spot on their overall agenda. Leaving aside liquidity and staying solvent of course.

There are a number of upsides to this that we have identified:

First there has been a concerted injection of effort, thought and creativity into engagement and communications. “Tone of voice”, “cadence” and “nuance” are words that have cropped up frequently in my conversations with corporate communications leaders in recent weeks. Empathy and compassion have become critical considerations and companies are now acutely aware of the need to better understand where employees are at and the importance of “getting into the heads” (and shoes) of their employees.

Which brings us neatly to the second upside - it has highlighted the need for, and accelerated an interest in, more sophisticated employee engagement data and insight, that tracks employee mood and opinion more closely. And that will therefore help leaders make better decisions and predict the outcomes of these decisions. As one FTSE 100 corporate affairs director said to me last week:

“How do you really understand where employees are? Opinions and feelings will shift - for instance about coming back to work – but how do you track that and what data can you bring to the party?

Perhaps this will herald the end of the annual engagement study, the extent of some companies' investment in employee research and never the most insightful of tools.

More rigorous employee insight is something that many have lobbied for over the years, as they look with envy at the research budgets their marketing colleagues are given to better understand the motivations and behaviour of consumers. The imbalance has always inferred that employees are less important (or more easily understood) than consumers. Could this be a pivotal moment for the employee insight data industry?

Novel employee communications and engagement challenges have emerged over the past 6-7 weeks, which have helped internal comms/engagement teams earn their stripes, as leaders and managers alike lean on them for their advice and help. This recognition (where it has been merited – it may not be the experience of all companies) is the third upside. To quote the corporate affairs leader of a well known retail brand:

“Internal Comms has been very strong and undoubtedly had the leading role in the management of the issue. In all the early board level discussions, it was our input on IC that took the lead”

These the new communications and engagement challenges to which I refer above tend to relate to highly charged emotional issues, for instance:

-         While employees are furloughed they can’t do any work, so how do you make sure they maintain a connection to the business and its purpose? Also how do you ensure that when they do return, they are energised? Particularly at a time of global tightening of belts that may ultimately result in redundancy rather than a return to work. Furloughing is not a guarantee of getting your job back.

-         Coordinating and balancing communications with workers out on the front line along with their head office colleagues working from home. 

“This is emotional stuff, asking workers to go out on the front line and work in the stores we have kept open”

The fourth upside, based on the evidence of my informal research, is that CEOs and other leaders now have a much higher intensity of contact with employees than they ever used to. Employees will come to expect it, so it will be difficult to just turn this off. Moreover, some leaders are opening up and allowing new levels of transparency and trust into their dialogue with employees. They are admitting that they don’t know what’s around the corner, that they don’t have all the answers and this is liberating for them; to learn that employees don’t need their leader to have all the answers and that they can be truly honest and open.

The fifth upside, as we have highlighted in a previous blog, is that line managers, not notoriously the most enthusiastic of communicators (the so called ‘marzipan layer’) have had to become accountable for their own communications with their teams. They are also monitoring the welfare of their teams and providing support to them. This has helped build connections that previously did not exist. Even better, and again anecdotally, it is having a galvanising effect in that some managers have become genuinely engaged in the process and eager to get better because they have quickly seen its benefits. 

Sixth, companies who have previously been unable to reach or communicate effectively with their frontline staff have found ways of doing so....again because they have had to. I know of two companies, both with very hard to reach frontline staff, who managed to procure the email addresses of these employees. The Head of Internal Comms and Engagement of one of these companies remarked that:

“For the first time ever we have been able to communicate directly with these employees – they have never had this kind of support before and they have never had a message from the CEO before. We have been dying to get these for ages and we got them in a few days”.

Another manifestation of the accelerator effect of this pandemic.

The seventh upside is that, ironically, social distancing has strengthened team cohesion and team connections. Seeing colleagues in their home environment, plus quizzes etc, has brought a degree of intimacy and informality to the team dynamic.

“We have really come together as a team and we are looking out for each other and more attentive to each other’s situations and needs”

Whilst on this subject, the Executive Director of Corporate Affairs at another FTSE 100, related an interesting anecdote last week. A degree of informality has naturally crept into their ExCo video conferencing calls (all at home etc.) and at the end of the last ExCo one of her fellow directors concluded the meeting with the comment “we mustn’t lose this”.  And that is the eighth upside, since for this to be sustained there must be a real desire for it to continue from the top.

It is not altogether surprising to learn that deeper levels of humanity engender stronger and deeper connections, higher levels of engagement in teams across the enterprise, up, down, any direction you care to look. But this crisis will not have been wasted if it marks a profound shift in organisational behaviour and cultures.

#watsonhelsby #NickHelsby #InternalComms #EmployeeEngagement #coronavirus #covid19 #silverlinings #humanity

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