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Employee engagement: Keeping staff in the loop while working from home

Covid-19 has speeded remote working and employers need to embrace their teams

It’s been a year since our bosses told us to stay home, work remotely for a while, and they’d see us back in the office as soon as this pesky pandemic had passed – maybe in six to eight weeks, tops. Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs got our home office set up and settled into our remote working routine, confident that coronavirus would be quickly knocked on the head, and we could all soon get back on the Luas and back to business.

A year on, and we still haven’t been near our workplaces; we’ve been out of the office so long we’ve almost forgotten what our colleagues look like. Whenever we hook up with them on a Zoom meeting, we don’t even recognise them. With hair salons and barbershops closed, and dress codes out the window, it’s like looking at a wall of album covers from the 1970s.

There have been many upsides to working from home. We get to see more of our families, which is a good thing – until one of the kids barges in on our Zoom meeting wielding a lightsabre. We’ve eliminated all those hours of commuting, buying us more precious time on both ends of the working day. And we’ve saved a fortune on parking, eating out and buying a round of drinks for the entire IT department on Friday evening.

But there are also many downsides to working remotely, and each month that passes brings them into sharper relief. We may at this stage be starting to feel disconnected from our workplaces, and beginning to disengage from our company’s vision. We’re missing the camaraderie and collegiate atmosphere of the workplace and the sense of being part of a team with shared goals and targets, and we’re missing the feedback from our colleagues. Most of all, we’re missing Steve the sales manager’s hilarious knock-knock jokes . . . I’m joking, of course.


Cast adrift

After a year in the suburban wilderness, we're starting to feel like we've been cast adrift, and we're wondering if our employers have completely forgotten about us. Would they even notice if we sneaked off and sparked up the barbecue, cued up another boxset, and set up a short video of ourselves on constant loop for the daily team Zoom meeting, like Keanu Reeves on that bus in Speed?

Employee engagement doesn’t begin and end with Covid, as many well-established firms are well aware. Companies know how crucial it is to retain their staff members’ loyalty and buy-in, whether they’re working remotely, in the office or doing a mix of both. And, as more businesses move to agile working post-Covid, we’re likely to see more of us choose a balanced blend of home and office working, allowing us to tailor our working week to suit our busy lives, and not just serve the tyranny of timetables.

"We'll all be moving to a more hybrid model post-Covid, but at the moment everyone is working from home," says Ruth Lyndon, managing partner at Phoenix, a leading global specialist search firm focused on the professional services sector. "It's challenging as well for Phoenix, because we're in the business of recruitment, and our people need to be around their colleagues for bonding and training. So, we can very much empathise with our clients because we're there ourselves, this is affecting every single business. Whilst not without its challenges, the new hybrid working model is the post-Covid future. For savvy employers, it offers unique company brand and employee buy-in opportunities."

To get a handle on what the firm needed to do to keep engagement high during the pandemic, Phoenix conducted its own audit to measure its performance before and during lockdown to see what areas the company needed to tweak. “It’s important to be mindful of things like training,” says Lyndon. “We have a very good learning and development (L&D) programme in place, and we had to make sure it worked virtually as well.”

Phoenix also invested in equipment and tech to ensure its staff of 15 had all they needed to have a home set-up that was conducive to working remotely. And the company worked to keep the lines open with staff, beginning with a bi-weekly conference call.

Food vouchers

“We call it our Phoenix family catch-up, where it’s not work-related, it’s purely social. And we have work table quizzes, and we send Just Eat vouchers out to staff so they can have a takeaway on us. For new joiners there would normally be a welcome pack, so instead I’m doing things like sending out branded cupcakes to new joiners.”

Onboarding new staff is also a challenge in this Covid era, and with Phoenix in growth mode, with ambitious plans for the future, it’s not waiting around for the pandemic to pass before taking on new staff, says Lyndon. The company is now so proficient in virtual onboarding, it’s even produced a guide for its clients on how to do it right.

Training is another area that’s feeling the challenge of Covid. The default mode for some companies might be to ease up on the training and leave staff members at their existing skill levels until things tide over. But Covid should not be an excuse to ease up on the training and upskilling of staff, believes Lyndon.

“That’s something that we would be quite passionate about at Phoenix, is the L&D, and we’re very mindful that a lot of it is on-the-job training. So we work with our senior manager and our team leaders to make sure that we have the mix of online self-learning, and regular check-ins with our employees. And when we are physically allowed into the office again, we’re going to have to make sure that the junior staff are getting to spend time with the senior people so they can learn from them.”

Loneliness and isolation can be very real challenges for people working remotely, and companies need to be mindful of their employees’ mental health as they struggle with new work challenges. Good communication is key here, says Lyndon.

“Some people are extroverts, and they get their energy from other people, and it’s tough for them. And people have kids at home. So I would say, talk to your employees and check in with them regularly. How are you? How are you feeling? Is there anything we can help with? So employees know they can talk about this.”

Employee wellbeing

Having facilities in place such as an employee assistance programme, with a designated, trained person to talk to, will do wonders for employee wellbeing, and reassure them that their employer is still thinking about them, says Lyndon.

“The onus is on employers. You have to make sure that your senior management are trained to help their staff. Because this is new to everybody.”

Helen Kelly is managing director, country manager and head of corporate banking at Barclays Bank Ireland plc. She's also just finished her tenure on the board of directors at Barnardos, Ireland's children's charity, so she's seen the employee engagement issue from two different perspectives.

“From a Barclays perspective, we’ve had a mix of home and office working strategies in place since before Covid,” says Kelly. “We call it dynamic working, and we’ve had the foundations of that in place for years. It was an easier and smoother transition for us. And in our last big survey before Covid, 88 per cent of our staff could work from home. So, it wasn’t as big a cultural change for Barclays as it has been for Barnardos.

“Barnardos is different because they didn’t have anyone working from home. First of all their job has always been to support the most vulnerable children and families, and their workers are right on the front line of communities. So, it was an adjustment for them more than it was for us. But I’d say you have to up your communication big-time: you have to have lots of webinars, and surveys, and focus on things like wellbeing, feedback sessions, team briefings.”

Because Covid has forced many people to juggle their work and home lives, companies need to be ready to help their staff manage their personal lives around their work, says Kelly. It helps that Barnardos has a strong leadership team, she adds, and board members like herself can bring their own experience to the table.

“Barnardos works on the front line, so they know the importance of wellness and wellbeing, and they were able to develop a whole suite of support materials for their staff, in addition to those developed for their end-users.”

These include wellbeing days, where staff members chatted with colleagues around issues that concerned them.

Parent support line

“We were also able to launch a parent support line, for parents at home with vulnerable children, just a simple support line that can help parents reduce anxiety.

“Barnardos are dealing with families with acute vulnerability, and some of them don’t own an iPad, so they can’t do FaceTime, so it’s even more challenging for Barnardos to look after people’s wellbeing during this time.”

In her senior management capacity at Barclays, Kelly is cognisant of the importance of good leadership in keeping employees on fully on board and not drifting off into cyberspace while working remotely.

“It’s like if you’re on a plane and there’s an emergency, you give the oxygen to yourself before you give it to the children. We put a lot of focus into our leadership, to make sure we have the resilience we need, and then take that to our team.”

“It’s about stepping up engagement. Not just regular reports. We have team Friday chats every week, and everybody loves them. Fitness initiatives, bonny baby competitions. We do things like show and tell, where somebody gets up and tells a story, and I can tell you, I know my team way better now than I did before Covid.

“The support network has allowed us to reach out to colleagues and have a chat, so having that network is so important.”

In the business world of old, people went into the office because that’s where the filing cabinet was, says Daragh O’Brien, managing director of data management consultants Castlebridge.  But now the filing cabinet is online, there’s less need to go into the office – as long as you can still access the files. When your staff is scattered around the four corners of the globe – or simply in different parts of town – it’s crucial to keep them in the loop of what’s happening in the company and what the company is planning next. For Castlebridge, this is second nature.

“We were always a virtual company, by preference. We only got our first office in 2017, and the company has been going since 2009. It’s useful to have a place where we can meet, but for us we were always set up to work remotely, so switching to fully remote hasn’t been a big issue,” says O’Brien.

Absence of trust

“In terms of keeping employees engaged while working remotely, the key is communication, communication, communication. We avoided the temptation to invest in workforce management programmes or workforce monitoring solutions. We decided that wasn’t the right way to go about it. Because when you’re measuring work like that, it speaks to an absence of trust in the workplace. Instead, we set up structures for better communication: regular check-ins, team meeting in the morning, other meeting during the day. And focusing on how we were doing not just with our clients, but as individuals working remotely.”

For O’Brien, “remote working” has negative connotations, conjuring images of someone working alone and isolated on a desert island, far from the hustle and camaraderie of the office.

“Remote working suggests out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “But most organisations really want to embrace and enable their workforce and empower their teams in this changed working environment. We need to connect to work whether we’re working remotely, from our home office, or from a hub, or from a van at the side of the road, or in the car, even when we’re in the office. Sometimes people can be in the office and still feel disconnected from their work, because if the information they need to do their job isn’t readily available, structured and understandable, then it’s not fit for purpose.

“So, we developed strategies where our staff can get access to all the information they needed to keep doing their job well even while not in the office. The changed working environment over the past year has highlighted the importance of good data and information management in organisations. It starts with access to the working environment. What do people need access to? When you can’t go to the person three desks down from you to ask a question, you have to have a way to codify the knowledge in the organisation that previously was in people’s heads and spread across the company.”

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist