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Employee Engagement During a Global Pandemic: There’s No Magic Formula

Kristen Ruttgaizer

May 21, 2020 · 6 min read
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Let’s face it. Even organizations with the most detailed business continuity plans were not fully prepared for COVID-19. So leadership and HR teams across the globe had to move quickly – yet strategically – and figure out how to weather the storm.

What’s been called the biggest “work from home” experiment of all time didn’t just call for companies to figure out how to enable a remote workforce, it called for companies to re-think their entire business operations. From how to deliver their products and services, to how to manage their IT systems, to how to quickly mobilize their staff.

Here at Igloo, it also meant re-thinking our culture and engagement strategies, too. We couldn’t just do the same things we were always doing. It was going to take some trial and error to figure out what we could continue doing and what we’d need to start from scratch.

Before we share some of our key learnings from the last few weeks, I want to let you in on some of the thinking when the crisis hit.

Work? During a pandemic?

While “remote work” has been the hottest work-related topic since this all began, we think it goes further than that. We’re not just learning how to enable our workforce to work from home; we’re helping them navigate how to work during a global pandemic – and try to adjust to whatever realities that new normal brings.

In other words, we didn’t want to oversimplify what was happening to our employees. It wasn’t just a matter of packing up their desks, heading home, and starting work again the next day. Not during a pandemic.

There were many other more important things running through their minds. From childcare to finances to health and wellbeing to the safety of their friends and family. No matter how loyal we want our employees to be, we knew work wasn’t the first thing on their minds.

Engagement has always been important to us at Igloo. It’s in our DNA. After all, we are a company that makes digital workplace solutions that help companies improve communication, collaboration, knowledge sharing, and culture.

And even though our employees are fully equipped to work from anywhere, thanks to the power and capabilities of our digital workplace solutions, we had a very strong “in-office” culture because we also saw the undeniable advantage of being around each other on a daily basis.

But that stopped the day we followed government orders and sent our employees home.

We really needed to rely on a combination of strong leader communications, our digital workplace platform (intranet), and the participation of our employees – to communicate with each other and determine how we would navigate the coming weeks.

And here are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned over the last few weeks.

1. Communicate clearly and consistently

One of our biggest priorities was making sure our employees were informed and that we were doing everything we could to ease their minds and make them feel supported through such a strange and unstable time.

That meant thoughtfully putting together a hub on our intranet where we published news related to company and policy updates, resources for working from home, and updates on our initial work-from-home timelines. It was (and continues to be) the single source of truth that employees can trust and rely on every day.

One thing we’ve learned over the past few weeks is that just because we’ve created this single source of truth doesn’t mean our work is done.  For example, one of our employees was looking for resources for parents and reached out to ask us if we had anything. We knew we had posted this information, but with the influx of new information and notifications during the previous weeks, the update had gotten lost.

We needed a holistic communications strategy that involved not just creating and posting content but distributing it and making sure it’s easily accessible when the employee is ready to view it. We have to take the time to remind our employees about what resources are available, even if it’s not new, and always drive back to our single source of truth.

Some of the ways we’ve been doing this is posting weekly updates to the company blog, asking our leaders to cascade updates to their teams, and promoting available resources in our all-hands meetings.

We’ve also learned that now is not the time to overload employees with information. So, we’re making sure that everything we distribute is purposeful, succinct, and allows employees to digest it at their own pace.

2. Be aware of sub-cultures and siloes

Another important part of our culture that we needed to find a way to maintain was the “drive-by” or ad-hoc conversations that happened around the office. This isn’t just watercooler chatter; these are the unplanned conversations that can help move a project along or keep everyone in the know.

We know that people were used to being able to just pop by someone’s desk for a quick answer or overhear a conversation from the next cubicle and chime in with an idea. These types of interactions are less likely to happen when we’re not in the same place, so we had to come up with ways to mimic them online.

One thing you can do is create a “Did you know?” section on your home page where your digital workplace managers can curate bite-sized project wins or updates from across the organization. This gives employees insight into projects that may never have otherwise crossed their desks.

We also have to be conscious that it’s very easy for teams to become siloed when we’re all spread apart, and smaller sub-cultures can form. It’s important for everyone to still feel like part of the same company, working toward the same mission.

And leaders really need to do their part to continue to emphasize strategic objectives and ensure their team members have what they need to collaborate on cross-functional projects and goals.

3. Keep engagement simple

For any organizations wondering whether they should be spending or saving money on engagement activities right now, my advice is this: spend wisely and keep it simple. You don’t have to jump into anything major – but any new initiative has to make business sense.

You can implement engagement strategies for little or no cost. But what you will need is creativity, support from your leadership team, and digital tools that can bring them to life. As I mentioned above, there’s no magic formula for engagement during a crisis.

It will take some experimentation to figure out what works best for your organization. For example, we used to have “Treat Fridays” where employees would take a break to socialize with treats in the afternoon.

But now that our employees are all at home and juggling their work and personal responsibilities, we’ve reduced it to two times per month instead. And it’s optional. We’re keeping in mind that some people are getting “Zoomed out,” so there’s no pressure to join, but it’s there if they need it.

Any other activities that are focused on health and wellbeing will be appreciated by your employees. Whether it’s sparking up a light-hearted contest, putting together an online photo gallery or playlist, or hosting daily stretching or meditation sessions – it doesn’t have to be complicated or costly.

Don’t feel pressured to give out all the perks you used to. More than anything, people need empathy, support, and flexibility during this time, so anything you can do to provide those things will show your employees you care and that you’re happy they’re part of the team. In fact, you can see this as another chance to show your employees why they chose a great place to work.

4. Get a ‘pulse’ with short surveys

Working during a pandemic was new to all of us. We had to move very quickly to adapt to this new reality and implement the first three steps, but this fourth key learning will be the most critical in successfully navigating the next several weeks and months.

Employee feedback is something we’ve always encouraged at Igloo and with our customers. In fact, our digital workplace solutions are built to promote two-way communication and collaboration between employees and leadership.

Now that we are several weeks in, consider sending out a short pulse survey (5-6 questions) to collect feedback from employees to determine if you’re meeting their needs. Are they getting the right information? Is the frequency right? Is there anything else that should be considered?

Take the survey results into consideration as you’re honing and tweaking your communications and engagement strategies. Then, plan to launch another survey in four to six weeks to measure your progress and identify any new opportunities for improvement. Keeping an open dialog during this time will help everyone stay on the same page and charge toward the same goals.

It’s okay to experiment

There’s no playbook when it comes to maintaining culture and engagement during a pandemic. Determining the best way forward for your business and employees requires a thoughtful strategy, but just know that it’s okay to experiment with ideas and learn as you go.

What employees really need to feel engaged right now is clear communication, the tools they need to perform their jobs, and consideration for how they’re coping in their new work environment.

If you’d like to see more about how Igloo can help you navigate the next era of work, I encourage you to sign up for a free Remote Work Bundle. You’ll get a package of essential tools to help leaders communicate and employees stay productive and engaged over the next few months.