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Employee Engagement in the Time of COVID-19

Supporting your employees during this period can seem daunting, but what if you changed perspective?

As Josh Bersin said in his piece COVID-19 May Be The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Employee Engagement, “Yes, it’s a health crisis but for most companies, it’s also an incredible opportunity to transform.”

Many businesses across the globe are doing their best to treat their employees by higher standards - their efforts translating into excellent measures that have led to Employee Engagement improvements, at last!
Their moves demonstrate that they have understood how important retaining high-quality talent is, to their survival.

As thoroughly explained by Atta Tarki in his book Evidence-Based Recruiting, talent is the vital element to achieving success. These trying times are a stress-test. You might weather this storm if you keep your best talent and manage to incentivize them to perform. So, how do you keep your employees engaged, and make them feel supported during such a phase?

First of All, What Does an Engaged Employee Look Like?

Engagement, Defined

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Debra Corey for an interview, “Supporting Your Employees Through the Crisis”. As she mentioned during the webinar, employees who are engaged, “understand what the company is trying to do, how they fit in, and they want the company to succeed.” Furthermore, those employees feel that “the company believes in them, cares for them, trusts them.” You can achieve this by first understanding their needs.

What Do They Need?

In 1943, Abraham Maslow presented his theory, the hierarchy of needs. It quickly became one of the most important motivational theories in psychology, and it can be represented visually as a pyramid. At the bottom, we have humanity’s basic needs, and as we reach them, we climb further up the pyramid and devote our efforts to the fulfillment of the higher tier of motivating factors.

These are the same needs that you should keep in mind when supporting your staff. Satisfying them is vital in your effort to motivate your employees to perform.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

What Worries Your Staff, These Days?

Now that we’ve mentioned what Maslow envisioned as your employees’ needs, let’s unveil what’s on your staff’s mind. Your talent’s fears might help you understand how to better support them through this crisis. In Josh Bersin’s article, we can see what were the top issues worrying employees during the first half of April 2020. Bersin’s pool was concentrated in the USA, but we can imagine that the same concerns must be affecting, in some shape or form, employees worldwide.

First of all, when taking a look at the graph presented below, we see that the employees’ need for personal financial security is key, affecting 81% of the sample. This falls in Maslow’s Safety tier of needs.

Two more issues are health and well-being, and the respondents’ families - these fall in the Safety and Love, and in the Belonging categories of needs that Maslow theorized.
Finally, productivity and work worry 24% of the respondents. The switch to remote work is forcing companies to quickly adapt, and make it possible for employees to perform in unforeseen logistical settings.

Top Issues On Employees' Minds

We will consider the main categories of worries that Bersin found through his study in this article, but as shared by Debra Corey during our interview, it is fundamental for you to listen to your people, even when you stumble upon an initiative, idea, or approach that seems applicable to your specific situation. Nothing should be given for granted.

I’ll give you an example. Some businesses have been able to identify disruptive solutions to their COVID-induced financial woes by having uncomfortable conversations with their employees. As it turns out, in some businesses, the staff opted for salary cuts in order to avoid lay-offs. Listening truly is important!

Do you need another reason to probe with your staff? You could be wasting your resources on initiatives that they deem irrelevant, all while not addressing their most pressing concerns.

Ask For Their Opinions

Even during these times, it is possible to listen to your employees and figure out their specific needs. Some companies organize forums, but a simple survey can also be very helpful. At Starred, we receive a feedback form in our inbox on a weekly basis. It’s short and simple but allows us to share our thoughts and concerns with upper management. If you would appreciate the help of an expert on the matter, Debra Corey collaborated with us on a Free COVID-19 Employee Pulse Survey. Please reach out to us if you want to have access to the survey.

Debra’s Main Takeaways

During our interview with Debra Corey, we asked her what were some impactful actions for businesses to take in response to this crisis.

Supporting Your Employees: The Short-Term Moves

Lifting the Mood

Some companies have made commendable efforts to show their employees some support since the very beginning of this pandemic.
For instance, the Dutch fair trade confectionery company Tony's Chocolonely sent their employees a “survival box”, including gourmet food from local producers. Their attempt was aimed at lifting their talent’s mood through a special pampering moment during a time of great stress.

Our own CEO took a similar approach with a recent initiative, which saw him taking the staff out for dinner. Remotely, it goes without saying. The employees were given the opportunity to order one meal on company expenses. “Not having to do groceries, not having to cook and, most importantly, no dirty dishes, are the perfect ingredients for a chilled evening.”, Lars said in his Slack message sharing the initiative.

Help Your Staff Deliver

Businesses across the world have helped, financially or logistically, their employees in setting up their new home office.
Some employers have paid for better internet connection for their employees, some have shipped or delivered useful tools from the office, or ordered them online, to help their staff be productive under these unpredictable circumstances.

Not everyone lives in a two-bedroom apartment. Some employees will have to face more complex adjustments than others. The survey below, led by SHRM in the US to analyze teleworking in the time of COVID-19, shows that 14% of the interviewed selected “other” as their current work station. Debra shared that she’d heard of people working from their ironing board! That definitely wins the creativity award.

Supporting Your Employees: Actions For the Long Run

There are things that your HR department should do and keep on investing in, in the long run. 

Talk the Talk

“Communication is the lifeline to our employees now more than ever.” - Debra Corey

One thing that companies need to pay closer attention to is communication.
It is more important now than ever to maintain and foster the connection you have with your employees.
So, how should your communication be? It should be open and honest, even when it comes to talking about the financial state of the company, and it should be two-sided - listen to what your employees have to say back.
Furthermore, communication should take place in lots of different ways, and over and over again - in fact, redundancy is now acquiring a positive connotation, as it allows you to reach your interlocutor and cut through the noise generated by everything that’s happening around us, these days. Finally, communication should be human.

At Starred, we’ve understood how vital our interactions are, and to make sure that everyone feels that there’s an open-door policy, our CEO has recently started hosting AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions online. The new initiative has been warmly welcomed by my colleagues and me, who had the chance to take some concerns off our chest with the same ease as when we weren’t physically apart.

If you have any doubts about how to best utilize video as a media to replace in-person interactions, you can watch our interview with Elena Valentine. The video expert shared the importance of being vulnerable and embracing imperfections, when on-camera.

Are Your Managers Prepared?

In Debra’s words, “We’re expecting a lot more out of our managers. If you haven’t taken the time to give your managers the training and the support that they need, you need to do that.”
Managers need to show they care, and CEOs do too - we’ve heard of Chief Executive Officers filming “a day in the life of” videos and sharing them with their employees, to show how their days look like now that we’re locked in due to the pandemic. 

How should management act to support your employees? They should:
1. Be human
2. Say “thank you”
3. Stay connected
4. Lead with empathy
5. Lead with compassion
6. Be authentic

Expectations of Managers

Just as expectations increased for managers, these days, their own should be readjusted when it comes to the level of performance they can demand their employees to deliver. In times in which we’re pestered by an endless series of interruptions, we cannot expect people to work as easily as they did before. In fact, Debra Corey saw this as the biggest mistake made by HR these days: businesses trying to pretend that these new rhythms and circumstances are normal, expecting the same that they did in the past.

Holistic Wellness

Your employees’ wellness comes in many shapes and forms. It involves 5 main spheres: physical, social, mental, financial, and community. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

  • Physical. Your collaborators are stuck inside their apartment. In some cases, depending on where you are while reading this article, it’s almost impossible for them to leave their house even to go for a walk. Some businesses have invested in special classes, from yoga and meditation to more intense activities, to help maintain their health.
  • Social. Companies are getting more and more creative with this. Initiatives to impact your employees’ social wellness can go from hosting after-work Friday drinks on Google Hangouts to organizing cooking classes with a chef, or even hiring a company like Stage Presence, to provide the staff with remote entertainment, such as a live concert they can attend altogether while in lockdown.
  • Mental. Special initiatives have been tailored to support employees mentally, too. For instance, some businesses have hired coaches or given their talent access to platforms such as Better Help, to alleviate their anguish during this period. Starbucks has invested in free therapy for its staff, including part-time workers. 20 sessions a year, as well as unlimited access to certain apps, are included in their effort towards protecting their employees’ mental wellbeing.

More Examples

Some companies are giving their employees more flexible benefits and investing in their talent’s education.
“Training departments always struggle to get people to consume their programs. Not now.” - Josh Bersin. The training doesn’t only involve business topics but is extended to literature, yoga, breadmaking, and more.
Furthermore, employees are sometimes invited to take paid holidays, to help them achieve balance during these times. Other than investing in a mental health program, Starbucks offered a “catastrophe pay” to the baristas exposed to the virus, including 14 days of paid leave for those diagnosed with it, exposed to it, or in close contact with someone who had the virus, extending the eligibility to those at risk, when a doctor’s note was presented.

We’ve seen several ways you can use to retain your employees and maintain, if not improve, their well-being during these challenging times, but not all businesses are given that chance. As the Corona crisis hits us all financially, some businesses face extreme difficulties. It’s in response to these challenges that they show their true colors.
Luxottica is an Italian eyewear conglomerate and the world's largest company in the eyewear industry. As the Corona crisis impacted Italy in a particularly brutal way, many companies found themselves applying for the Wage Guarantee Funds, short-term allowances that help them go by, keeping their employees in standby while receiving part of their usual salary.
Luxottica has decided to integrate 100% of the salary of the people who are kept at home, paid a €500 bonus to those who keep on working, and encouraged its directors to cut their own salaries, in line with what the CEO did to reduce his own. The goal was to be able to pay all their employees in spite of it all.

When laying off employees is an unavoidable decision, don’t forget that it can be done while treating the staff respectfully.
Most recently, Airbnb has had to make that decision and did so with tact and transparency. In a letter from the CEO Brian Chesky, the reasons for laying off 1,900 employees were shared with the entire company, as well as the technicalities the decision entailed, all while showing appreciation for the departing employees’ efforts, whose talent helped make Airbnb.

Another company worthy of mention is Personio. The German HR software company made the office-to-home-working transition very easy, letting their employees order desks, chairs, cushions, and internet boosters whenever needed, in order to achieve the right at-home office setup. “We were given a free subscription to Freeletics to keep fit and exercise during the day,” said Adriana Kubikova, Account Executive UK & Ireland. “We also have a whole HomeOffice Task Force team constantly coming up with ideas and events to keep us engaged. For instance, we have Pub Quizzes, remote lunches, and coffee breaks chosen at random via our Roulette system, online yoga, MTV Cribs Home Edition, and various online games.”
They also set up a weekly newsletter with the plan for the following week, with various how-to's, for example, teaching the staff how to run more effective Zoom meetings. The newsletter also includes tools to help their employees with their well-being and motivation and maximize their work-from-home productivity.
On Monday mornings, Personio’s founder runs a quick meeting with the whole company to remind them of their mission and to wish them a good week. The Employer Branding Manager, responsible for the HomeOffice Task Force, presents various updates and new ideas, too.
Also, Personio allows parents to work 25% less without any reduction in their salary if the children are at home because of closed schools.

To Conclude

Debra Corey Quote

Whatever aspect your initiatives will touch, make sure you take them while living your values. “It’s a time that people are going to look back to and say, “Did you live your values, or did you just do what was easiest for you? [...] If you’re ever going to bring your values out to play, the time is now.”, said Debra Corey.

Our values are the glue that keeps us together, and this crisis is the perfect time to use them to make your employees feel the support they need and deserve. Remember Josh Bersin’s words? This crisis can be your chance to transform.
Don’t forget to keep open and two-sided communication with them. Ask the right questions, and your efforts will address the issues that concern your staff the most.


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