Helping people in lockdown

It is within the power of business leaders to shift from a Covid-19 crisis to real employee engagement and achieve positive outcomes, writes Engage Your People Managing Director Kate Wood.

From the moment Covid-19 distanced many people from their routine office life, leadership and people engagement became urgently needed to maintain business performance and adjust to lockdown. In this, regular communication is critical, along with morale and performance management, mental and physical wellbeing, managing furloughed employees and planning for a stronger future.

Short daily huddles with diary invites are a good option. Many people feel more comfortable on video, but some may not be ready to share their homes, so remind people of blurred background options. Don’t comment on appearance, personal or home, unless appropriate.
• Communicate with emotion, passion and fact, be mindful of tone (especially in written communication), take this time to get to know your team and allow them to get to know you. People are looking for leadership, routine and support.
• Deliver regular company announcements. Provide clarity on the platform and timings, keep them at the same time, and offer visibility of the plan. Record the session so people can re-watch.
• Make time for informal communication, fun and team building, quizzes, classes, and encourage people to be themselves. People need forums to chat about non-work things with the colleagues who they miss seeing.
• Diarise monthly one-to-one meetings with team members to set clear expectations and goals. People need structure and guidance more than ever, work can provide this.
• Conduct regular Q&A sessions so people feel empowered to ask questions, and then document and publish all of the responses.
• Virtual meetings require different levels of focus to engender a sense of personal connection. People often miss non-verbal cues and may get the wrong end of the stick. And it’s critical that everyone feels included. So set out guidelines, create presence by encouraging people not to use the mobile during meetings and resist multitasking.

• Keeping people upbeat needs planning, and some of the face-to-face activities that teams previously enjoyed can be moved to the virtual environment. But not all will transfer well, so get feedback and ask for ideas about what people want and how the timings will work for them.
• Appoint ambassadors or mental health first aiders to keep in regular contact with people who may live alone or be at greater risk of struggling, and may have heightened anxiety. Ask how people feel with daily or weekly check-ins.
• Encourage people to take coffee breaks with small groups online (you can even make it into a lottery, so people meet new people)
• Ask people for song nominations and create ‘lockdown listen’ playlists, which is a great way for employees to get to know more about their colleagues.

Take this time to get to know your team and allow them to get to know you. People are looking for leadership, routine and support

• Create specific communication channels for different situations to bring people together who may be experiencing similar things. Being at home with a new baby will be very different than with an elderly parent or in a shared house.
• If possible, offer a hardship fund to people who may really be struggling. Helping them with basics will pay off long-term for everyone.

Performance management
• Perhaps more than ever people are looking to leadership, but less experienced leaders may feel isolated. So create networks that enable company leaders to work together and be open and honest about how they feel and the challenges they face.
• We need to trust people to get on with work and trust people to manage, avoiding over and under managing.
• Do leaders have training on how to manage people from home long-term? Leaders need support more than ever to achieve consistency.
• Training and knowledge sharing must continue – move it to online, set times, buddy for new starters, less experienced people, and create a robust remote induction process.
• To impart praise and feedback, implement monthly one-to-ones, help people set priorities and support your team with regular and consistent feedback.
• Who is supporting the senior leaders? Do they have an outlet for support and feedback too? There are plenty of webinars out there with people sharing best practices. Now is a great time to join up and learn from other businesses and networks.

Mental wellbeing
• When our stress system stays activated for a prolonged period, it can suppress our adaptive immune systems and make us more vulnerable to viral infections.
• Acknowledge changes in how you feel every week, and be open with employees about this so they can be open too. Seek facts from recognised sources (MIND, BBC, NHS) and limit or block negative social media sources.
• Share information about different ways of supporting mental health – remote mindfulness and yoga sessions may not be to everyone’s taste.
• Recognition and reward systems are fun and can help people feel valued and recognised and provide employees with a confidence boost. Send packages, cards and treats in the post. Small things make a difference at this time.
• Create an Extra Love list for the most vulnerable in your organisation (there may be people impacted by domestic violence, an unsettled home life, poverty, break-ups etc). Reach out and keep an eye on these people so they don’t become further isolated or lonely.
• Make sure people know how to access benefits packages and remind them of the services available. People may try to cancel holidays but it’s important to take leave and break from work.

Physical wellbeing
• Sunlight and fresh air are proven to increase endorphins and make you feel happy. For those who can take walks, rides or runs outside this can be the highlight of the day.
• Support your employees with how to structure their day, encourage a routine with defined breaks, in another room if possible.
• Lots of organisations have set up Strava or Fitbit competitions to maintain team building and a sense of competition.
• People may want to join Joe Wicks with their kids so try and schedule daily meetings around peoples’ preferred routine. You could have a team target for activity, including dog walking or trampolining.
• Keep up good routines: If you drank a lot of water or ate a lot of fruit in the office try to keep it up at home, it’s easy to pick up bad habits.
• Try and keep your regular sleep routine. Sleep can be impacted during change so acknowledge this and take steps to stick to a routine.

Furloughed employees
• Be clear and transparent, explain and don’t make false promises. Keep up-to-date with HMRC information, empathy and thoughtfulness is required more than ever. Identifying ambassadors to keep in touch and support people can help. It may not be a simple case of people picking up where they left off, so re-integration needs to be thought through.
• If you have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) employees have access to this. Most EAP’s provide counselling services and advice on family and financial problems.
• If people cannot be deployed there are a lot of ways they can volunteer, learn new skills and embark on qualifications while furloughed. There are free schemes available, meaning people can keep busy and return to work with new skills and perspectives.
• Create dedicated channels for furlough communications so people can keep in touch easily (WhatsApp, Slack or Microsoft Teams for example).
• Tailor your internal communications and target content towards furloughed employees. Send weekly updates including videos so people feel part of things, without intrusion.
• Don’t forget about people on maternity, paternity or long-term sick. At this time they may feel more out of the loop than ever and will need advance communication if they were set to return during the next few weeks.
• People may have more time to think about their future. They may not want to return, or when they can come back, they may want to talk about changes and progression plans.
• If people have to be permanently laid off, create support packs for them to help navigate the changes ahead, including interview advice, CV help and benefits guidelines. Hard decisions can be handled with integrity and care.

Review and renew
For some businesses, now will provide time to do the things they previously didn’t have time for, so make use of this time to come back stronger.
• Conduct internal satisfaction surveys and whole business reviews to assess processes and how they can be simplified going forward.
• Skills share and role swops: Now is a chance for people to enter other areas and learn new skills.
• Did you have a pandemic plan? If not, document what’s worked well and what hasn’t while it’s fresh in your mind, and look at your other DR plans.
• Your business may not be able to run as normal, but can you explore new partnerships with other businesses that may still be busy but lack skills you and your team have? Increasing your specialised partners, innovation and resilience may mean new partnerships to drive growth.
• New goals for new times: Review teams and individuals’ goals to help employees focus on what will support business objectives.

Future benefits
• As the months pass, the home working benefits and shortcomings will become clearer. Listen to the feedback from your employees. Will home take precedent over office? Many of us will happily return to the office, some will not. But Covid-19 has not brought about an end to office life, rather a reinvention of it, a fresh modern way of working.
• We will have learnt lessons in communication, reduced fears around home working, and perhaps move to more outcome focused ways of measuring performance, allowing people more family or down time.
• Our leadership teams may be better equipped for empathy with a deeper connection and understanding of who their employees are, identifying inner winners, people who have bloomed and new groups of employees now functioning as strong tight knit teams.
• Covid-19 is an unusual opportunity for employees to emerge from lockdown more engaged than ever.

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