“We’re on a rollercoaster. So hold on.”

What do you mean, an up-side? As in, positives that have emerged from the pandemic?

Seriously?  Yes. As part of CHRO SA’s HR Indaba, TalentSmith Technology delivered a much-anticipated webinar with employee engagement guru Debra Corey, in which she discussed how the world of work, and its future, has changed during the pandemic.

She, together with Tiger Brands CHRO S’ne Magagula, and Discovery group head of organisational development, and talent expert Steve Teasdale, came together to unpack trends including: the more intense need to connect with others; people feeling freer to show the ‘real them’: kids, pets and all; managers being expected to lead in different ways and requiring appropriate support; the need to be quicker and more agile when taking action; and a much deeper, more widespread reliance on technology for employee engagement.

S’ne and Steve also shared how their companies approached employee engagement during and after the crisis, with valuable lessons emerging from their various anecdotes.

With care, empathy and safety as its base (and inspired by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), said S’ne, Tiger Brands was able to connect with its people from Day 1. The company prioritised transport, correct PPE and hygiene practices, and remote working technology.

It used its Thrive Employee Communications system to gauge, among other things, employees’ concerns about job security, and to survey how people felt. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this yielded a spike in recognition and acknowledgement through the Tiger Stripes incentive programme, which now includes a special “Covid-19 Heroes” category.

Steve pointed specifically to Discovery’s purpose, making people healthier, which became all the more visceral during the pandemic. Further, he said, middle managers came alive during Covid-19, keeping people engaged while they were at home and out-stripping all previous employee engagement benchmarks. They opened themselves up to their teams, showed each other their real lives, and proved able to “manage upwards”.

Many of the points and suggestions raised by S’ne and Steve were reiterated by Debra’s nine tips for improving employee engagement during a crisis:

  1. Your ‘why’ may have changed. Re-assess it. For instance, let’s say that, in the past, your purpose was recruiting people. Is that still it? Or might your ‘why’ be more orientated towards employee wellbeing and support, or reward and recognition?
  2. Based on your ‘why’, re-assess your ‘what’. These are your actions. Draw up a spreadsheet: how many tick the ‘why’ box, and how many need to change? S’ne suggested that lengthy project planning is not always required; sometimes agility, speed and responsiveness are more important than benchmarking.
  3. Find ways to listen to your people and to elicit frequent feedback from them. Think beyond annual reviews to short pulse surveys. Because employees’ needs are changing (rapidly), how and how often we seek input from them must also change. (We have a survey built for exactly this.) The amount of communications going out was phenomenal, said Steve, which he acknowledged is not usually a good thing. But people’s appetites appeared to be insatiable across a variety of platforms – formal and informal – including the call centre: “As soon as we skipped a day [of communication], our people were asking what was happening…”
  4. Find ways to communicate in a more open, honest and transparent way. What’s really going on in the business and how can people translate that in their own lives? Trust them with important info, and ensure that authentic communication filters through from the top; from your senior leaders. Steve suggested that CHROs strive to “find humanity in dialogue”; to look for causal links and to measure.
  5. Find different ways to connect people to each other. Consider meditation sessions, cooking/art classes, sharing pics, making and sharing playlists, pub quizzes, and even murder mysteries/escape rooms – all online, of course. S’ne mentioned informal opportunities to connect, including “coffee cup chats”, “cocktail events”, and even “meet the kids”. Tiger Brands’ communications app, Roar (previously a magazine), was used for senior execs and employees to chat among themselves.
  6. Bring your values out to play so your people can actually live them. For example, if one of your values is authenticity, you could run a desk competition – where your people share how they’re really working: on ironing boards, easels, outside, etc. Where individuals are ‘staycationing’; that is, having holidays at home due to circumstance or health issues, there’s an opportunity to share the details.
  7. Show genuine appreciation for your people, to indicate that what they’re doing now matters – not just when it’s a long service award or year-end. Create a culture of mutual appreciation and gratitude, with a programme like Tiger Stripes, for instance. You could even consider small prizes, said Debra, citing examples including an hour off on a Friday , e-cards for recognition, or having biscuits with messages delivered.
  8. Find ways to support the overall wellbeing of your workforce: physical, mental, financial, and even when it comes to recognition and social connections. S’ne mentioned that seeing people holistically and letting them be themselves are among the elements being included, formally, in Tiger Brands’ leadership practices.
  9. Make sure managers are clear on their new role expectations, rather than assuming that they know how to lead a newly flexible workforce. Say to them, “In the new world, we need you to do these things: lead with compassion, lead with empathy, be human, be authentic, say thank you.” Then, give them the tools to succeed.

We’ve said this before, but it’s critical that CHROs understand and commit to measuring employee engagement – perhaps the most crucial metric required to withstand the impact of seismic professional and personal change. And the first step is: to ask.

That’s right: Ask your people how engaged they are. Not casually, but deliberately. In a completely anonymous short pulse survey.