By Lara Hamsher, Government Relations and Communications Manager
I joined sPower in September of last year. I moved from the Chicago area to Salt Lake City for this role. This has been a prolonged season of change for me. I was beginning to feel settled when the COVID-19 crisis erupted and changed everything. I, like everyone else, have had to reconfigure how I work and communicate. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that employees are a company’s most important stakeholders. Under that umbrella, I have identified four ways to energize and engage employees in the time of COVID-19 and beyond:
1. Show empathy and be authentic
Never has compassion and empathy played such a key role in strategy. If an organization and its leaders are not communicating with empathy, it will be noticed and there will be consequences. Every employee is being impacted by this pandemic, making a people-focused business approach integral to success.
I was drawn to sPower because of the people-focused culture; the success of the company was built on relationships. Even so, sPower, like other companies, has still had to evolve to meet the changing needs of its employees. Leadership has been more intentional about communicating with empathy, sharing personal experience, and being authentic.
One example stands out in my mind. We host weekly Coffee Talks co-hosted by our CEO and a rotating member of our executive team (more on that later). Our Chief Development Officer Ray Henger was asked how he was personally handling current events as a father with small children and a spouse who also has a demanding career. Ray answered candidly and honestly. He talked about the sticky note calendar he created for his kids, shared Zoom mishaps and his newfound need to block off time on his work calendar for homeschooling. His message was relatable, especially to fellow-working parents. Sharing personal experiences, whether hardships or successes, helps break down the barriers of teleworking.
This is an important lesson in peer-to-peer communication as well; we must remember to show empathy and patience with our colleagues and take time to check in on a personal level. Teleworking and the accompanying onslaught of Zoom meetings have been a reminder that our colleagues have lives, obligations, and interests outside of the office. That reminder has brought empathy to the forefront. I have noticed an increase in people genuinely asking me how I am doing, and carving out a few moments in a meeting to check-in. I have been able to connect with my colleagues on a more personal level, despite not seeing them in person for several weeks. We should take this time to make empathy and authenticity habits and continue to prioritize personal connection when transitioning back to the office.
2. Overcommunicate and “over-listen”
Communicating effectively, regularly and with purpose must become the new norm. I recently attended a webinar “Crisis Communication during COVID-19” sponsored by Northwestern’s Master of Science in Communication Program (my alma mater). When asked about the increased importance of internal communications, panelist Jill Allread, CEO of Public Communications, Inc., explained: “silence is not a productive option when you are in a crisis, staff needs to hear from (leadership) on a regular basis.” I could not agree more. During a time when many companies are teleworking, there is a heightened need for connection. Overcommunication is the way to fill the gap.
Overcommunicating does not need to be overwhelming, but it does need to be consistent. Leadership can send an all-staff email, circulate a video message, or host a Zoom call on a recurring basis that works for the company. The frequency, tone, and message must be tailored to the company culture. Our CEO sends an all-staff email each Monday to kick off the week, and then hosts a ‘Coffee Talk’ on Zoom with a rotating member of the team each Friday. The weekly email and Coffee Talk were added once our company began teleworking. For us, overcommunication is working and is keeping our employees engaged, at home and in the field.
The second part of the equation, arguably more important than the first, is ‘over-listening.’ Jill Allread went on to explain that “listening is now more important than ever.” Listening is also the best tool to communicate effectively because it allows you to identify the unique needs of your audience. In the same way, we are forging new ways to communicate, we need to be forging new ways to listen.
Create different channels of listening. One example is conducting employee surveys or polls. If conducting a survey or poll, make sure you summarize the results and communicate how you are acting on the responses. Listening can also be done through more informal, open-ended meetings like the Coffee Talks I referenced above. Another idea is having open office-hours; or when hosting a Zoom call, invite people to submit questions through the chat or email them in advance, and ask open-ended questions. Leave time at the end of meetings for the awkward silence we all dread. The key takeaway: overcommunicate but listen even more.
3. Create certainty amid uncertainty
Leaders can create certainty by defining what is changing and what is staying the same. This is particularly important when considering the transition back to the office.
I recently had an informative conversation with Jacob Goldstein from The Leadership Laboratory about the difference between change and transition, as described in his blog post “Leading through Ambiguity: Your Role as a Leader during COVID-19.” Change is an “external event…something happening to us” and transition is “the internal response” that “might look different for each person depending on their own thoughts, experiences, and needs.” It is important to understand that everyone reacts to transition differently.
We must remember that everyone will be going through the same process when we return to work, as we did when we transitioned to working from home. Employees’ responses will differ depending on their personal experiences, feelings, and needs. Ensure that the transition plan acknowledges the need for increased flexibility and has a policy on continued teleworking for employees with extenuating circumstances (childcare, health, age, etc.).
Creating a transition plan that identifies what will change in the office environment, and what will stay the same will help create more certainty. Employees will be more productive when they know what to expect and have a voice in the transition process.
4. Get real about mental health
The current pandemic has prompted a long-overdue conversation about mental health in the workplace. With virtually no distinction between work life and home life, it is increasingly difficult to compartmentalize emotions. There is additional psychological stress and some coping mechanisms, like going to the gym, have been taken away. Leaders, at all levels, need to engage in open dialogue about mental health. For example, start meetings with a ‘mental health moment’ and share a helpful resource or experience, and regularly circulate any mental health resources offered through insurance. It is also important to have a flexible work culture where employees are supported taking a day off (or more) to unplug.
The topic of mental health is serious and needs to be continually discussed and addressed. However, addressing mental health does not always need to be heavy. You can add levity during this stressful time by creating venues for employees to engage with one another just for fun. We have created a Teams group called “Dogs and Happy Stuff” to share lighthearted news and stories and launched a page on our intranet titled “Social Distancing 2020” for employees to share tips on successfully teleworking. We have even hosted virtual trivia on Friday evenings (with an energy theme). By no means are these solutions to addressing mental health, but they provide one avenue to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
We have the opportunity to rethink how we work, how we communicate, how we lead, how we prioritize relationships, and how we engage with our colleagues.
I am hopeful that engaging and energizing employees will remain a business priority moving forward, and the workplace will be better off for it.