Reviving Relationships With Employees: How Mid -Market Companies Can Emerge Stronger Post-Pandemic

Written By &Marketing

On July 10, 2020

A company cannot have excellent customer satisfaction without having excellent employee satisfaction – therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity. Much has been written about staying close to the customer during the COVID-19 crisis. While rightly so, there has been far less attention toward the changing behaviors and the sustained impact on employees.

Welcome to part three of a five-part series of articles on “Emerging Stronger Post-Pandemic,” which has been specifically developed for mid-market companies. In the first article, we identified several key trends and discontinuities that have emerged from the pandemic (which smart business leaders will see as opportunities) and provided four areas that mid-market companies must focus on to not only survive, but thrive over the long-term. These four areas include:

The subsequent articles in this series will spotlight each of these core areas.

Revive Relationships with Employees

Much has been written about staying close to the customer during the COVID-19 crisis, and for good reason. However, a company can’t have excellent customer satisfaction without first having excellent employee satisfaction. There has been far less attention on COVID-19’s sustained impact on employees and the resulting change in their behavior. Herein lies both a challenge and an opportunity.

This article focuses on the changes in employee mindsets and behaviors that demand a thoughtful organizational response to achieve lasting success in the eventual “new normal.” Employee mindsets, behaviors, and even values are shifting, and there is likely to be a struggle to regain their trust, engagement and productivity. As companies consider how to operate during this transition, leaders must address the “human” side of their enterprise. It’s difficult – if not impossible – to return to “business as usual” with a workforce that is forever changed.

Company leaders will need to be deliberate in examining their culture, talent strategy, and employee engagement. This could be a “first” for some companies. There will be a call for a more informed and engaged workforce, a need to reduce anxiety, and a movement to prepare employees for changes in strategy, structure, and ways of operating. Smart leaders will even see this challenge as an opportunity to create a competitive advantage.

After all, our PandemicEX survey data shows us that while 61% of US workers believe their company has a plan for managing the ongoing risk, 47% are afraid to go to work and only 33% are ready to go back to the office once local officials declare it safe to do so

Forrester

Below, we more closely examine the changing employee behaviors we have identified, the factors driving the change, and the resulting actions companies should take to prepare for the ever-evolving road ahead.

Want to understand if your setting yourself up to emerge strong post pandemic? Request a readiness assessment today and find out. 

Key changes to employee behaviors and attitudes have occurred as a result of COVID-19, requiring companies to pay more attention to their work culture and environment.

The disenfranchised workforce

Many have become unemployed or furloughed for the first time in their careers, which often reduces the confidence and security that these employees once felt from their employers. Those who maintained their jobs likely faced (or will face) pay cuts, reduced hours, mandatory vacation, or reductions to benefits. In addition to the emotional and financial toll this has taken on the American worker, it has also affected how they perceive their employer and engage in their work. To make matters worse, many companies have struggled with the quality and frequency of internal communications during this time. Companies are now faced with rebuilding trust and loyalty in their workforce, and even rebuilding confidence in the success of the company itself.

The enduring distributed workforce.

Six months ago, if you told a CIO of any mid-size company (or school) that they had 30 days to effectively transition all of their employees to remote work, they would have laughed. “Forget it…it will take two years and $1 million…”

Yet, they did it. The technology worked and employees adapted with surprising ease.

We’ve broken through a barrier where, previously, work from home (“WFH”) was the exception and culturally rare. Now, WFH is the norm, and there is no going back. Companies, including board members and investors, now know that this is not only doable, but potentially more cost-effective. It enables a reduced office footprint, broader geographic talent pools, and greater flexibility for employees (which further taps a broader talent pool, i.e. part-time workers, stay-at-home parents, etc.).

With a distributed workforce, though, there are also challenges that companies must address. How do we create and maintain a positive company culture and engage employees? How do we manage employee accountability and productivity? How do we recreate the casual, in-person “water-cooler” interactions between employees, which often yield strong relationships and partnerships?

Ultimately, the distributed workforce is here to stay. Organizations will need to keep pace in adapting their working norms, processes, and IT strategies. The CIOs and the CHROs must partner closely to deliver a sustainable workforce in this accelerated environment.

Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, facilitating 24/7 collaboration with colleagues who are dispersed across time zones, countries, and continents.

Michael Dell

The growing contingent workforce.

As more employees work from home – and as technology that enables them to do this seamlessly is created and made available quickly – companies no longer have to limit their talent pool geographically. Gartner research shows that 48% of employees will work remotely after the pandemic, which is up from 30% pre-pandemic. This changes the competition for talent with increasing options for acquiring lower-cost talent. Companies will find it easier to tap into the skills needed, without hiring full-time workers (recent data shows that 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure). Many of these workers are already accustomed to working on multiple projects and with multiple teams at the same time. Additionally, when you remove geography from the equation, companies will find it easier to recruit diverse talent.

Ultimately, remote work will provide companies with greater flexibility over the long-term, and can increase productivity by drawing on talent both inside and outside the organization. HR departments may develop “pools” or “backlogs” of individuals with such skills and talent, to be tapped into as needed.

The emotionally exhausted workforce

Some have found remote work a welcome reprieve from long commutes or a stressful work
environment. Others are facing challenges, feeling disengaged, and/or are distracted by looming
household responsibilities, childcare and dependent care, and/or insufficient workspaces and
technology. Without a commute to separate home life from the office, it can feel like the workday never ends.

The mental health crisis in our country existed long before COVID, but the pandemic and its
resulting stress and anxiety have put this concern front and center for both employees and
employers. According to the Society for Human Research Management (SHRM), work-related concerns have left more than 40% of employees feeling hopeless, burned out, or exhausted, as they grapple with life altered by COVID-19.

Companies that prioritize their employees’ mental health will reap benefits over the long-term,
as research shows that a work environment that supports wellness results in more creative and
productive employees.

The socially-conscious workforce: increased importance of community and social issues

At the peak of the crisis, a sense of community, both globally and locally, began to surface: taking care of those in need, pausing to be aware, and feeling grateful for the people in our lives. While those sentiments remain, they have been eclipsed and amplified by a greater level of concern and action for racial equality. National attention and demand for meaningful action to combat racism is at a level most have never seen. Companies of all types are communicating their support, and that support is important to no one more than employees. Companies that emerge stronger post-pandemic will be those that enable and communicate sustained action to improve their hiring, promotion, and inclusion practices.

The workforce that is engaged and ready to deliver results will require attention in several areas:

The actions below are not unfamiliar to business leaders. However, few companies do them well, often treating some of these as soft issues or “HR” tasks. Yet they are accelerators of business results, particularly during change and particularly now.

1) Ensure the Basics

While safety and following CDC guidelines is essential, employers have to continue to be understanding and flexible to meet individual employee needs. As businesses start to re-open, parents face issues as schools and daycares centers remain closed. Older workers may be at greater risk. Regional and local flare ups of the virus are likely to continue, putting certain employees at greater risk than others. Therefore, employers should be willing to continue to adjust their in-office schedules and enable continued work-from-home.

Example of what companies are doing

PepsiCo recognizes the importance of being flexible. They are providing:

  • At least an extra $100 per week to employees who produce, transport, or deliver its products.
  • Full salary for 14 days for any employee who must be quarantined because of COVID-19. After those 14 days are up, they are providing at least two-thirds of regular pay for up to 10 weeks to those who are sick with the virus, or caring for a loved one with the virus.
  • At least two-thirds of an employee’s pay for up to 12 weeks, if that employee is unable to work from home but needs to care for a child who can’t go to school or daycare.

2) Prioritize Health and Wellness

Now, more than ever, leaders must keep a pulse on employee health through frequent communication (broadly, as well as individually). Consider weekly emails, videos, and town halls that focus on health and wellness and coping with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Frequently gauge how employees are feeling (i.e. monthly pulse survey) and identify shifts in attitude, so you can adjust communications plans accordingly. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone individually if they appear to be struggling, and take any feedback you receive seriously. If your benefits plan includes mental health resources or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), remind employees of those offerings. These programs typically include mindfulness strategies, stress management, nutrition, exercise and even one on one counseling. Importantly, encourage employees to use their personal time off to reset.

Ultimately, leaders must lead by example, showing their teams it’s possible to balance work and
personal life. Seeing leaders take time off to recharge or speak openly about their
mental health encourages others to do the same. Awareness and compassion are critical for business leaders to support their employees – this fosters a culture that values wellness and ultimately improves business performance.

Examples of what companies are doing

  • At the onset of the pandemic, Microsoft created a guide to working from home during COVID-19 and shared it with their global workforce. They also created an editable version for customers to use and personalize for their own organizations. It provides helpful information to balance the mechanics of working from home with the emotional implications of managing it all: work, home, children, and importantly, your own self-care.
  • Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is providing executive messages via video, emails and a weekly call with the entire organization. During these touchpoints, PG&E’s CEO and President has reiterated the harm that can result from ignoring your mental health, and the importance of reaching out for support when needed. They are also issuing head-on with newsletters, webinars, and podcasts, and an internal website exploring related topics like stigma, relationships, anxiety, work-life balance, homeschooling, and staying connected while physically distanced.

3) Inform, Engage, and Excite

As with customers, now is not the time to reduce communications with employees. Although some mid-market companies don’t have dedicated communication resources or formal communication processes, they must still provide clear, transparent, and consistent messaging to employees. Lacking in this area has long been an issue for companies during times of change, let alone in times of crises.

Employees want to hear from their company leaders and direct managers, even if there is no new information. Continue communicating to make employees aware that communication is open and welcomed, and that you respect them. Provide leaders with toolkits to help them cascade organizational communications to their teams, while also infusing specific details that directly impact their reports.

Importantly, remember that communication is not a one-way process. Organizations with well-executed communication plans make it a two-way street, with ongoing feedback mechanisms in place such as surveys, focus groups, or internal engagement platforms or communities. Capturing and incorporating feedback in real-time is critical, especially in times of crisis and ongoing change.

When creating informative, timely, and engaging employee communications, we recommend having three purposes in mind, each occurring in different points in time and having different objectives:

Inform – increase awareness and provide the critical information needed to operate and ease concerns.

Engage – increase understanding and help employees recognize their role and contribution, and what will change and not change.

Excite – increase momentum and build support for the new vision and strategies to thrive in the new normal.

Ultimately, an engaged and motivated workforce relies on well-equipped leaders for communication. Employees want communication that is frequent, has clear and consistent messaging, and is delivered via multiple channels. In times of crisis and uncertainty, they want more communication, not less.

Examples of what companies are doing

Verizon Media treats employee communication like the backbone of its business. In response to the pandemic, they:

  • Launched a daily organizational newsletter with resources to help cope with isolation, anxiety, and stress
  • Created toolkits for leaders to support their teams
  • Hold virtual Q&A sessions with the CEO and guest speakers to address issues affecting mental health (Dr. Jennifer Lanier Payne, associate director of psychiatry at John Hopkins, led a session on managing mental health during COVID-19).
  • Provided alternative resources through their Expanded Mindfulness program that helps employees manage stress, improve sleep, and cope with anxiety, including virtual crisis counseling sessions.

4) Rebuild or Refresh Your Culture

Every company has a culture, for better or for worse (unless it is deliberately fostered, it tends to be for the worst). Company culture is one of the most important yet chronically overlooked success levers for a company. Have you ever read your reviews on sites like Glassdoor? This is important under “normal” circumstances, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. Recent data shows that 63% of workers have spent less time socializing with coworkers since the onset of the pandemic, suggesting that companies need to find creative ways to cultivate culture remotely.

Instilling a shared purpose and values among your workforce is critical to foster a unified culture and engaged workforce. In doing so, you will help achieve and sustain the behaviors and actions needed from employees to deliver on your strategy. It is not the only thing needed, but without a clear and positive culture, you risk having an underperforming workforce over the long-term.

It takes a simple but thoughtful process to change culture for the better. To start, you should assess and document the current state of your culture, and then define what the desired future-state culture is, which should align with your strategy and values. Surveys, or even simple workshops, can clearly identify the cultural strengths that should continue, the flaws that you should leave behind, and the new cultural attributes that you need to develop. Once defined and ratified, these attributes should be embedded via consistent company messaging, culture artifacts, performance processes. Most importantly, leaders need to model these attributes.

Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing
Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO, Airbnb

While HR can “own” this process, it should not be the responsibility of your CHRO alone. Rather, this effort should be a combination of leadership and heavy “VoC” from the employees who understand both the strengths and shortcomings of your current culture. Companies must empower “cultural champions” throughout their organizations, to lead grassroots efforts, and leaders must be engaged, have the proper tools, and authentically lead by example.

Examples of what companies are doing

In its ongoing efforts to maintain its culture, Devils Backbone Brewing Company proactively engages staff in fun and meaningful ways, such as:

  • Hosting a variety of themed happy hours on Zoom
  • Organizing specific Zoom meetings for parents who are balancing childcare with remote work
  • Encouraging professional development through a virtual book club and courses through LinkedIn Learning.

5) Strategically Manage Talent

Little is more important to a company than the people and the processes that support it, so it’s critical to recruit, develop, reward and retain the right talent. Too often in times of change, crisis, and major shifts in strategy, companies underplay fundamental people processes. If results suffer, then blame is placed on the new strategy, not realizing that key enablers like the right talent and structure were not appropriate for this new strategic direction. Organizational structure must align with the new strategy.

At a minimum, we encourage companies to test or “triage” whether your people, skills and structure fit the new business model, strategy, and inclusion principles that are emerging. And do it fast! This calls for careful attention to organizational design, having the right people in the right roles, performance management, and more. Consider the following questions:

    • Critical people and roles. Do you know and track the most important roles in your company, at all levels? Are the people in those roles today engaged, or at risk of leaving? How have you treated them and communicated with them during the crisis? Who are the opinion leaders – the “influencers” in the company to whom the organization looks for informal guidance? Are you making strides in enhancing your efforts on diversity and inclusion? Having the answers to questions like these – taking action around them – is important for both business continuity and for accelerating necessary changes.
    • Reward systems. Is your reward system tightly aligned with any changes in your company objectives? Do your teams clearly know against what they are being measured? Are your (new) desired behaviors, values and culture connected to this reward system? For example, if having a focus on the customer or having integrity are tenants of the company, how do they show up in the performance management system? If there are changes to how the company will operate, does the reward system need to change to help accelerate? The old adage still rings true: you get what you measure.
    • Organizational structure. Will the legacy structure meet the new needs of the company and any shifts in direction? Are the right people in the right roles? Are those roles clearly understood? These points are especially critical for the leaders. Do you have the right leaders in place and are they aligned with the (new) mission and ready to model the right behaviors? As you think about your future organization, consider building in more resilience. More and more companies are building responsive and flexible organizations with an interactive team structure, focusing less on historical departments and more on agile organizations with a network of teams that operate in rapid learning and fast decision cycles. These teams manage business units, geographies, product lines, and increasingly, specific projects.
    • Reskilling the workforce. The shift to more remote work will require greater employee autonomy and the need for better decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity. Moreover, to continue to adapt and be resilient in the face of ongoing uncertainty, employees will require heightened emotional, mindful, and social skills. As companies reset their learning agendas, they must address skill gaps beyond new or remote technologies. The cognitive capabilities – once solely the realm of ‘leadership training’ – now must be addressed for employees at-large.

Examples of what companies are doing

Ally Financial is focusing on retaining its employees by:

  • Expanding benefits to include additional services, like free telemedicine consults, that are tailored to this specific crisis
  • Sending Employees who self-identified as high-risk (according to CDC guidelines) home with pay.
  • Giving all employees making $100,000 or less in annual base compensation a $1,200 tax-free financial assistance payment to help cover unexpected costs related to working from home.
  • Expanded childcare support for when daycare or adult/elder care arrangements are disrupted; Ally will cover 30 uses of emergency care.

6) Boost Employee Engagement

Given the shift to more remote work and a potentially less-trusting workforce, how does a company maintain and improve engagement? Add to this, as we have seen in the last months, it is more difficult for managers to manage remotely and further drive individual accountability.

Companies should first conduct the “after-action” evaluation: what worked, what did not, and how should we think about remote work strategically? How will we make decisions about which roles should work at home, and the policies and norms around doing so?

The need has long-existed to improve employee engagement in work and in company culture, but this is now more challenging due to COVID.19. Even before this crisis and the rise of a remote workforce, companies struggled with engagement. There are decades of clear evidence suggesting that over two-thirds of workers in the U.S. are not engaged at work, as Gallup survey data suggests. This alarming data is prior to a spike in remote workforce.

While there may be an initial spike in employee engagement as we return to work, our belief is that this will be short-lived, and the already bleak engagement numbers will worsen as remote work continues to be the norm. So how can employers expect to address this now and in the future?

Research shows that employees have clear primary needs to make them more satisfied, happier, and more productive. For example, according to seminal work done decades ago in “The Motivation to Work”, achievement (making a difference, seeing the value in one’s work) and recognition (when others notice and praise) are the main drivers to an engaged and productive employee.

This has not changed today- the motivators are the same. It’s about showing people they matter and that what they do matters. As further refined by Gregg Lederman in his book Crave, the three primary needs at work are:

  • Respect- help me feel respected for the work I do
  • Purpose- show me how what I do has purpose, makes a difference and has and is relevance to the organization
  • Relationship – help me build strong connections with people, especially my immediate manager.

In Conclusion

Reviving the relationship with employees is critical as we emerge from the pandemic. Our employees have changed, and as our teams return to work, they will be returning to a changed workplace as well. Beyond safety, which is essential, the situation calls for improving organizational readiness, clarity, trust, and confidence. Having engaged employees – with the right skills in the right roles – will help them achieve the business results their employers expect.

Remember: To be successful, think not of what has worked in the past but what will work in the future. Listen to your employees and anticipate their needs both in the office and remote.

In a recent &Marketing webinar we dove deep into the resulting business trends from COVID-19 and the necessary actions mid-market companies should take to build and sustain long-term growth. Watch the entire webinar below!

About the Authors

Rahul Kapur has 40+ years of successful business experience spanning a variety of areas. He served as Chief Strategy Officer at both Aearo Technologies (now 3M) and Dow Brands (a division of Dow Chemical). As a business consultant, he provides companies of all sizes with his expertise in strategy development, M&A, new products & innovation, and data analysis and modeling. He has helped nearly 20 companies develop their strategy to transform their businesses, using Icon Investment Partners’ proprietary business transformation system. Currently, he is Managing Director of Icon Investment Partners, Chairman of Guilford Group, Managing Member of Ark Capital Investments, LLC, and Senior Advisor for &Marketing, Crossroad Transactions, and Quest Safety Products, as well as on the boards of several start-ups.

Robert Olsen is a Marketing Expert, Speaker and Consultant with a unique combination of Management Consulting and C-suite experience in chemicals and life sciences.  He is an experienced Chief Marketing Officer, and has also served as Corporate Marketing Director at DuPont and a Strategy and Operations Consultant at Deloitte.  Robert helps companies grow, utilizing his expertise in marketing, sales, and innovation to navigate major changes and new programs including M&A, brand building, and culture transformations. Robert is passionate about creating a better customer experience and employee culture to drive business results.

Rajat “Raj” Kapur is the founder and Managing Director of &Marketing. He strives to provide growing businesses of all sizes unparalleled marketing strategy and execution services. Raj brings two decades of professional experience in marketing, sales, and strategy development experience spanning B2B and B2C Fortune 50, mid-sized, and startups.

About &Marketing

&Marketing provides the robust outsourced marketing department growing companies need without the high overhead costs of big agencies or full-time employees. Our variable model empowers businesses to reach their growth goals through access to the guidance and expertise of senior level strategists and a flexible execution team.