Rethinking Employee Engagement and Connection Post-COVID-19

Sarah Tobin from Calm’s Talent team offers creative ways to foster workplace community in a remote environment.

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The Calm Team

5 min read

The onset of COVID-19 has brought tremendous changes to the workplace. More has shifted than the physical location of the workplace—and companies around the world are exploring, optimizing, redefining how to provide the best employee experience.

We spoke to Sarah Tobin, a leader in Talent Development at Calm, about how innovative organizations are shifting priorities and strategies in response to an evolving landscape. With a background in organizational psychology, she has spent her career understanding and building programs to encourage engaged and productive teams.

Calm: How would you define employee engagement?

Sarah Tobin: Each person has unique needs that motivate them to do their best work. Employee engagement is the sum of these needs. Research has given us guidance on what needs are linked to greater engagement, job satisfaction, productivity, retention, customer experience and other business outcomes. Things like the feeling that their work has greater impact, having growth opportunities, clear goal setting, recognition for a job well done, access to their manager for guidance, feeling a sense of belonging and inclusion, etc.

But, different needs have more or less impact for different people. It’s important that managers understand what each individual on their team needs to be empowered to do their best work, and are helping bridge that access.

The bottom line is that we spend the majority of our day thinking about, talking about, and right now for a lot of us, living at work. For the sake of our employees’ well-being, fulfillment, and our own business objectives, we need to do our part to make sure each individual is engaged – set up to succeed in this new way of working.

C: What roles do community and connection play in the workplace? 

ST: There’s a ton of research on the psychological impact of feeling excluded at work. Studies have shown us that feelings of exclusion activate a similar neural pathway as physical pain! And, when you’re experiencing feelings of exclusion and a lack of connection with your team or your manager, you’re not able to put your full energy into your work. We see a decrease in effort and intent to stay.

On the other hand, with a strong sense of community and connection across teams, research shows greater engagement and effort, and importantly, greater likelihood of employees challenging the status quo.

We’re working in the economy of ideas, where we invest in building diverse teams for their diverse perspectives. Without a sense of community and inclusion, we aren’t creating an open, safe space to bring those ideas to the table—and we’re missing out on the innovations and problem-solving this could bring us.

C: Tell us more about how COVID-19 has changed your ideas about employee experience strategies.

ST: For the most part, employees still have the same needs as pre-COVID, of needing to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of growth, a sense of impact in their role, accessibility to their manager. But the ways we go about ensuring these needs are met are a little different now.

We can’t rely on lunchroom chats to build a sense of community anymore. We can’t assume all managers are carving out time for small talk to check in on their employees’ well-being before jumping into tasks in a 1:1, or for development and growth conversations. And, we can’t assume teams are reaching out to their peers to learn from each other, where they may have previously stumbled across a connection in their work in day-to-day conversations. We’re now needing to double down on the programs and opportunities that provide a platform for our teams to connect and leaders to motivate and inspire, virtually.

We’re focusing on making sure we keep our strong sense of community and culture, virtually, through new norms and rituals. We’re also focusing on our virtual onboarding, and how we instill a sense of belonging to a culture that you’ve never ‘felt’ in person.

For example, instead of a manager meeting a new hire in the foyer on their first day and walking them around the office, we have a 10-minute Monday morning new hire Zoom call where all employees join and welcome new hires starting that week. And, to help with building and encouraging that cross-team sense of community, we’ve created a Calm Community Calendar with weekly informal virtual social events either before, during, or after work—encouraging connections that might otherwise be getting lost. We’re also focusing on equipping our leaders to manage and motivate their teams in this new way of working. We’re creating a new remote-leadership development program, to ensure managers have the know-how and peer support they need to be successful in their new remote-leadership roles.

C: How has COVID-19 impacted the way you view the employee experience?

ST: Something that has shifted in our approach to working in this new world is that we have had to bring more of us to work than ever before. We’ve met pets, partners, roommates and children. I love seeing this openness and inclusion of our whole selves at work. I think this shift will change the way we turn up at work when/if we are back in an office, and how organizations will create policies towards a more flexible, people-first standard.

C: Given social distance restrictions, what ways has COVID-19 impacted the way you view onboarding?

ST: In an in-person world, it’s easy to sign an offer letter, and say, ‘See you in the office next Monday!” This is a behavior we all know—you get ready for your first day, drive to work, and meet someone at the front desk. You feel comforted that someone in the office will be able to show you the ropes. But in our new world, there are new anxieties around the first day. What computer do I use? How do I log in? Who will I talk to?

The biggest improvement we’ve made with (now virtual) onboarding is a detailed pre-boarding and onboarding communications plan. Over-communication is key! New hires need to feel comforted in knowing what time on what day we ask them to be online, how they get ‘online,’ what meetings they can expect on that first day, and a person to contact if they get stuck with anything as they get set up.

We also do our best to celebrate new hires in all of our company-wide touch points to help encourage a sense of inclusion, and publish their bios and fun facts to the company in a ‘New Hire Stories’ deck.

C: Walk us through how you measure the employee experience.

ST: We run culture surveys twice yearly, which are a great pulse check. But, just like performance reviews, there’s no need for us to wait six months to understand the needs of our teams. It’s important to have ongoing conversations with managers and individuals across different teams to understand what might be getting in the way of teams doing their best work. You want to feel connected with the business, so that the themes and sentiments you’re hearing in real-time conversations are mapped to your longer term strategy.

C: Any best practices to share for creating an optimal employee experience/maximizing engagement?

ST: The strongest lever in building an impactful employee experience is strong leadership. An employee’s view of their role and company is formed through the way they’re managed and the leadership they experience. It’s critical that we invest in building the best managers that we can to lead our teams. It’s also important that these great leaders own the employee experience, and don’t leave it up to a centralized HR team. We can provide guidance, templates, and tools to engage our teams—but the impact is delivered through our leaders.

A people-first strategy is essential—from onboarding through to ongoing engagement strategies. Whether the workplace stays remote (or distanced), ensuring strong company-wide communication and offering tools and resources to meet employees where they are, is a plan for success.

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