The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the workplace on its head, with business owners, leaders and employees having to almost instantly revise and adjust their daily operations to fit in with the ‘new normal’ of working from home. From ensuring the relevant IT infrastructure was in place, to concerns around employee morale and maintaining high productivity, all businesses undoubtedly will have grappled with how to make the new workplace work for them.
Here, Shelley Frosdick, Group Managing Director of leading PR agency, The PHA Group shares the experience of her agency and how they, in collaboration with employees, implemented a series of workplace initiatives which have maintained company culture, communication, and employee engagement during lockdown and beyond.
“Over the past four months it has been more important than ever for companies to have an effective employee engagement strategy in place. Without the regular face to face contact and physical presence of being together we, like many other businesses, had to work quickly to ensure our culture stayed strong despite our employees all being based remotely.
“We wanted to give our employees the opportunity to socialise and continue their personal development, whilst also ensuring we had regular ways to celebrate success as well as communicate challenges that the business was facing. Lockdown was a time of uncertainty and anxiety for so many people and we wanted to be able to reassure and support all our employees as best we could. We knew that every employee would be having a different experience of lockdown and we wanted to offer enough initiatives to give each of them the support and contact they needed, whilst also adapting these as lockdown measures evolved.
“We have always worked hard to put our employees at the heart of our culture, they are what makes PHA such a special place to work, and through our culture teams (which had been in place since before the COVID-19 pandemic), we had a structure which allowed us to activate initiatives quickly whilst also having a group of employees to regularly use as a temperature check for how staff were feeling and what they needed from us.
“By using feedback from staff to launch initiatives and activities that educate, inspire, and excite, businesses can ensure that employees continue to feel empowered and that they have a voice in their company’s culture. Here are just some of the existing initiatives that we have adapted, as well as some new ones that we implemented, at The PHA Group during lockdown:
“In April of this year we were due to launch our new training calendar for the year ahead. The calendar had been tailored for all levels, involved a mix of external and internal training and, was of course, largely based around in-person sessions.
“A key part of employee engagement is providing staff with opportunities for professional development. Employees want job satisfaction, to feel inspired and have a sense of fulfilment; so it was vital we still offered access to training. Our People & Culture Manager, along with myself and our Training Representative from our Culture Team quickly looked at how we could digitally adapt our training strategy. We have been able to adapt most of our sessions to take place virtually, with many of these sessions actually proving more effective, and attracting higher levels of attendance from employees than when they took place in the office.
“As a public relations agency, it’s key that we know and understand how the media landscape operates. Therefore, to give staff the best insight into the media industry possible, we regularly invite journalists to speak at our ‘Meet the Media’ sessions where employees have the opportunity to meet with key journalists in a seminar forum and ask questions to develop their knowledge of the sector.
“Throughout lockdown we have adapted these sessions to be hosted on Zoom instead of in the office boardroom, and they have proven to be extremely valuable in helping our staff expand their cross-sector knowledge, and understand how to best react to a constantly evolving media landscape.
“Additional training initiatives which focus on progressing employees’ professional development – such as creativity training, people management and presentation training – have also moved online in the format of video workshops. As with our other training sessions, employee feedback has been extremely positive, with staff appreciating virtual face to face contact and the opportunity to continue their career development regardless of office environment.
Monthly Get Togethers
“We have a monthly company-wide award ceremony, called ‘Hit of the Month’ which celebrates new client wins, individual achievements, promotions and wider company news. Traditionally, this has always been an in-person social gathering, therefore when COVID-19 hit, there were concerns about whether these events would have to be cancelled or if they could work virtually.
“However, as much as it is about celebration, our monthly get-together is also about acknowledging company challenges and the tough times, too. For this reason, we made the decision to host a virtual event each month and tweak the regular format slightly to account for this new set up. We felt it was critical to maintain this sense of normality and the regular coming together of the business.
“Engaged employees are often the ones who feel that they are involved and have sight of all aspects of the business, which is why throughout lockdown, we have used Hit of the Month to communicate what steps are being taken to ensure job security, and more recently, the measures we are taking to ensure a safe and successful return to office-based working. Open communication and honesty about the challenges, as well as the positives is so important – we needed to reassure as well as applaud our employees.
Regular Creativity Sessions
“Office based brainstorms have proven to be highly effective in the generation of strong ideas for our clients. ‘Perfect 10’ is our monthly company-wide initiative which invites any staff member to put forward a client for a ‘quick fire’ ten-minute brainstorm with their peers, and ‘PHA Create’ is our weekly twenty-minute drop-in session for discussing clients, creative ideas, and tasks.
“To ensure that staff have still been able to work with their colleagues to generate creative ideas, it was important for us to establish a new way of working online. Virtually adapting Perfect 10 has continued to be fantastic in encouraging our staff at all levels to share creative ideas, at pace – an opportunity to gain new perspectives and bounce off colleagues – we just had ti get to grips with the raise a hand function on Zoom which brought a different dynamic to these group brainstorms! Since moving Perfect 10 online, we have found that the session has received a higher attendance from staff and its’ concise, efficient, collaborative nature has stimulated some brilliant concepts and campaigns for our clients.
Similarly, we have found that hosting a virtual drop-in session for PHA Create has been beneficial in providing staff with an agenda-free opportunity to raise challenges and brainstorm ideas that they may be experiencing and gain different perspectives from colleagues outside their own departments.
“Employee wellness is a key component in any effective engagement and retention strategy – and one that is more important than ever during lockdown, as the pandemic has highlighted the importance of being fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Like many businesses, our existing corporate wellness programme – which included twenty minute massages for staff on ‘Wellness Wednesday’ and regular fresh fruit deliveries – focused on in-office benefits.
“A key part of navigating this new way of working has not only been learning and considering how to adapt existing initiatives but recognising when it could be beneficial to launch new ones. With this in mind, each week we have been creating and sending a ‘Wednesday Wellness’ newsletter containing tips, advice, and ideas on how to keep happy, healthy and entertained while working from home. These have been specifically designed to help employees have a positive work-life balance during lockdown. The newsletter also has dedicated sections which address staff needs for COVID-19-related information, as well as a section on ‘lockdown life’, which features funny, relatable memes to make people smile. As we lockdown measures have reduced, we have evolved the newsletter and now have a dedicated section that includes recommendations from employees on places they have been for dinner or drinks and what the experience was like with social distancing measures in place.
“Other new wellness initiatives include the launch of a virtual Book club – where each month, members gather on Zoom to discuss individual reactions to the book of the month and have a drink. We also recently partnered with a local yoga instructor to host a virtual ‘Movement and Flow’ class centred around stretching and breathing techniques that strengthen the body and ease the mind. The movement patterns in this class helped ease aches and pains developed through desktop posture and overly repetitive movements through work.
Socialising with Colleagues in and out of Work
“Aside from meetings, another classic element of office-based life is the regular social interactions exchanged with colleagues whilst making a cup of tea. Socialising with colleagues plays an important role in office morale, and gives employees an excuse to leave their desks, take a break and move about – all essential things to help staff de-stress and re-charge throughout the workday.
“Employees who are remote working can find it difficult to know when to unplug and stop, which is why we introduced a Virtual Coffee Club. By introducing a dedicated time for staff to catch up over a coffee on Zoom, we have been able to bring back some of the social aspects everyone has been missing from the office, and provide the opportunity for staff to catch up with colleagues despite distance separating them.
“We also introduced a virtual happy hour to replace those lost Friday night drinks with colleagues, an important part of the week for so many to socialise with colleagues and wind down.
“Throughout lockdown we have been careful to listen and adapt our initiatives based on feedback from staff – giving all employees a voice that helps us to understand which initiatives are providing most value. For example, the company’s ‘culture team’ – which comprises staff from across the agency – noticed that as lockdown measures were eased, the Virtual Happy Hour experienced a drop-off in employee engagement. In recognition of this and government guidelines, we have taken the decision to retire the initiative.
“There’s no denying that lockdown has reinforced the value of the positive emotional and physical wellbeing that employees need to ensure a company’s success, and why their happiness and job satisfaction is crucial for a business to thrive and operate in the new normal.
“The pandemic has shone a light on the necessity to have strategies in place that support employees with initiatives which are able to adapt to different environments.
“As lockdown begins to lift, the future of working practices in UK businesses remains uncertain. Therefore, as well as implementing a safe return to the office and revised working from home policies, companies should ensure that their culture and employee engagement remains a priority. Using initiatives that have worked well in lockdown, learning form these and adapting as we all navigate the new normal will hopefully lead to a happy, healthy, successful and engaged workforce and a firm foundation for the future.”