Entrepreneurs

10 Secrets From Top Talent Leaders: How To Increase Employee Engagement, Trust, And Belonging During COVID-19 / Remote Work

There’s a tectonic shift happening in our workforces. Things will never look the same, because remote work is here to stay; in June 2020, PWC reported 54% of CFOs now plan to make remote work a permanent option. 

Remote work brings monumental new challenges for global organizations. The social cohesion that typically comes from in-office watercooler, casual coffees, lunch and HH moments have all but disappeared in our new remote world. Loneliness is currently one of the top reported problems from remote workers. So, I interviewed some of the top talent leaders from Fortune1000s to find out: how do we increase employee engagement, trust, and belonging in the Age of Remote?

10 secrets from top talent leaders revealed below!

1. Ask the hard questions: “We have a business health culture index. We ask employees, ‘Is your job making you unhealthy?’ Our business health culture index is really important for us. In response to, ‘Do you feel healthy on the job?’ 79% (2% increase) are saying YES, amidst COVID, I’m engaged and I feel healthy.” – Dan Healey, Head of Human Resources, SAP North America

2. Crowdsource Community-Building. “We started with an opt-in Slack channel where employees could share ideas for wellness initiatives they’d like to be a part of. We normally have a summer celebration. We learned, that’s a little tone deaf, what our teams really need is fun, focused offerings and bits of joy that they don’t have to think about throughout their day. Our employees told us, “I don’t need therapists – I miss concerts, I miss my friends.” So we sourced local artists, musicians to play virtual concerts for our team members and offices. This feeling of community – Zillow has always had this intense feeling of community. We wanted to quickly replicate that for opportunities for people to be silly together, cry together.” – Crystal Tomczyk, Vice President Equity & Belonging (DEI/ Culture) at Zillow

3. Be empathetic. “We had always had an innovative, market-leading vacation policy. We had a crisis leave and doubled it to 10 days by the end of March 2020 [we knew our people were facing a lot of pressure and pain]. We rolled it out across 24,000 colleagues. We learned 25% of our employees have used 8-9 days. 6,000 colleagues have used crisis leave. This has allowed our employees to re-engineer their lives around childcare, elder care. We have virtually unlimited sick days, too. We just don’t want people burning staycation days if they need crisis leave [to take care of their loved ones].” – Dan Healey, Head of Human Resources, SAP North America

4. Hold Space for the Hard Conversations. “Trust can be earned and lost any moment. At first we started small, we started with a message to Billow, our Black employee group to Hold Space within the black community: let’s talk about the murders of Breona Taylor, hear your concerns. The breaking moment of this Holding Space, how it became company wide, is we had our all-hands that just happened to fall into that time-frame, I was prepping our CEO that early in COVID-19 we were hearing a lot about racism against our Asian colleagues. Then we hit a breaking point after George Floyd’s murder. I was talking to our CEO about what he should address in our all hands. It was that morning that the protests wer starting. We sent a link to 5,000 employees, and made ourselves vulnerable, we admitted we didn’t know what to do, but were available to talk. 100 people joined the call. In the follow-up session, about half our employees joined. Our CEO sat in to listen. We had an open call for anyone to talk. It was a light bulb moment for our executives on the call – these social issues are not outside of work. We were hearing people we’ve never seen cry. It put into motion everything – our focus on the real estate industry, our public statements. Internally, each of our leaders started to Hold Space for their teams. We encouraged that. We put out resources that same week for our leaders on How to Hold Space for Hard Conversations. How to listen with empathy. Members of my team went to teams that felt less comfortable to facilitate. We threw out topics weekly for our leaders to hold space around. Then Juneteenth came and we turned it into a day of service with opportunities to educate yourself, take your time to reflect, what you can do in your life and work from an anti-racism perspective, how to build that into your daily practices.” – Crystal Tomczyk, Vice President Equity & Belonging (DEI/ Culture) at Zillow

5. Create space for non-work conversations…and be thoughtful that sometimes people just want their time back. “We do Happy Hours on Zoom. We’ll have a drink together and focus on non-work topics – sharing tips on parenting, places to go, things to do during COVID. However, we keep in mind that people are appreciative of having time off, so we don’t over-schedule Happy Hours.” – Shawn Zimmerman, VP of HR at Cardinal Health. “My team I have daily standups, 15min, optional, no work talk. We check in on: how are we doing? How are we feeling? What’s going on with you? How is the pandemic impacting you?  I expected high attendance that would drop off when I started it, but it’s stayed consistent. One of my employees said the stand-ups “made her feel like she still worked at the company as opposed to being isolated and alone.” – Todd Davis, Global Talent Executive at IBM

6. Dial up social listening. “Our policy is listen, understand, and act, so we do a ton of surveying. We call our surveys #unfiltered. What we learned: employee engagement rose 2% from 2019 to 2020 (86% are currently engaged). So our engagement has gotten better during COVID-19. What is an engaged employee? Psychologically safe. Happy.” – Dan Healey, Head of Human Resources, SAP North America

7. Help your sales teams transform. “We know our sales teams can’t visit their customers anymore [and this impacts them dramatically]. To help them hit targets, we’re running Virtual Summits, Digital Seminars to engage customers in new and meaningful ways.” – Shawn Zimmerman, VP of HR at Cardinal Health

8. Encourage your teams to bring their whole selves to work. “HR is incredibly focused on measuring whether employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Whole selves means their professional, personal and emotional selves. Giving permission from top-down for all of us to show up as our whole selves, and modeling it, is incredibly important.” – Todd Davis, Global Talent Executive at IBM

9. Set up an ongoing channel for remote-work resource sharing. “The biggest success for us was a remote work slack channel, focused on resources for working from home. Moderators do a fairly good job, less of a work related channel, helps people stay connected, problem solve – groceries, home schooling.” – Todd Davis, Global Talent Executive at IBM

10. Have your CEO host regular office hours. “Our CEO started doing office hours, akin to professors at universities. Before, leaders didn’t do this. Over time it became an opportunity for people to send in questions about our business, transformation, and tech. He was open to these questions. Office Hours happen on a regular basis – once every 2-3 weeks. It’s done live and recorded so people can see them.” – Todd Davis, Global Talent Executive at IBM

Huge thanks to Dan Healey, Crystal Tomczyk, Todd Davis, and Shawn Zimmerman for contributing incredible insights to this piece! Have insights to add to this list? Reach out to me here!

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