Meaningful connections with staff will be vital in maintaining trust and solidarity during the pandemic. 

With COVID-19, we are not merely fighting a virus. We’re also fighting fear and uncertainty among our employees and our wider stakeholders. Unfortunately, this means at many places of work, organisational cohesion could be under threat.

So how do you make people feel they’re sharing the same vision when everyone is working so differently, and facing unprecedented new pressures?

Today, the vast majority of the UK workforce is either working remotely to avoid spreading the virus or adopting new operational procedures if their work cannot be done from home. It has fallen to HR leaders to adapt people management strategies with speed and efficiency while doing their utmost to prevent individuals feeling isolated or exposed to danger.

Reinforce wellbeing as a strategic linchpin
More than ever, we need to stay connected to show empathy and support to our colleagues. This way, we can shore up the organisational values we’ve worked so hard to embed while sustaining productivity and morale.

We’re finding new ways of making genuine connections and always look to communicate clearly. Crucially, at this time, we can also reinforce strong messaging around employee wellbeing and health and safety, which could further strengthen engagement levels into the future.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has brought in the bigger challenge of balancing wellbeing with sustaining business. It’s therefore essential that senior teams meet regularly to discuss employee health and wellbeing as well as driving the broader business strategy. As the pandemic continues, companies must reiterate to their customers, suppliers, and workforce that while no one knows how long the virus will last, their safety is the main priority.

Act fast, communicate clearly
The most ethical companies will have stood down anyone with a medical condition that put them at higher risk or lived with someone who did, and at the same time it’s important for employers to continue communicating with their teams to see how everyone is coping. Making sure employees know their health and wellbeing is valued, continuing to issue the right amount of PPE, and moving to homeworking where possible will keep operations running as smoothly as possible and keep staff members safe.

Alternative ways of connecting with and supporting individuals, including social events like online quizzes, additional support from occupational health providers, and Facebook groups for keeping in touch are also great for receiving feedback from employees and keeping up morale.

Tightly tailor internal briefings and use feedback for improvement 
For employees working outside in the community, bespoke guidance per team is vital so that they feel safe in public spaces.

Frontline workers in particular, such as waste operatives, plumbers, electricians, vehicle drivers and cleaners who are returning to work after shielding, will likely be very anxious both about their own health and that of their families. For instance, some operatives may visit multiple homes in a day, or travel in a vehicle cab where social distancing is impossible. It’s therefore essential that these teams operate in bubbles, have staggered start times and breaks away from other colleagues, and are regularly updated on the safety measures they must take. It is also very important that companies find ways to overcome language barriers where operatives may not speak English as a first language, and check that everyone is happy with the guidance provided.

Finally, running regular, virtual workshops on practical tools to support the entire team’s mental health and wellbeing, and providing the latest guidance via digital communications channels and newsletters, will not only keep everyone in the loop, but will show team members that their employers care.

Maintain trust in leaders
It was disappointing to read back in May, that 59 per cent of organisations saw a decrease in the number of employees agreeing that their leaders were making effective decisions in the crisis, according to a survey by Culture Amp. This suggests a dangerous trend for organisations who value engagement and organisational cohesion.

HR experts are saying that leader visibility is more critical now than ever. It’s vital that employers recognise the emotional aspects of working in frontline roles – or being separated from colleagues. Illustrating calm, consistent and compassionate leadership is crucial, even if it feels at times like you are literally re-writing your operational and organisational ‘norms’ as you go.

Companies must also invest in development. For example, there are virtual programmes which can help senior teams adjust their leadership practice to support different ways of working and hopefully avoid challenges with performance and engagement.

Value Individuals
Every one of us has been impacted by the pandemic. Some of our colleagues have been infected and even hospitalised, while others have faced relationship breakdowns, financial hardship due to their partners losing jobs, mental health issues and ongoing treatment for other serious conditions. The important thing is to work with individuals, recognise and value their specific circumstances, and find a way to offer the right support.

It’s also important, however, to celebrate success and commitment. Acting quickly and flexibly to support your community is not an easy task, especially during a time filled with unknowns, however it’s something many companies should be proud of. The past seven months have been a difficult learning curve for everyone, and the changes many organisations have made to protect their people should be commended.

Reinforce vision and values
While so much great work has been done since the start of the pandemic, companies cannot afford to be complacent about the health, safety and mental wellbeing of their employees as the crisis continues.

I am full of hope that a key benefit of the COVID experience will be a wider realisation that investing in wellbeing as part of a more comprehensive HR strategy is not just the right thing to do, but is also economically sensible.

Quite simply, employees who feel safe and valued will be more resilient, engaged and productive, and that’s got to be good for business.