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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, Late September, 2022

New era, new values

As we enter our post-Covid period in history, many organizations are taking a hard look in the mirror. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is our Meaning, and Purpose? Why are we here? What makes this a people-centered organization?

In the pre-Covid days, this would be the time for a white paper, perhaps a brand refresh, an external study. This would result in a new mission statement, a few added bullet points on the ‘values’ section of the website. A document to read and sign, a new stop on the onboarding train. The presentation of the New Values of the People-Centered Organization by the top layer of leadership and cascaded down the chain, accordingly.

In the Pre-Covid days, this initiative was focus grouped by a select core team composed of HR, communications, strategy and executives. They were informed by excellent data about how people feel, what people want and how they see the future by outside research groups. Decisions were made behind closed doors and employees were served a fully-baked result.

Today, we define our values collectively. Thanks to our digital communication tools born of the pandemic, we can brainstorm together, in real-time, from step zero, with every person having a say, and a final visual for all to see. Enormous, collaborative co-creation sessions which weave together all voices of the community are the new TownHall: welcome the ‘Co-CreaPalooza’.

How does it work?

In the autumn of 2021, a large Dutch multinational company with global offices stretching from Bangalore, India to Bothell USA, noticed that cracks had formed between leadership and workforce regarding the return to the office and unanswered questions:

  • When is it time to return to the office?
  • Who gets to decide?
  • How many days per week?
  • What about people who wanted to stay fully remote?
  • What changes to the physical offices need to be made to support a hybrid work model?
  • Which model to adopt?
  • Do we need new communication platforms?
  • What about burnout, overwork and our mental health?
  • Is it OK to ping people on a Friday night and expect a reply?
  • Do we need better equipment at home?
  • And how do all these rules apply across global hubs where the culture is very different?

The company experimented by putting on a massive online, open session to gather ideas across all time zones. An enormous Miro board was built with five color-coded columns, each with a focus area:

  1. Changes to the Physical Office
  2. Wellness and Mental Heath
  3. Rules of Return
  4. Communication
  5. Values, Rituals and Culture

Over 300 participants logged in to a morning and afternoon Teams session. This time, the Town Hall wasn’t going to be the usual lineup of company news, videos, seminars and calls to action, but an all-hands-on-deck group brainstorming activity where we all got to contemplate the future and engage in a massive co-creation session.

Participants were randomly sucked into one of five themed breakout groups, each with a facilitator prodding and challenging, reminding us to stick to our color and topic, and post our ideas in the designated column.

Zoomed in and focused, stickies were stuck and re-arranged, chat feeds filled and people started talking. The space was safe, emotions intense and out in the open, and the vibe was creative and constructive. No wrong answers and no dumb ideas.

Zoomed out, taking in the full board, it resembled a vast, digital swarm of bees converging around a hive, with hundreds of cursors dragging, placing and typing. We were fully engaged, switched on, designing our future. It was a visual few of us would forget.

The result

What remained were two enormous Miro boards brimming with ideas, some surprising, many humorous, illustrated with gifs or reels.

Small “cleanup” teams were dispatched to scour the boards and draw up a management report summarizing action points, combining the visual board, the “best of” presentations and surveys and the values and mission statements in progress. For the most part, ideas were reasonable, affordable and clear. Mission and values statements were already starting to form within an overarching vision shaped by all members of the global community.

The follow-through

The lingering effect could be felt a full week after the event. Reactions came in once there was time to think and reflect about what everyone had just experienced. It had been empowering and engaging, cathartic and therapeutic, emotional and positive.

There was a clear choice; take action and deliver on some of these points, make a few changes, or do nothing and deal with a wave of disengagement, detachment and even resignations.

Small ideas, like reducing the headquarters office space by 40%, saving on rent and utilities and then investing these in a sleek new café with soft lounge chairs.

New rules, like Meeting Free Fridays, no emails after 6pm and a clear hybrid work model for all.

Initiatives like Wellness Wednesdays, Workload Reduction, talent recruitment and home office support implemented by dedicated teams and backed by budget.

If done halfway, without follow-through, then the Co-CreaPalooza is likely to crash and burn and drive resentment right through to the next Pulse survey time. But if done well, it becomes a physical, visual expression of a people-centered organization with tangible results and intangible emotional value.