Employee engagement guru Debra Corey, on embracing the chaos

HR experts shared some of the positives that have come from the pandemic.

CHRO SA recently hosted a webinar in partnership with TalentSmith Technology, where experts shared some of the positives emerging from the pandemic. Celebrated author and employee engagement guru Debra Corey spoke about how the pandemic had intensified the urge to connect.

“I read a study recently that said social connection is as important for one's health as eating vegetables, exercising and getting sleep,” she said, adding that Covid-19 has allowed people to feel more comfortable being themselves.

“I'm sure you have seen it in your organisations as well, wherein the beginning, everybody was doing their Zoom meetings in professional attire while hiding their backgrounds. Now, people are allowing themselves to be who they are. Their children and pets interrupt them in meetings and it has led to people being more human.”

Debra appeared alongside Tiger Brands CHRO S’ne Magagula and Discovery group head of organisational development, change and transformation Steve Teasdale, who both shared how their companies approached employee engagement through the crisis and into the future, with some positive experiences of their own.

"Unfortunately, it took the pandemic to start seeing our people holistically as human beings. I think most corporates now realise that employees are people who have lives beyond the place of work. They have families and children that they need to take care of," said Sne, adding that one of the things Tiger Brands is adding to their leadership development practices is to ensure that people are empowered to be themselves.

Blessings in disguise

Another blessing in disguise has been displayed through the clear need for more empathetic leadership. One of Debra’s clients, for example, did an “It’s okay” campaign to support mental wellbeing, by telling employees what it's okay to do. They would put out messages to employees saying, “It's okay to say that you feel isolated and that you need support to do certain things.” That made people feel like they were not alone because their business understood them. Another message was, “It's okay to switch your email notifications off or ignore your devices,” which encouraged people to take a break from work and not be switched on all the time.

Debra said, however, that organisations needed to do a lot more to ensure that managers were clear on this new expectation and given the tools to deliver on it.

“All of a sudden we are expecting managers to lead in different ways and we really need to support them. We can’t assume that they just know how to manage a flexible workforce,” she said.

“My husband works above me in our home and I can hear him pretty much all day long. He is a middle manager in IT and, let’s be real, most IT experts are not necessarily naturally empathetic people. It’s been lovely listening to him evolve throughout the pandemic and watch him acquire these skills.

“Every day when we walk the dogs, he talks about the situations he is confronted with and gets my advice and I feel like every manager needs to have that kind of person to talk to. Today, I smile all day long as I listen to how he supports his team and recognises them.”

Steve says there was a similar upside among Discovery’s middle managers, who came alive during Covid-19.engagement and communication. Now that employees were not in the building, their middle managers were doing what the organisation has always wanted them to do, which is to keep people engaged. Their managers have shone through not only in how they opened themselves up to their teams but also in the way they were able to manage upwards and bridge the gap between senior leadership and employees.

“Another thing we dealt with was an intensity of communication that had a surprising impact. The number of communications that went out was phenomenal and typically that’s not a good thing, but for some reason, it was consumed in its entirety. It got to a point where we asked ourselves if we should cut down on communication and, as soon as we skipped a day, our people were asking what was happening to the communication.”

Overall, the webinar shed a positive light on the impact of the pandemic and gave attendees an idea of what they need to do to keep employees engaged in this brave new world.