How did COVID-19 impact your organisational strategy?

It's been a rough year – but some employers thrived

How did COVID-19 impact your organisational strategy?

As New Zealand continues to recover from the global pandemic, employers’ eyes are set firmly on the future. The government’s response to COVID-19 was praised all over the world, lauded as being direct, fast and very effective. Now, as the country moves into the vaccination stage of the pandemic plan, it’s time for organisations to take a step back and consider the impact the past few months have had on their teams.

While there’s no denying it’s been a rough year, some employers have thrived during the disruption and emerged stronger than ever. Here, HRD explores some of the key trends seen in this year’s Employer of Choice survey – in particular, how COVID upended strategic planning, enhanced employee engagement, and impacted psychological health.

Mental health management

The pandemic threw New Zealand employers quite the curve ball, with many leaders opting to make remote work the new norm. While there’s no denying that this saved many businesses, it also led to an increase in mental health issues. Research by AUT Business School found that 11% of New Zealand employees are feeling burnt out, primarily due to stress and overwork. This was only compounded by the isolation and uncertainty the pandemic brought, meaning employers had to act fast in order to stem a wellbeing crisis.

“While many of our leaders and team members were used to a mixture of working from home and the office, and connecting virtually with colleagues located elsewhere, what was different during the pandemic lockdowns was juggling work while family members, children or flatmates were at home together with managing the impacts of a lockdown on their wellbeing and mental health,” said Catherine Dixon, EGM people and culture at Suncorp New Zealand.

“Our leaders needed to be more compassionate and to show more empathy with their team members and consider more flexible options depending on individual circumstances, while ensuring our business could still operate effectively. We shifted the focus of an existing virtual leading coaching program to support this, and our CEO and senior leadership team held regular Skype sessions to keep leaders informed and provide an opportunity for leaders to ask questions or share any difficulties they were experiencing.”

Enhanced employee engagement

As with all things in HR, communication is key. The pandemic acted as a catalyst for enhanced employee engagement, with managers investing more time and effort in conversing with their teams. In fact, research from Peakon found that, during the height of the pandemic, employee engagement in New Zealand improved by 5%.

“Chorus saw employee engagement increase further during the lockdown period,” said Kim Culpan, head of organisational development at Chorus. “I attribute that to the clear and constant communication from our executive team, the strong focus on employee wellbeing, and our leaders supporting their people to manage through in a very authentic and personable way.”

However, the COVID-19 chaos brought with it feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, leaving employees worried about their futures. As a result, organisations that already had a strong culture of engagement found the move to remote work markedly easier than their counterparts.

“It was important that we managed and addressed concerns around employee disengagement during the pandemic,” Andrew Tompkin, general manager of AbbVie New Zealand, told HRD. “This meant ensuring employees had access to ongoing resources, support and timely information to get through their days. HR played a vital role in delivering operational and foundational resources to support employees during this time. We held structured workshops and seminars to focus on mental health, while also introducing support activities like virtual bingo and virtual “ZOOMba” exercise classes.

“We also focused on ensuring employees stayed connected with each other professionally and on a personal level. Simple things like regular virtual coffee catch-ups and feedback sessions were effective measures in maintaining culture and understanding employee concerns. We opened up a broader dialogue between the leadership team and all employees, facilitating efforts to main tain team culture whilst taking on board new methods of deepening connections between employees. By addressing employee concerns of disengagement and the absence of a physical workspace, the transition was seamless and employees felt there was no loss in their sense of workplace culture or drop in engagement during the pandemic.”

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Flexibility in hiring

A flexible approach to work is the only way employers in New Zealand can stay competitive in today’s tough talent market. Recent studies from Growmotely found that remote and flexible working arrangements are the biggest draws for top-tier talent. Hybrid models are now seen as an intrinsic employee right, not a ‘nice to have’ option. COVID-19 opened up a whole global market of potential new hires, with employers expanding their candidate net indefinitely. So, if you’re not offering your employees flexibility, you can bet they’ll jump ship to someone who will.

“Continuing to support a highly flexible work environment but maintain an engaging, vibrant and productive workplace culture are going to be important, as is an ongoing focus on supporting mental wellbeing,” added Culpan. “There’s an opportunity to continue to grow and develop people with new ways of working and technology to support that too to help people feel they’re moving forward.”

Investing in L&D

But it’s not just about being flexible. The pandemic placed employee development on hold as the C-suite focused on more pressing issues. Now, as we move out of reactive mode and into recovery, it’s time for HR leaders to reacquaint themselves with L&D.

“Retaining top talent needs to look beyond flexibility, which is why we’re focussed on providing a range of opportunities to support our people’s current and future needs and provide training to elevate them professionally and personally,” added Dixon. “We need to ensure that wherever or whenever our people are working, they are equipped with the capability, support and technology to be their most effective. It’s also important that we build the future capabilities of our people by embedding new ways of working that empower our employees so they can make the decisions they need to quickly and efficiently, using technology as an enabler. As we move into the post-pandemic workforce, employers should make this a priority.”

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Future planning strategies

Looking to the future, the only constant is change. Employers will need to perfect all the skills they learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in order to harness the power of their people in 2021. Issues such as productivity in remote work, managing employee expectations, and stemming a mental health fallout will remain at the forefront of employer mindsets for a good while to come.

“Key focus areas will be better understanding how to measure the productivity of our people so that we are building a high performing workforce and ensuring our workspaces are redesigned to support our people to work in a scaled agile way,” explained Dixon. “The focus is on bringing in a sustainable way of working, where our leaders and our people can be their best, work effectively and to empower us all to focus on the things that matter. This means a clear focus on ensuring the needs and wellbeing of our people, while shaping a culture that can absorb and adapt to new challenges and opportunities.”

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