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How to build employee engagement in uncertain times

Richard Roberts, Consultant, Speaker and part-time People Director at Pure Planet

These continue to be difficult and strange times for us all. The restrictions put in place at the start of lockdown disrupted our normal routines and changed the way we work, probably permanently. Now, as we enter Autumn, we seem to be balancing on the edge of a worrying second COVID-19 wave - just as many are building the confidence to return to the workplace. As the news continues to be dominated by the pandemic, it can certainly feel somewhat overwhelming. For leaders and HR professionals, there is much on our ever changing to-do list.

Through my first-hand experience as People Director of sustainable energy provider Pure Planet and Director of my own consultancy, en:Rich HR, I’ll share some of the ways we’ve been keeping our spirits (and engagement levels) up, while identifying some issues you’ll need to manage as the dust settles on the ‘new normal.’

What we’ve done at Pure Planet

Like many organisations, we’ve all had to learn fast. Video calls have been absolutely essential for us - and we’ve become more engaged as a result. Each team had a daily video call, we’ve had regular virtual coffee breaks and even managed a fortnightly 90 strong company meeting via video.

As we were all working from home, we made it a rule that it’s fine to have kids and partners saying hello on video calls. Indeed it has given us all a better insight into each other’s lives and made us closer as we all go through this.  We asked all managers to hold daily meetings with their teams even if it’s for ten minutes. Some teams have even done “entertainment” slots, including a magic show (which can be tricky online), yoga classes and a cookery demonstration.

Keeping the feeling of connection

We’ve also been big fans of Slack channels including #PureKids (where people swopped home schooling ideas and pictures of their kids), #Purewellbeing (full of useful links to helpful websites), and #Puregardening (which has lots of tips for the more green fingered members of the team).

My personal favourite has been the #dadjokes channel. It is a constant source of entertainment and my kids now think I am a comic genius. The key here was to make sure that everyone felt connected in this time of isolation.

It’s OK to ask for help

Of course not everyone has found this easy. It’s been important to make sure that people know it’s OK to ask for help and for the company to be sympathetic. Mental health issues were at the forefront of our concerns and remain so. This isn’t going away any time soon and many people have had to manage and live with very complex issues.

For me, people have different needs, are in different situations and have different interests so we need to think “how do I keep all involved”. Getting feedback from all is vital. Which is why at Pure Planet we are constantly asking our people “how can we make this better for you” - not through a faceless survey but face-to-face through video.

It’s also important to remember that some people might not join in with the opportunities we created and might ‘go off radar’ without us noticing. To prevent that, I personally message anyone in the company every week to say hello, share some information but most importantly to check in with them. Sometimes a simple “are you ok?” is all that is needed.

So, where are we all heading now? As I write in mid-September, the Government is trying to convince us to return to our offices. For some this means increased risk, fear and a lot of confusion. In worrying times, clear leadership can be a huge support and boost employee engagement levels.

Where leaders need to focus now

In testing times, employees will be looking to the leadership team. It’s what goes with the responsibility so, for leaders, it’s time to step up to the plate. People need a sense of direction, understanding and reassurance to counter uncertainty.

From an employee engagement perspective, there’s a lot of work to be done. Leaders need to provide them with (a) a plan (b) empathy (c) hope. Employees are considering what’s really important to them right now and need a sense of belonging and purpose. This needs to be the focus for leaders to keep all connected and informed.

Many people are feeling an increased state of anxiety - whether they return to the workplace or remain remote based - a little more secure but distanced from their colleagues. That’s why my number one suggestion for leaders is to ask your line managers to be particularly understanding and sensitive to those around them.

Line managers can make a real difference too

While the direction comes from the top, most employees will look to their immediate line manager for guidance. So, here are some pointers to consider.

People working remotely (as many want to remain) tend to respond better to a coaching / guiding style that offers the support they need, particularly in larger organisations where it’s easy to feel disconnected. In my experience people respond well to trust - it boosts confidence and productivity.

Communicate regularly. You may be the only person your team member speaks to. They need to hear from you, but remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach - we are all different and the success of how you manage others depends on how well you know who you are managing.

Look out for mental health issues. There is a lot going on in their lives, it’s only natural if some of it affects work and increases evidence of anxiety. You can help by asking how they are. A little empathy is likely to help them open up.

Engagement challenges of the emerging ‘hybrid’ workforce

As we return to a new version of our working lives, a term you’ll hear a lot more of is the ‘hybrid’ workforce. A blend of home working and office working, it’s inevitably changing the culture of the organisations we work for.

I see the following as the main challenges:

On-boarding will need to change. How do you induct new recruits into what, for them, will be a virtual business? How, when and where do you meet them? Organisations must quickly adapt their onboarding process to make them feel welcome and integrated from day one.

Hybrid working - how do you set the balance between office and remote? Will you dictate or leave it to them? As popular as home working seems, us humans need what Simon Sinek calls ‘social cohesion’. Too much isolation isn’t good for our wellbeing - but how can you prevent that happening?

Farewell spontaneity? Some of the best ideas and innovations happen through chance conversations and shared ideas. It’s very hard to pre-book spontaneity. How will organisations ensure teams have opportunities to meet and be creative?

And what about ‘re-boarding’? In practice, the shape and ‘feel’ of our organisations is changing so much that everyone will require re-boarding into the new culture. It’s not just the new recruits. The most effective way to communicate this is from the top. I may be repeating myself here - but for good reason… leaders have to step up to the task too, alongside HR.

About Richard Roberts

Richard Roberts is an employee engagement and leadership specialist and part-time People Director at Pure Planet. He also runs employee engagement consultancy en:Rich HR. He is passionate about building highly motivated and productive teams in both start-ups and larger organisations. Contact him at

Richard was a keynote speaker at one of Allen Associates’ popular Zoom HR Hubs, which are held monthly and run in partnership with employment law expert, Malcolm Gregory from Royds Withy King. To find out about future Zoom HR Hubs, please contact our Managing Director Kate Allen at

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