After 13 long weeks of lockdown in the UK, even the most enthusiastic employee could be forgiven for feeling weary – but BOOST&Co’s irrepressible head of People, Jenefer Morgan, is relishing the challenge of motivating and reassuring a team in these uncertain times.

“Since the lockdown began, I think a lot of people have asked themselves: ‘Why am I so tired, even if I’m doing less?’ The huge change in our circumstances is taking up a lot more mental energy, and it’s important to find something – such as writing a diary – that’s cathartic for you,” she says.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted much discussion of “the new normal”, often focusing on the elements of working life that may never be the same again. But as businesses begin to adapt and employees return to work, Morgan shares what she has learned so far: six steps to keep teams engaged and five activities that have provided welcome distraction from the lockdown, plus tips on when to use tech – and when to turn it off.

Keeping teams engaged – six steps to success

Crisis or no crisis, there are common foundations that underpin every successful engagement campaign. Make sure you consider these key factors when drawing up and implementing your plan, as well as adapting it as the situation evolves.

BOOST&Co’s People team moved swiftly to publish a policy on working from home (and regularly checks that staff are equipped to do so, as well as circulating plans for returning to the office). “I thought it was too soon, but it was actually well-timed because it got everyone thinking about what they would need,” Morgan says. “That’s been my big learning – you’ve got to act sooner than you think. It also helps to have a strong team, because even if you think the timing isn’t right, others may say ‘no, the time is now’.”

Achieving buy-in from a firm’s most senior executives has a direct impact on an engagement plan’s chances of success. Morgan cites the response of BOOST&Co’s partner Lance Mysyrowicz, noting that even small gestures can show staff that the C-suite is happy to get involved. “Lance regularly sends me ideas about how we can continue to engage,” Morgan says. “When we had a ‘learning week’, he was the first person to share what he’s been doing – a course in rocket science!”

Creating a programme that works for every individual in a team is a tricky task, even before a lockdown comes into play. Morgan has drawn on her experience of running engagement campaigns to cater for all personality types, as well as involving individuals by asking the team to contribute fresh ideas. “Some people are going to love an environmental initiative; others are going to jump at the chance to create original art. The key is finding a happy medium,” she says.

Providing staff with new challenges, time to have fun and opportunities to connect is key, but it can be just as important to give people space, especially if the crisis has increased workloads and stress levels for staff, some of whom may still be juggling childcare with working from home. “We think about engagement from both a practical and a psychological perspective,” Morgan says. “Some people are going to say, ‘there’s too much going on; I can’t focus on this right now’ – and that’s fine.”

People fall into natural rhythms after a certain period of time – so, after 13 weeks of lockdown, Morgan advises mixing up your activities to keep things fresh for employees, if they are not yet able to return to the office. “Timeframes feel very different now; surviving a week feels like a real accomplishment,” she says. “In the office, a week can pass quite quickly, but now, each day feels very deliberate.” She has found that introducing new initiatives, or alternating regular activities, once a fortnight works well.

During a crisis, it’s important to ensure that your processes are robust, and that you look ahead. BOOST&Co’s People advisor, Olivia Field, has implemented a new policy on family responsibility and compassionate leave, which allows staff to be flexible with no reduction in pay. Morgan and the company’s organisational psychologist, Heather Bingham, are preparing for employees’ return to the office, which involves balancing individuals’ preferences with what works well for the team.

What works? Our tried-and-tested tips

Morgan’s team has organised a range of activities during the lockdown, with the most popular becoming permanent fixtures in the company’s routine. Here, she explains how these initiatives could work for you.

Lance Mysyrowicz, along with Morgan, leads a daily call for all of BOOST&Co’s staff. This not only keeps employees abreast of important business issues, but also enables the People team to talk informally about engagement activities. “The calls aren’t compulsory, but everyone attends, and a lot of people have said that this is now how they start their day – ‘that’s my deadline for being up and being presentable and having my face on the screen’,” Morgan says.

Although there is no substitute for a friendly chat while the office kettle boils, Morgan has created an alternative in “coffee pods”, where groups of five or six colleagues meet online to catch up over a hot beverage, twice a week. In addition to maintaining contact during lockdown, could this type of activity encourage people to take screen breaks when they return to the office, when previously they may not have found time? “That would be a great takeaway,” Morgan says. “That’s what is going to come out of this – we’re going to appreciate those little things more than we did before.”

BOOST&Co’s art director, Eli H. Han, and keen painter Heather Bingham have led an art challenge, encouraging colleagues to depict given subjects in whatever medium they like, while team assistant Dom Koen has run a photography challenge for those who prefer their camera to a paintbrush. “This activity has two aspects – it’s fun, but it also helps people to get out of their own head,” says Morgan, who adds that the results will be shown in a summer exhibition for everyone in the company to enjoy.

Having introduced the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to BOOST&Co last year, the People team knew that it would be useful during the lockdown. “It’s the language we’ve been speaking; it gives us insights into how each person is going to respond,” Morgan says. Bingham’s original research into how each of the 16 MBTI personality types is likely to cope with working from home, “overlaid with personal circumstances – who’s living on their own, who doesn’t have family close by”, enabled the team to provide extra support to those who may have found it more difficult to adapt.

Given the stresses of lockdown, Morgan has found it beneficial to set aside a slot purely for fun. The hashtag #funFriday has encompassed online bingo, a series of quizzes and the creation of mash-up videos featuring all of BOOST&Co’s employees (the latest video focuses on exercising at home, from cartwheels near Manchester to hiking in Cape Town). “One of our partners, Sonia Powar, volunteered to run a BOOST&Co version of Countdown, which everyone loved. Find a team, join the call and have fun on a Friday afternoon,” Morgan says.

Keep talking – but know when to switch off

Getting connected was the top priority for many companies at the beginning of the lockdown, as employees switched to working from home, with all the pressure on domestic wi-fi connections that this entails. Morgan notes that replacing face-to-face meetings is easier if video-calls are already built into how a business works, but she acknowledges that some people have found it harder to adapt.

“With offices in the UK and South Africa, we are fortunate that this is 90% of how we were doing things anyway. But when I told a partner at Deloitte how amazing it is to be able to do so much virtually, he asked how it’s possible to build empathy online,” Morgan says.

She employs the skills she brings to one-on-one coaching, making “regular calls in which you chat about things that are happening in people’s lives. If you do this daily, it’s amazing how much you can learn about someone, so the fact that your physical location has changed is less important”.

Another effective method she has developed during the lockdown is to “ring the changes between different ways of connecting”, which helps to establish employees’ preferred medium for different types of communication. For example, WhatsApp has proved effective for sharing memes when staff are in need of a lift, while swift, informal exchanges work well on Slack.

Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to switch off – not only for a screen break (the UK’s Health and Safety Executive recommends a five- to ten-minute break every hour), but to avoid wall-to-wall news coverage of the crisis. “We decided early on to stay away from talking about the coronavirus; we’re focusing on business and having some fun,” Morgan says. “We aren’t medical experts, and there is already so much information out there to digest. You could follow the latest news on social media all day, but it won’t do your mental health any good.”

Reassure people and look ahead

The global pandemic is never far from anyone’s thoughts, and Morgan acknowledges its all-pervading presence in her one-on-one coaching sessions with staff. “I’m focusing on making sure that everyone is OK, but I do have a chuckle about my plans for this period, which revolved around how people were faring with their goals,” she says. “Nobody had ‘survive a pandemic’ on their list of goals for 2020!”

But keeping calm and carrying on is important – not just for the smooth running of your company, but “to reassure people that there is going to be an end to this, that things are going to pick up again, even though life might not look exactly the same as it did before”, Morgan says.

BOOST&Co’s People team has pressed ahead with the environmental initiative and coaching sessions for managers that were in the pipeline when the lockdown began, while Morgan and Heather Bingham are working on “how we move to whatever normal looks like after the crisis” – not only practically, in the case of staff returning to the office, but also psychologically, in terms of how individuals may react.

Sharing knowledge is a silver lining

Ever upbeat, Morgan remains positive about the opportunity to learn from the coronavirus crisis, despite its terrible toll. “I’m aware of the responsibility that the People team has at a time like this, but I get very energised by my interactions with people, and working on our programme has been fun,” she says. “I now have a folder titled ‘engagement activities during the pandemic’. Who would have thought we’d have a folder called that?”

And it is these activities that she is keen to share with any companies or individuals who may benefit. “I think BOOST&Co had a head start, because we’ve always been set up in a way that enables us to work away from the office, but we said right from the start that we wanted to create a high-quality engagement plan that we could share externally,” Morgan says. “We need a spirit of abundance in times like these.”

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