‘We’re going to have to be very sensitive’: understanding employee engagement challenges posed by the Great Return

Employers must prioritise employee engagement, gathering staff feedback and equality issues as they return to work and get to grips with the ‘new normal’, agreed expert panellists speaking ahead of the 2021 PRWeek Global Awards.

The panel, entitled ‘Great Return and Beyond: Adapting Employee Engagement’, was hosted by Zeno Group, a headline sponsor of the awards, which happened in a virtual format for the second consecutive year.

PRWeek US editorial director Steve Barrett kicked off the discussion, saying that having been in Manhattan the day before it felt “like the city was getting back to normal… the subways were filling up”. He said: “We've all missed the office and convening with people. And a lot of us have been working from home for the last 12 months - but what does that mean for the industry? What does that mean for employee engagement?”

Laura Duda, senior VP and CCO of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company pointed out that many people never did leave their regular workplace - 60,000 of its associates have been working in factory, retail and transportation locations as essential workers.

“However there are [also] office associates and employees,” she added. “It was a big deal to leave and it is a big deal to come back. I think when we all left we thought it would be three weeks, and it's been over a year. There’s going to be some reintroduction issues for that slice of the workforce but we do see a lot of benefits being together, and flexibility is very important. I personally look forward to a lot more interaction.”

Inclusion issues

Barrett noted that although remote working provided many benefits in uncertain times, it also entailed difficulties disproportionately affecting women, who were often expected to pick up extra duties around home-schooling and household management. It’s a particular issue for the PR profession, which is 70 per cent female, he noted.

Molly McCabe, VP communications, community, diversity and inclusion at Ulta Beauty, stressed that employee wellbeing had been a priority for her over the last 12 months - especially for women, who make up 92 per cent of its workforce.

“We've tried to think and listen to our employees, what are their needs and what can we practically apply,” she said. “We have implemented a few things that have gotten continued good feedback, one is a ‘no meeting’ space from 12-1pm everyday and that really stemmed from people having kids at home and to ensure they have a minute to give their kids lunch, and themselves lunch.”

“On afternoons on Fridays we don't have meetings again because of this back-to-back meeting culture that the virtual world makes even easier - that has been really critical,” McCabe added.

Change ‘on their terms’

Mark Shadle, MD of global corporate affairs at Zeno Group highlighted the importance of not isolating or alienating different groups of employees, instead tapping into their needs as individuals.

He said that in research with his employees and associates, seven out of 10 didn’t want the same office environment they experienced pre-Covid, commenting: “They expect there’s going to be some sort of change and they want that change to be on their terms. We’re going to have to be very sensitive to the nuances across demographics, across market segments, across countries - and I think that's going to be the biggest challenge of all.”

As the panellists looked towards the future, it was clear that flexibility and a different approach to employer-employee dynamic in the workplace was key.

“We have to acknowledge we have all been through something we never have before, and our employee’s expectation of work and life have changed,” Ulta’s McCabe said.

“As an employer, and employer of future talent, we have to be prepared to offer flexibility in a different way,” she added, saying that the company would be prioritising feedback from colleagues and associates. McCabe said it was implementing a new pulse survey mechanism to gather feedback, and take quick action, around employee needs.

Shadle pointed at further research showing that many workers, even if happy in their roles, would be willing to consider leaving their job if a better opportunity, with more flexibility, came up. “Despite the fact they’re happy in their jobs, they're looking for opportunities and if they don't see those opportunities within the company they work for, they are more interested and eager than ever to find it someplace else,” he said, urging clients to think “really carefully” about the implications of that.

Duda from Goodyear added that there was a balance to be struck around flexibility. “We know flexibility is a preference but we also have to balance that with being our best as a company which probably means some togetherness,” she said.

“There are things that happen together that aren't going to happen when you're clicking from one Zoom meeting to another,” Duda commented - adding that a key priority for the business in the near future would be the integration of a competitor business it had recently acquired.

Ultimately, the panellists all agreed that with the so-called ‘new normal’ being so unpredictable and uncertain, cohesive employee engagement and collaboration needed to be an utmost priority.

You can catch up here with the full virtual panel, ‘Great Return and Beyond: Adapting Employee Engagement’ - led by Steve Barrett and hosted by Zeno.

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