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COVID-19 - revolutionising the use of video for employee engagement

Scott Jones is the founder of The Footprint Partnership – a partner of Speed and home to a bunch of talented journalists and filmmakers who met at the BBC Business Unit. Scott uses his background in TV, newspapers, radio and digital to help businesses use the power of journalistic content in their marketing and communications. Here he talks about effective employee engagement and the power of film.

On Radio 4 the other day Mathew Parris redefined what ‘BC’ means. The former MP turned political writer said we will no longer use the birth of Christ as our marker in time for charting the history of life on earth. From now on, these two letters will stand for one thing; Before Coronavirus. The impact already, in the UK and around the world, has been that biblical.

When it comes to business and our working lives, the impact of COVID-19 can be summed up with three letters – WFH – and this in turn is redefining how employers engage with employees in this new, isolated age of lockdown.

I’m surprised by this. Given the volume of emails I see each week from people letting others know that they’ll be ‘WFH tomorrow’, I thought WFH was already the norm for the majority of people – ranging from an approved day of working from home, to people always having their phones and laptops close at hand and rarely genuinely leaving work behind.

That’s why I saw the lockdown, in many ways, for many people, as BAU. You know, Skype calls in your pyjamas, with the video turned off, and everyone agreeing at the start of the call that just using audio is so much better, “because of the bandwidth”.

PS. Remember Skype? It was that website we used to use to try to talk to each other BC? Or should that be BZ – Before Zoom.

Unchartered WFH waters

But new data from the ONS proves just how wrong I was about the growth, or not, of WFH in the UK before the virus came. The ONS data is based on figures from 2019 – aka one year BC.

Despite the ocean of ‘how to’ blogs about switching to flexi-time, and John Lewis and Ikea offering us all ‘the ideal Home Office’ (complete with desk, chair, clock and pen holder) before Coronavirus only a small percentage of employees had actually made the move and set up their own HQ at home.

Out of the 32.6 million employees working in the UK today (including those furloughed) just 1.7 million worked from home before the pandemic took over. That’s just 5% of the entire workforce. In the last four weeks, that number has spiralled to an estimated 20 million people who are now WFH day in, day out.

The ONS data also shows that BC, the vast majority of employees – 70%, which equates to 24 million people – had zero experience of WFH before the lockdown forced them all to abandon their offices and daily commutes and routines.

So across the UK, in most sectors, businesses and employees are in very new, unchartered WFH waters, which means many businesses will be approaching employee engagement in this strange, isolated landscape from scratch.

Helping your employees feel safe

The good news is that the same Internal Comms rules apply as they did BC, when your employees were office based, rather than located at a dozen, or 101, or 1,000 and more external sites. In lockdown, companies still need to engage with employees in the usual way – or EEAU as I call it now – Employee Engagement As Usual – to keep their people updated, morale high and productivity on track.

Focusing on BAU – in terms of performance, customer service and income – is critical in the coronavirus crisis; not just for the financial health and future of the business, but to give employees a true sense of normality, and a real sense of purpose, right now. If your staff feel like the business is continuing to operate, and therefore will continue to keep them busy and paid, all your other communications will resonate with staff so much more. Remember the basic human emotion; we need to feel safe. This is the key challenge for HR functions during the lockdown – with new counselling hotlines being a lifeline for many members of staff. COVID-19 is creating anxiety where no anxiety existed before.

No more limp triffids

With that feeling of safety in place, employees, like nature, will adapt at incredible speed, with incredible results. As the stream of video messages to employees on LinkedIn proves, many business leaders have adapted at pace to the new COVID-19 world; upping sticks at their offices and setting up new mini-corporate camps at home – which are acting as very effective Comms hubs.

The fashion is to film your video messages and staff updates in front of beautiful bookcases – bringing a refreshing dash of intelligence and personality to employee communications.

It’s amazing isn’t it – take people away from the office (and unimaginative video producers) and nobody chooses to communicate with staff by sitting behind a desk, with the obligatory ill-watered pot plant positioned behind them, giving the impression that they have a limp triffid growing out of the side of their head. Long may it last.

In fact, all the business leaders I’ve seen on screen during the lockdown look really upbeat, and as relaxed as lizards on a sunny day, as they update and inspire their teams via video. Before Coronavirus, these people would rather go to the dentist than be filmed. Now look at them. COVID-19, and Zoom, could revolutionise how businesses use video in their employee engagement strategy when the lockdown and the crisis are over.

Note I haven’t said ‘when we return to normal’.

Time for change

So, now the times they are a changin’ more than Bob Dylan could ever imagine, in addition to EEAU, what key messages do businesses need to deliver to employees, now that we better start swimming or we’ll sink like a stone? I’ve thought of five:

Time for calm and clarity

Engage with employees at regular intervals – to keep morale high, and working mindsets in place. At times like this, silence is not golden. Be confident and clear. In a crisis, leadership is everything. And use each piece of comms to show BAU is happening.

Time to be totally honest and human

Business leaders need to listen even more to employee’s questions and concerns and respond to them in their communications. We are all in this together.

Time for sustainability – using each day now to build for the long-term

Start discussions now about how the business will evolve after lockdown – to build in more resilience to prepare the business for the next pandemic and social and environmental crisis.

Time to adapt and innovate

Encourage employees to use this time to develop new ideas for products, services and how your business operates. Look at combining innovation with existing mentoring programmes. Get brains ticking over and people talking.

Time for change

This is the tricky one. People don’t like change, and change doesn’t make everyone feel safe. But, going back to be honest, we all have to prepare for colossal change. Life will not be the same as it was BC, and it will pay to engage employees in that conversation right now.

Tags: Covid-19employee engagementinternal comms