Prioritise your people – lessons learned from life in lockdown

June 7, 2021

After a disruptive year, organisations across the North East are looking forward to the gradual easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and will be planning a smooth transition back into the workplace over the coming months. This process will have its challenges and business leaders will need to think carefully about how they can continue to keep their employees safe, while also ensuring they remain happy, motivated and supported. Dawn Robinson, global director (people) at shipping insurance specialist North P&I Club (North), looks at the key learnings from the past year and how she plans to ensure employee wellbeing is at the forefront of the business’ plans going forward.

Safety first

Infection rates are falling, and the vaccination programme is progressing, however, we should not be under any illusion that the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

As restrictions ease, business leaders and managers’ first priority should be to make sure employees have a safe environment to return to.

Here at North, we have been looking at our office space, reviewing footfall and how people move within the workplace.

Armed with this data, we have moved desks to ensure social distancing can be maintained at all times. Numerous sanitation points can now be found across all key touchpoints in our building, and we have also ensured all rooms are equipped with a regular supply of clean, filtered air.

We have reviewed staggered employee shift patterns to minimise unnecessary mixing and will be encouraging the wearing of masks when moving about or entering and leaving the building.

We hope these measures help provide peace of mind, as well as demonstrate our commitment to providing a safe environment for all.

As changes continue to evolve daily with COVID-19, we will ensure we slowly transition our people’s return through initially addressing those keen to return for health or task essential routines to perform as a priority.

Communication is key

As with any programme of change, communication is key to building trust and reassurance with employees.
Throughout the pandemic we have been incredibly proactive in communicating with our people, from recording video messages from the chief executive after important governmental updates, to ensuring managers host regular meetings with their teams.

We have also begun hosting virtual drop-in sessions with people managers every other week, providing a forum for airing any concerns or ideas.

These sessions have made it clear to our people that our senior team is ready to listen to any problems they may have, and that additional support is available.

We’ve had 45 new starters join the business since April last year and all their inductions have been virtual – which has proved particularly challenging for both new recruits and their managers.

To overcome this, we have introduced quarterly check-ins and completely overhauled our induction programme.

This has been received well, with feedback from our latest people survey telling us that nine out of ten new starters were pleased with their inductions.

All of this has enabled us to continuously engage, reassure and build confidence with people and make them feel involved in all the decisions we make as a business.

It’s really helped break down barriers across all departments and unite everyone in a way like never before.

Focus on employee wellbeing

Stress, anxiety, depression, grief and loneliness are all feelings that have been amplified by the pandemic.

Our mental health has undoubtedly suffered this past year, so as employees return to the workplace, it is important to look out for their emotional, as well as physical, wellbeing.

To address this, we implemented a range of tactics purpose-designed to boost morale, encourage healthy habits and get people talking in these challenging times.

We set up a ‘North natters’ Facebook group, a Friday five live chat with our leaders and launched regular health and fitness challenges across the organisation.

We’ve also employed a virtual doctor to respond to employee health queries and are in the process of introducing mental health first aiders, who will be specially trained to identify and deal with mental health concerns.

With social gatherings off the agenda for the moment, we’ve also worked hard to boost morale in other ways.

We’ve put on quiz nights, hosted virtual parties and sent all employees, including those overseas, Christmas hampers with locally sourced gifts – all of which have put big smiles on faces.

I’m incredibly proud to say that this year we have also achieved the Better Health at Work Gold Award – an accolade that commends the efforts of employers in the North East and Cumbria in addressing health issues within the workplace.

North has always put employee wellbeing at the centre of the business, so it’s truly fantastic to see this recognised.

I’d urge all employers across the region to look at similar awards and initiatives, as it’s really made a difference to the productivity and morale of our people.

Listen to your people and implement changes 

One of the best things we carried out at the start of the pandemic was an internal people survey that monitored how everyone was feeling about different areas of the business – including their opinions on levels of engagement, policies, rewards, diversity and how they felt about the business culture.

We received a phenomenal response and achieved an employee net promoter score of 64 (up from 57 last year).

This really gave us the confidence in what we were doing as a business and gave us a clear picture of what our people wanted to see more of.

We are now using the results of our survey to adapt our working practices and make changes that will benefit both our clients and our employees.

These include allowing employees to continue to work from home, and work flexibly, as well as how we can offer more support to parents of young families or those with caring responsibilities.

COVID-19 has forced organisations to make long overdue changes in the way they approach business operations and working practices, and even though the pandemic is (hopefully!) coming to an end, there is no reason to abandon these important lessons.

It’s vital we continue to listen, respond and learn, so that our organisations can continue to adapt to the modern world.

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