The mental wellbeing of employees has never been challenged in the way it has been over the past 18 months. With the current lockdown of Greater Sydney, Melbourne and much of NSW, this is unlikely to change in the short-term.
Most professional services firms – including our own – will attest that a strong employee value proposition existed well before the onset of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has forced a shift in the way staff engagement is perceived and executed.
The working from home phenomenon is, unquestionably, here to stay. Well before the onset of COVID, the concept of remote working was regarded by many as the future of working. During the past two or three years in particular, social media platforms have been flooding newsfeeds with content about the endless benefits of remote working, including that telecommuting allows the employees to not only save on travel time but utilise this bonus time to be more productive.
There remained, however, a degree of reticence, particularly by more traditional firms who believed it would result in a disengaged, unproductive workforce.
The events of the past 12 months (and indeed, for the coming months) have proven these assertions to be unfounded. Not only can staff be productive working from home and for some types of work even more so than in an office, but the added benefits that come with flexibility and family time have meant staff are arguably happier in their respective roles and more efficient with their time (this is, of course, notwithstanding the detrimental impacts of lockdowns).
Regular, consistent and clear communication through a variety of mediums has been beneficial in maintaining high staff engagement levels. Often, a less formal approach is required, particularly given the volume of employees now working from home as a matter of course. An impromptu phone call from a manager to check in on a team member can have a positive impact on their state of mind and, in turn, their productivity level.
More formal engagement initiatives throughout various lockdown periods could be firm-wide updates via videoconferencing calls, as well as weekly (or sometimes daily) intranet and email updates from a managing partner or divisional lead. The benefit of these initiatives is it allows for a greater proportion of staff to be involved, with some dialling in from their car or listening to the recording at a time that’s most convenient (with many now juggling even greater demands on family life, including home schooling children).
Some organisations have re-evaluated their staff benefits programs to better reflect the mental health needs of employees and their families. Last year, some of the firms within the HLB Mann Judd network provided staff with a Recharge Day in lieu of Melbourne Cup Day, for example.
Supporting staff through the provision of physical and mental health activities, such as online yoga classes, and other group-based activities, have been well received and appreciated by employees.
Staff have also been able to access third-party community-based organisations for additional support if required, including Man Anchor and Parents at Work, providing specialised webinars on mental health and wellbeing for staff and their families. Parents at Work in particular has proven to be invaluable resource given the proportion of working parents impacted by ongoing restrictions to schooling.
We have seen a marked increase in the take up of support services offered to employees’ network-wide, including via the employee assistance program which extends to their family. While it is concerning that more people are using this program, it reinforces the importance of providing and promoting such initiatives to staff and their families. It also reaffirms that staff are engaged and prepared to access these types of programs amid such uncertain and unfamiliar times.
In measuring the success of these initiatives and ultimately ensure the mental wellbeing of staff, there needs to be a formal feedback loop. Programs that generate an Employee Promoter Score – used widely throughout the professional services sector - can be an effective means of measurement, as well as more informal, ad-hoc check ins.
Throughout lockdowns, many of our member firms conducted wellbeing checks every three weeks, which provided management with timely feedback on key staff engagement items and addressed any issues appropriately and promptly.
Staff engagement can often be a difficult road for organisations to navigate, but at a time when isolation, uncertainty and fear loom large, employees need to feel valued and empowered. Providing them with the necessary tools and initiatives will go some way in ensuring organisations emerge out of lockdown with satisfied and productive personnel.
Similarly, management with empathy, insight and people-skills will also emerge all the better for the experience, and create better organisational culture in the process.
Tony Fittler, chair, the HLB Mann Judd Australasian Association