COVID-19 has changed everything, perhaps forever for some organisations, industries and employees. Certainly, the short-to-medium term future will be quite different for us all. But the focus of business needs to move quickly to what comes next. Keith McGrane, a Senior Consultant Psychologist at ETS, explains:

"There are likely lots of initiatives your organisation could push right now, but what are the people strategy activities that you should prioritise to deliver the very best employee experience in the months ahead?"

This is the question our white paper seeks to answer by sharing our experts’ views and offering an insight from some senior HR professionals within our clients. This includes from housing associations Clarion Housing and The Barnet Group, and others including Sky, Brighton &  Hove City Council and Arqiva. We’ve highlighted five particular aspects of the employee experience strategy for HR teams and leaders to focus on.

1. Get your house in order

Since the pandemic hit the UK back in March, we have been having lots of discussions with HR and L&D professionals to understand their challenges, facilitate knowledge-sharing and offer advice. This has given us plenty of insight into how organisations and HR teams have been responding. The priority for most HR teams has been to take stock and understand how exactly the employee experience has changed and how it might continue to change in the future.To answer these questions, a good employee listening strategy is a must. Exactly what this looks like will differ from one organisation to the next, but it should have both formal channels (employee survey, virtual focus groups) and informal ones (manager one-to-ones, team chats). Equally important is the relevance of questions we are asking. In the here and now, focussing on career pathways or rewards and recognition is less relevant. Rather, key areas should include:

  • Employee wellbeing
  • The quality and transparency of communication
  • Trust in senior leadership
  • The transition to remote working
  • Clarity of roles and responsibilities
  • Having access to the right resources.

Organisations we are speaking with are adopting some different approaches. These include one moving to fortnightly pulse checks, another inserting a section on ‘COVID-19 response’ to a standard engagement survey and a couple running a survey specifically aimed at furloughed employees.Audrey Barry, Employee Engagement Manager at Clarion Housing, comments on the value of their survey:

"It’s so important to be listening to employees right now. I know that for us our last survey gave us a clear line in the sand on engagement and, most importantly, showed us exactly where we needed to act to provide an even better employee experience."

Lastly on this, if you aren’t already, consider finding out from employees how they feel about a return to ‘normal’ working – whether there is appetite to go back to sitting in an office for five days a week, whether they want to work remotely all the time or want something in between. Getting an early read on this could be useful in helping organisations with their strategic planning and future decisions, for example around office space needs.

2. Look beyond engagement

This pause in the usual breakneck pace of business offers us a great chance for reflection. We all know how important employee engagement is to organisational success. But we also know that it has long been flat. And we have even seen lots of instances where organisations have high levels of engagement but also widespread poor performance or high attrition issues. Our conclusion (after much research and consultation of academic literature on the people-performance relationship) is that we need to look beyond just measuring engagement – there should be a more holistic focus on the employee experience. And this, we believe, is particularly important and timely right now. So, what does this look like? It basically means treating the employee experience as a tripod that features three elements that are of equal importance and co-dependent. If one is low, the employee experience overall will be compromised. The three elements in question are engagement, enablement and empowerment and we suggest factoring in all three in any formal employee listening initiatives. If you aren’t doing so, you won’t be getting the full picture of your employee experience!

3. Give health and wellbeing top billing

There is a clear and overwhelming agreement that our health and safety is the number one priority. While most organisations understand this, it can manifest in different ways. For example, how are we protecting people’s mental health as well as their physical health? With home and work lives now inextricably blurred, this is crucial. What about how the new workplace layout will look to preserve social distancing? How will we protect employees that cannot work from home and what safety behaviours should be role modelled? Keith McGrane explains:

"We’ve seen before that, in times of uncertainty, employees’ perception of whether their organisation cares about their wellbeing often has a bigger than usual impact on engagement. They accept that leaders don’t have all the answers, but they need to be reassured that their health and wellbeing is deemed important and being considered."

In terms of what organisations can and should do to promote wellbeing, structured resilience and wellbeing initiatives can be effective and help to bolster engagement. But often the best programmes are the ones that give people simple tips and takeaways that they put into practice straight away.

4. Support leaders to step up

Senior leaders face particular challenges in times like these, with sometimes difficult financial and human decisions to be made. So, what do leaders need to do differently, or better, to help organisations navigate what is to come – and how can they be supported to meet these challenges?

Increase their visibility

Visible leaders who lead by example have a marked impact on performance, engagement, employee wellbeing and team dynamics. Employees want and expect leaders now to be more accessible, transparent and visible. This is because our trust and confidence in senior leadership and the decisions that leaders will make is crucial for gaining buy-in and commitment from people during turbulent times. Keith McGrane comments:

"From a leadership perspective, one of the silver linings of this awful pandemic is that it has forced a rethink on how they show up. We’ve heard about CEO’s chairing Zoom board meetings while sat in their kids’ bedrooms and previously quite reclusive leaders recording and sending out weekly video messages to their teams."

The perceived rise in visibility and authenticity has helped employees to see a more human side to leaders, which can only be a good thing for sustaining their engagement in the short and longer term. To support senior leaders with this, we strongly recommend coaching and mentoring. This can really help them to think about how they personally can be more visible, communicate with impact and build trust with different stakeholder groups.

Boost their emotional intelligence

Having more emotionally intelligent leaders will be essential in ‘the new normal’. Leaders at all levels need the ability to recognise how their teams are feeling, to spot non-verbal cues, to support and empathise, and to tailor their messages to their audience in the right way. The good news is that emotional intelligence is something we can all readily work on and improve. Author Daniel Goleman is a pioneer in this area, and we’ve pulled out four components for leaders to focus on, which are based on his work.Self-awareness – Leaders need to understand their strengths and weaknesses. How do they leverage strengths? What are their biases? How can they effectively manage their weaknesses and biases?Self-management – How do leaders manage their emotional state and stay resilient to stress and pressure? This is especially important as how they respond and act in a crisis sends signals to their teams and organisation.Social awareness – This focuses on being more aware of the environment and other people. It is about putting oneself in another’s shoes: being more empathetic helps when building trust with people and understanding their challenges and perspectives.Social management – Can a leader adapt their style to different people and situations? This is essential for influencing others and driving change.

5. Engage remote teams

The dynamic of ‘the team’ in workplaces has been evolving for some time. Increasing adoption of, and clamour for, flexible and remote working was already forcing a change to how teams engage with each other and work together. And this, clearly, has accelerated with COVID-19. Managers naturally have a crucial part to play, so it is heartening to hear positive stories like this one from Audrey Barry at Clarion Housing:

"For managers used to overseeing teams in the office every day, the transition to remote working has been challenging but it’s been really encouraging to see and hear about how they and their teams have stepped up.“ “ So, what can and should newly remote teams, and managers of them, do to boost productivity and engagement?"

Identify and be clear on priorities

With so much change and unpredictably, take time as a team to clarify your purpose, what you’re trying to achieve and people’s roles and responsibilities in the here and now. Also consider possible future changes in customer expectations and, perhaps most importantly, what you need to stop doing to have the time and resource to prioritise what matters most.

Provide more freedom and flexibility

This unique situation we find ourselves in will demand more flexibility than ever from managers and their teams. People need to be empowered and to be given trust and autonomy over how their work gets done. Although not easy for managers used to more closely supervising, this is important. It requires a mindset shift from managers, whose focus should switch to the objectives and output.

Agree new rules of engagement

In team catch-ups, don’t always go straight to 'task mode.' Consider how to work together. Remote teams can quickly become transactional in their mode of communication, focussing on the 'what' and the task without considering the 'how' and the relationship. Trust, collaboration and strong relationships are essential to good teamwork, whether you’re sat around the same table or on different continents.

Open communication

Managers should also be asking what each team member needs to be at their best. Check in regularly on how people are feeling and what is on their mind. Ask good, open questions and create an environment in which people feel safe to have these open and frank conversations. This will give managers great clarity on how they can support their colleagues going forward.


We know that the prevailing uncertainty in the world is not going away soon, and that what constitutes ‘the new normal’ will continue to change, bringing with it many different challenges for us all to respond to. To prevail and thrive, organisations, HR and leaders must be agile, pragmatic and adaptable. Keith McGrane offers his view on what’s needed:

“This unprecedented situation doesn’t come with a blueprint, but we believe that, by focusing energies on the five areas outlined here (and summarised below), organisations and their people will be best prepared to move forward.”
  • Make sure you are gathering the right data from employees (in the right ways)
  • Look beyond engagement to really understand your overall employee experience
  • Prioritise employee health and wellbeing, and reassure your people over this
  • Support leaders to step up to the challenges ahead
  • Engage and manage teams in such a way to support remote working