Building resilience through employee-centric social wellbeing strategies

Resilient businesses are reacting to COVID-19 by ensuring their workforces remain engaged, productive and socially connected. But as the change refuses to abate, employers are realising that we may never return to previous ways of working, and that the way employees interact has changed permanently. So how can we continue to create close social bonds?

Business disruption is nothing new; yet while most businesses plan for it, many do not test the robustness of their continuity plans and some will have found their plans wanting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to activate them almost overnight.

As the pandemic changed the way many employees work, businesses have reacted to ensure they engage their workforces and keep them socially connected and productive. But as COVID-19 refuses to abate, employers are realising they may never be able to go back to previous ways of working and that the way employees interact has changed, perhaps permanently.

The businesses of the future are looking to find out how they can become more resilient and gain an edge on their competitors by enabling close social bonds in their workforces; connections and collaboration that overcome physical distance and reflect the future of flexible working. Here we explore the importance of diverse wellbeing strategies as well as technology and practices that businesses can use to support the social wellbeing of their people.

Social separation and communication

Without a doubt, businesses will look back on the year 2020 and the months and years that follow as a time of rapid and transformative change and uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic was indiscriminate of employment status, working practices, roles and hierarchies, upending the way we approach work, as well as employee expectations of their employers.

The changes businesses have had to make have impacted the way colleagues interact, forced managers to relinquish control, empowering their teams and individuals and caused businesses to find new ways of operating more efficiently and improving the employee experience.

One key difference between COVID-19 disruption and other forms of workplace disruption has been the replacement of physical interactions with virtual connectivity which, while useful, can be a breeding ground for miscommunication and isolation. Historically, employers may easily have taken for granted the closeness of their workforces and the ease of forming social bonds between colleagues. Facilitating connections between people is crucial to creating meaningful relationships that deliver both business objectives and employee wellbeing, as Charles Alberts, Head of Health Management at Aon UK explains:

‘The workplace is the ideal setting to increase social wellbeing. People often come to the same place, every day, between defined hours, on the supposition they will work together towards common goals. While this brings people in close proximity to each other — there is the tendency to become too focused on the work — missing the opportunity to connect in a real, and human way.’

Prior to the pandemic, loneliness was already endemic within society — as highlighted in a 2020 Aon loneliness guide, with 5% of adults in England alone reporting that they felt lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’. Even in the busiest of environments, people can feel a sense of isolation and loneliness. A reality that has a commercial impact as a result of increased sick days and lower productivity, as well as an impact on an individuals health, with one study finding loneliness is as bad for physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

As our awareness of social isolation and its risks grow, Charles says that we have an opportunity to ensure that COVID-19 becomes a springboard for more conversations and action on loneliness, not least because life is unlikely to return to normal immediately for many people:

‘Loneliness can cause chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, and a host of other issues such as depression. Those who feel connected to others are more resilient to the world around them. They are better able to cope with change and pressure, are better collaborators and perform better. While awareness of social isolation has grown, we must not miss the point that at any one time, nine million people in the UK alone are suffering from loneliness and it isn’t an issue reserved for the elderly.’

For some, loneliness has the potential to offset the positives of home-working and is something employers need to tackle to protect health and wellbeing. To combat increased levels of anxiety and loneliness from physical separation caused by new working practises, employers must seek ways to better identify staff experiencing these feelings and bridge the physical and emotional gaps created by these new practices. The solution to this should be more than a discussion between the employer and employee. Instead, businesses need to build countermeasures into their health and wellbeing strategies that directly address this issue.

In the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, making sure people had the support they needed after country lockdowns was the priority. While many companies used health and wellbeing apps like Aon’s WellOne to ensure their people had access to information, advice and support, effective communication was also needed to ensure people knew what was available to them. Mike Lie-A-Lien, Health Manager at logistic automation experts, Vanderlande, explains that in a complex, multi-faceted organisation, employers have to grasp a wide range of employee needs:

‘We have a broad and diverse workforce, from logistical on-the-ground airport management to sedentary office workers, so we need an equally diverse wellbeing strategy. I regularly visit various work sites so I can understand the roles at a basic level. That way I can see what programs would work or not. Fundamentally, we always start with the employee, asking them what they need to do their jobs and help them in their lives. By monitoring developments and working closely with employees, we can work together through any problems.’

Openness of communication and different methods of interaction are key to reaching people who do different jobs and like to be approached in different ways. Aon’s Charles Alberts shares why he believes that building a relationship is the most crucial part in ensuring quality conversations:

“Crucially, employers need to be able to approach the individual in a natural way. Understanding health management is the easy part — once they understand this, employers  need to find ways of really reaching people to engage in the topic.”

Charles Alberts, Head of Health Management at Aon UK

Mike says that continued communication through channels people respond well to has been vitally important to their business throughout the pandemic, and believes that providing high-engagement solutions with real utility has to be a cornerstone of any wellbeing strategy:

‘Information sharing is going to remain a key part of ensuring employees can see how we are helping them. We have been making videos, creating information packs, and sharing knowledge to help people navigate this difficult time. That has ranged from staying fit, ensuring workstations are ergonomically set up and helping people meet newfound short-term objectives in work and life.’

As organisations look towards the future to assess the needs of their business, it is clear that for many, the social bonds between colleagues will be fundamentally shifted by the increasing prevalence, and in some cases dominant culture, of remote and home-working. Devising communication channels that enable managers to understand and respond to the needs and challenges of its people is vital to rebuilding a supportive social infrastructure.

A people-centric approach to wellbeing strategies

Prior to the pandemic, many businesses were already looking to ensure people were at the core of their business strategies and company values. Mike Lie-A-Lien says that the objective of their people strategy has always been to create a workforce that is present and engaged at work because their people are behind organisational values.

However, while their people and the business were primed for change, the effects of the pandemic have been wider-reaching than expected and they now find themselves in a position where they need to keep finding new ways to ensure that their people remain central and their business forward-looking:

‘The pandemic has created a difficult situation for people and businesses alike, but everyone responded well to the pandemic overnight — no questions asked. Returning to the workplace is going to be a whole new transition. Having found new ways of living their lives, in some very positive ways, it could be stressful and emotional to return to work. We need to make sure we support our employees, in return for keeping our business operating.’

Many existing HR strategies will be structured around an office as the main workplace setting, however, as the working landscape changes, HR strategies and wellbeing policies should reflect the differing working and personal scenarios people now find themselves in.

As the employment market opens up and many people are searching again for full-time employment, employers need to be understanding of people entering the organisation too.

Starting a new job came with its own difficulties even before COVID-19, so as companies change their practices and experience other internal challenges in making these transitions, it could be especially disorienting for new starters.

Businesses need to consider how they impart their values to new starters and comprehensively address the challenges these people face in joining a business at a time of disruption — in particular when remote working has become more commonplace.

While digital solutions such as e-learning can be utilised for inductions and training, employers need to also consider how physical distance will impact relationship building and social wellbeing. Enabling employees to feel welcomed and connected to their colleagues and embraced within a company culture is as important as understanding policies and procedures.

Preparing people and processes for the new ‘normal’

That people are reporting greater enjoyment from home working is the tip of the iceberg. Identifying and implementing the changes that will build organisational resilience tomorrow is the real challenge for businesses and society alike, especially when social disconnection will be an ongoing concern.

In the short-term, innovation that guides the workplace in the right direction must be people-centric and at the same time will be the route to increased performance. Yet in the longer-term, ensuring the whole value chain is reimagined to be protected from other unseen circumstances, be that another pandemic, climate, or terrorism, for example, is crucial to organisational resilience. Companies are shifting their outlooks to a ‘not if, but when’ mindset and their people must be central to that redesign too.

Mike goes one step further and counts Vanderlande’s customers and the end-user of their services as of equal importance.

The close proximity between the business and this extended group means he is considering the wider effects of what they implement, yet not in a narrow or siloed way. The extra ‘elbow room’ people will need will not just affect how people move around airports or are accommodated on aeroplanes, but also impact support staff in offices, and the way that buildings themselves are designed:

‘Operating airports, we work in a shared space with customers, so we need to understand the impact the virus has on them in the way they behave, as well as identifying how we can keep everyone safe. Returning to work, we need to help people understand the customer view and manage this change in the way we operate. How to work safely, what the new priorities are, and upskilling — we are using as much time as possible to understand how the next wave of needs can be met.’

Helping managers manage social wellbeing

All things considered, there will be a steep learning curve for business and line managers,  and many will have a lot to contend with as new ways of working continue to be implemented. There will be extra pressure on them to understand the new normal and support their direct reports – which is a daunting task when you consider many were already behind in ensuring the wellbeing of their staff. Charles agrees, and says that the pressure line managers are under could in itself create unexpected difficulties as new ways of working are explored:

‘Line managers have huge responsibilities for their direct reports that organisations don’t always recognise, as well as always being expected to perform at the same level. Line managers take fewer days off than other workgroups and suffer from anxiety and depression at a greater rate than their direct reports.

There needs to be a better understanding of this, and a better way of helping them to ensure this isn’t exacerbated as their responsibilities change, and grow.’

This can create a real challenge for line managers, navigating situations they may not have come across before, however Mike remains focused on addressing this new dynamic. In keeping the conversation open and providing continued training and support he is confident other employers can rise to the challenge as Vanderlande have:

‘We are also keeping a close eye on escapism, where people go to work to avoid other problems in their lives. Our managers are trained to discuss personal problems and help the individual find a way forward.’

Social wellbeing solutions for a new world

Increasing social connections in the workplace when there is an increase in remote working is undoubtedly more challenging, but throughout 2020 digital tools and creative thinking have proven that these challenges can be overcome. We might have all had our fill of Zoom quizzes and virtual team meetings this year, but beyond this lie some innovative digital solutions that can enhance employee connections and the remote management of teams as well as build on company culture and values.

Some companies have adopted applications that are akin to breakout spaces, but in a virtual format. The benefit of these more informal spaces is that they foster wider connections across the company beyond the small network of people employees interact with daily. Applications such as Donut, which works with business communication network Slack, randomly pairs coworkers and reminds them to meet, whether it’s for a quick coffee, a creative collaboration or a virtual chat. Where the office setting once provided opportunities for impromptu praise and success recognition, tools like Disco, which can be integrated into Microsoft Teams, offer the opportunity to celebrate value-driven work and foster daily employee recognition via a digital platform.

The creation of internal networks also plays an important role in unifying groups of employees around a common goal. As well as the opportunity to share knowledge, problem-solve and innovate, these networks provide an alternative space in which to connect with others who share the same values, concerns and life experiences. Whether it’s a supportive LGBTQ group, parents sharing the specific challenges they face or those with a sporting connection, internal networks can have positive results for the whole business as well as individuals as a result of improved communication, productivity and employee engagement.

Another area where strides are being made is through mentorships, where social and professional wellbeing are coming together and providing a way for companies to keep employees engaged and connected.

Charles says this type of commitment to listening to employee views will engage them and help shape a sustainable future for organisations:

‘Creating mentorship programs helps people learn from each other, while making them more empathetic, forming strong bonds and extending the internal network. Reverse mentoring — where junior employees mentor senior employees — can break down social barriers and create stronger social connections for a much larger group of employees through the leader’s newfound knowledge.’

While working relationships may have faced more obstacles in 2020, the increase in remote working has for many restored a greater sense of work/life balance, signalling to employers that in the future they will also need to ensure they do not detract from the more important things in the lives of their employees.

Charles says that in redressing the balance people have found by spending more time with people who are important to them, workplaces can no longer ignore the inherent need for connection that people have rediscovered:

“Businesses also need to give employees enough time to make connections outside of work, whether it be through enough annual leave, maternity and paternity leave, bereavement time, and time for volunteering or doing other social human activities. It goes back to the core of us as humans — socially connections are crucially important.”

Charles Alberts, Head of Health Management at Aon UK

The resilient workforce of the future

As well as being a period of disruption and uncertainty, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have also created opportunities for businesses to reflect on their values and innovate their workplace practices and the strategies that support them. Ensuring that a business is resilient enough to face ongoing and future challenges requires ongoing reassessment of the processes and people strategies that currently exist.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that employees who are well supported are more likely to be able to reach their potential in spite of adversity and upheaval — in this case, the overnight transformation of work-life as we knew it. As we look to the future, more businesses are expected to move towards the people-centric wellbeing strategies that Aon consultants support; strategies which place employee wellbeing as highly as customer satisfaction. Listening to employees and understanding their needs and wants is something Mike Lie-A-Lien of Vanderlande sees as central to the future strategy of their business:

‘By continuing to learn from our employees, and ensuring they’re involved in what we are doing, we are creating an empathetic, creative, and flexible workforce, that we’re confident they will weather any difficulties.’

Fundamentally, ensuring open communication through genuine human connections, facilitated by the latest social tools is a key component in ensuring collaboration, and creating meaningful work for employees. Mike believes that being a part of the company’s journey, and involving employees in reaching organisational goals is the most powerful thing an organisation can deploy:

‘We have found that our open, employee-centric approach attracts the kind of employees we are looking for — those who are engaged, healthy, and share our values in terms of creating a good work-life balance, and because of this, we have a very good retention rate too. The board is very engaged in how we develop these strategies, and our management team are invested in making them work.’

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