6 min read

How Do You Keep Employees Connected in a Disconnected World?

How Do You Keep Employees Connected in a Disconnected World?

This was the question posed to a panel of leaders at the Global PR Summit in Toronto late last year. In her responses to the questions, panelist Leanne James, VP, People at Weber Shandwick Canada, a global public relations and communications agency, talked about many of the approaches and practices we promote on this blog. 

Their efforts are having an impact. On top of growing through the pandemic, last year, 94% of employees voted that Weber Shandwick is a Great Place to Work – the highest score they’ve achieved in five years.

We reached out to talk to Leanne further about what the agency is doing to attract talent and keep employees engaged. She shared many valuable tactics and insights that may spur ideas for your workplace.

Q: How is Weber Shandwick engaging and connecting employees?

We connect as much as possible. We’ve done this virtually, and now we are encouraging people to come back in person one to two times a week. We are committed to creating meaningful moments without introducing so many touchpoints that people can’t get their work done. 

A couple of months ago, we flew all our Canadian employees into Toronto for the first time in a few years. We had to wear name tags because we had done so much hiring during COVID
not everyone knew each other. There was a buzz in the office. One of the new employees asked if it was always like this. That was a powerful moment because, yes, it was. We used to have this number of people in the office every day.

At that meeting, we talked about expectations and how we wanted to connect. We learned that one of the silver linings of COVID was that connecting virtually leveled the playing field. People felt more connected than they had before COVID. We are all meeting on the same platform, instead of some participating in person and others calling in.

This is important to us. We want everyone to be able to show up virtually and not have difficulties with technology, so we provide stipends for working from home to cover costs like internet and we have another program that helps people buy technology, if needed. We don’t assume that others are in the same situation we are. We try to consider all socio-economic situations and build practices that ensure everyone feels included and part of the team.

When we meet virtually, we’re invited into each other’s homes. That creates a different level of collegial connection. We don’t discourage people from letting family walk through, and we don’t make them feel awkward if the dog is barking. We’re not trying to recreate the office when we’re not in the office. This has allowed us to bring our whole selves to work.

We use Microsoft Teams channels. It is really one of the best tools. We have very active chats going on. Our WeberLife chat is amazing at building camaraderie. We encourage this because it brings people together and helps build work relationships.

Now we’re working together to reimagine the future. Nothing replaces being in a safe space, collaborating and building community with one another. We are working to move the needle and encourage people to come back in person. It doesn’t solve everything, but that energy and connectedness are healing.

Q: How do you create a sense of belonging among new employees?

It is important that prospective employees meet as many people as possible during recruitment and onboarding. I don’t expect that we’ll be the right fit for everybody, or they’ll always be the right fit for us, so it’s essential we meet them, and they meet as many colleagues as possible. I’m a fan of panel interviews – candidates can have a conversation with a few people who bring different perspectives.

Some people have never been in a real work environment before. We’re coaching them through this. We introduce new employees with a photo and brief bio before they join their co-workers on screen for the first time. We always seek feedback, ask new employees what we can do to help them, and evaluate the mechanisms we use for outreach. 

We don’t have managers. We have people champions. They do more than manage people; they are champions of people. They meet one-on-one to support their team members, and we have level meetings where employee groups meet monthly for knowledge sharing. 

We also have a buddy system. It is a formal system where we pair buddies who do similar work and work at the same level so they can answer questions and connect people to the resources they wouldn’t know about or remember when they’re new. 

We try not to have too many touchpoints but enough that employees have a few people they are developing relationships with and a network of people they’re connected to.

Q: How have you been affected by the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting?”

We’ve grown through the pandemic, but we did experience the impact of the great resignation. I think it was about people craving change. We were stuck in our homes except for going out to the pharmacy, grocery and liquor stores. The only thing we could change was our jobs. People wanted to do something different.

I think quiet quitting is about burnout. Our Global CEO Gail Heimann summed it up brilliantly at an all-staff meeting, “Quiet quitting is not a trend, it’s a revolution. People who are quiet quitting are basically saying you can buy my work, but not me.” I think that is true and we’re going to see more of this as we go back. We must re-socialize and reform habits that used to be very normal. This is causing stress and anxiety for people. That’s why it’s so important to have a strong EAP program and mental health benefits.

Q: How are you approaching mental health and psychological safety at Weber Shandwick?

As soon as COVID hit, we put a task force together. We met every week, and wellness was one of the topics of focus.

Our leaders understood the importance of talking about wellness as much as possible. We provided a stipend so employees could purchase something fulfilling for their mind, body or soul. We talked about that a lot and reminded people to use it.

We started Mindful Mondays, where we met and meditated together, and everyone has a subscription to Headspace so they can meditate on their own.  I’m proud to share this program is still in place and well-attended today.

We discussed the EAP program and reaching out if help was needed. We tried to normalize that we were all going through something unprecedented and that we understood people were struggling. 

I shared my experience and talked to people about the days I struggled and called EAP. I think it is vital that people don’t feel alone, and this conversation is normalized. When I share this, people are less reticent to make the call. 

We offered employees a weekly wellness hour when they could disconnect and take time to have tea, read a book, or do whatever they wanted—that hour made people feel seen, and tapping out when necessary was restorative. 

We also discussed creating conscious barriers so they could disconnect and re-enter their home space.

If employees had COVID, I would encourage them to order dinner on the company to ensure they were nourished. We also didn’t rush people back to work. We are strong enough to support each other.

Q: What leader behaviours and actions do you think contribute to your connected, inclusive culture?

We listen. Our leaders invest time in people and engage in active listening. We take feedback and then respond with the full knowledge of what was said. It sounds simple, but people are often preparing an answer and not really listening to the other person.

There is a shared level of commitment to this across the organization. The practices live at all levels, not just senior leadership.

We have regular listening sessions that provide a forum for sharing. We are mindful of what different people are going through. One of our listening groups is our WeberParents. Parents were struggling through the pandemic. When something new happened, we would pull together in a listening session to see how they felt and how we might help them navigate. Sometimes we would activate, and other times we would just listen because that was all that was needed. So many people have said they really appreciated that. 

Our Canadian leadership team meets once a week. We talk about alignment, bring concerns forward and discuss what we will communicate to the team. 

We ask People Champions to focus on managing the work, supporting their team, and having regular one-on-one meetings. If someone on their team is struggling and needs more support, they are encouraged to enlist help from HR and a senior leader. We can help them navigate the situation. We do that for the benefit of the employee and our PCs. Many are new at managing, so we want them to know they have full support from leadership and HR when needed. 

Our Canadian CEO Greg Power guided us so carefully through COVID. He brought the team and task force together. It was so important to him to ensure that we were aligned. 

He says we have offices for a reason. Nothing replaces that in-person experience – the collaboration and connection when we are together. We want to use our office as it makes sense. We are working with our team to solve this. We’re listening. We know we need to provide great service to clients while considering employees' needs. We’re looking for balance and figuring out how we will do our best work together.

Q: At the Summit, you mentioned that you ask in employee surveys if people have a “best work friend.” Can you share some information about that?

This question comes from the Gallup Survey. We do a pulse check with six questions (mainly from Gallup) twice each year, and we ask this. The word ‘best’ is important. It must be ‘best’ because you get a stronger reaction. If you say ‘good,’ people will quickly answer yes. 

It’s important that people understand the sentiment of the question. It’s not about spending every working moment together. It’s that they feel someone at work has their back and they know they can turn to them for support. It tells you how connected your workforce is.

Last year, the rating for this question went up 20% between the spring and fall surveys. That tells me that we are doing something right. Seeing that rating go up means people have each other’s backs, feel connected and have someone they can turn to.

Our Great Places to Work score is also important to us. We are a heavily awarded agency, but this is award comes from our employees. We will not get the award if they don’t say we’re a Great Place to Work.

Get to know the author – Fresh Communications

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