Employee engagement during Covid-19
This know-how outlines why appointing an employee director and directors’ use of social media have particular relevance during COVID-19. These suggestions can no longer be described as radical. Companies have shown far greater agility because much more significant changes have been made as a result of COVID-19.
It is an ideal time for companies to find new ways to build closer relationships with their employees. Firstly, there is a lot to talk about. There may be advantages to temporary ways of working being made permanent, employees may be confused by the restrictions or feel more comfortable if they remain in place longer than is strictly necessary, or new business opportunities may have arisen as a result of COVID-19. Secondly, companies can show appreciation for the way employees have adapted by also demonstrating flexibility. Lastly, companies depend upon their employees having the resilience to keep going, but during COVID-19 employees may be feeling detached from their company and worried about their job security.
Accepting an employee onto the board is a proportionate response to these challenges. It signals a step-change in attitudes, and it is a public acknowledgement that employees are central to the company’s success both during the crisis and beyond. Employees will have more confidence in decisions made by boards during COVID-19 if a peer has contributed to the process. Directors’ use of social media also signals unity as it increases the chance of connecting with a critical mass of employees. Doing more on social media is a low-cost way to modernise, democratise and boost morale.
How employee directors add value
ICAEW has outlined five ways that employee directors add value. Many companies have already made significant changes as a result of the pandemic. Governance structures should not be immune from review as they may not be flexible enough to meet all of the current and future challenges caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has not created new barriers to appointing an employee director, in fact to the contrary, it has amplified the arguments in favour.
The decisions being made by boards during COVID-19 could have long-term implications but the timeframes for reaching decisions has shrunk. In this situation it is particularly important for company directors to take all opinions into account including the employee perspective. Current uncertainties mean that no single group has all the answers so collaboration is more important than ever.
ICAEW has devised an Action Plan for Boards. The first step is to get buy-in. Employees should be asked for their views on the practicalities of how to get an employee onto the board and what their role should be. We suggest that this consultation process commences simply by talking. A good place to start is to reiterate that the company wants its employees to feel excited about their contribution and employees want to work for a company which respects their opinions. There needs to be an acknowledgement that getting to this ideal situation requires effort and a willingness to take risks by everybody involved.
Our Action Plan also covers the key steps of finding the right people, explaining responsibilities and providing personal support to existing board members, employee directors and their line managers. There are a number of channels of engagement which employee directors can use to collate employees’ views. Ease of participation is key and that is why social media should be considered for non-confidential matters.
Why company directors should use social media
Restricting social media activity to CEOs and corporates is probably insufficient at any time, but it is certainly inadequate during COVID-19. What’s being said on social media about the company and its competitors during the crisis could have lasting reputational implications. Companies with a variety of spokespeople are more likely to land their messages with the biggest audiences and successfully maintain this momentum. These are some of the reasons why company directors should use social media.
Our thought leadership paper about why company directors should use social media sets out home truths about social media but it’s important to keep fears in perspective. Some of the perceived barriers to directors using social media are imaginary. Other barriers can be overcome if directors are sufficiently determined because they recognise the benefits for themselves, the companies they run and the employees of those companies.
Social media is ideal way for those who work for a company and who run the company to feel connected. Video conferencing has partially or completely replaced face-to-face contact for many employees and directors. However, the regularity of contact may have diminished since the crisis began. If individuals find virtual meetings impersonal they may start to feel isolated. The danger is that information flows are impeded.
Social media offers a solution. It is place where company directors can show empathy towards employees outside of the company’s formal systems. It is also a way for directors to receive direct feedback from employees. Social media is a particularly effective way to reach younger employees. It is also another way to try and connect with employees who are unlikely to speak up in physical or virtual meetings.
In due course COVID-19 will be regarded as an important historical event and so it is a perfect time for directors to make their mark by having the courage to do something different. Directors who take the plunge will enjoy personal and professional benefits. Directors with a social media presence are likely to be regarded as innovators and star performers in the board room.
ICAEW has provided a five point Action Plan which includes a recommendation to begin by establishing ground rules. We suggest that directors are mentored by a communications specialist from their company. Directors will need help deciding which social media platform is best for them. The ability to hold private one-to-one conversations is important. Directors may feel more comfortable starting with closed groups which employees can join. However, closed groups are just means to build directors’ confidence in the early stages. In order to enjoy the full benefits of social media directors must go public as soon as possible.
Reconsideration of employee engagement is a good starting place for a broader review of companies’ approach towards engagement with other stakeholder groups. What works with employees may have wider relevance, eg, other stakeholders may also be interested in hearing from company directors through social media. The advantages of trialling new approaches to engagement with employees is that they are an easily identifiable stakeholder group with a vested interest in the continued success of the company.