By Celia Willis
Imagine you’re running a 5K, making the last turn with 100 meters to go until you can finally stop running and enjoy a post-race beverage.
Just before you start to pick up your pace for the final stretch and reach for the finish, someone stops you and says, “Sorry, we just decided to extend this race to a marathon. Keep running!”
You can’t see the finish line anymore and don’t even know if there is one.
The feelings you are experiencing — confusion, dread, despair — are the same many of us felt when we realized that COVID-19 was going to be more than just a brief detour in our normal routine.
It’s been a challenging year, and it may feel like the race has been extended indefinitely. Many of us find ourselves asking the same question: How do we keep a scattered workforce running that’s grappling with anxiety, fear and uncertainty? Anyone who tells you there’s a one-size-fits-all answer is probably about to try and get you to join their multilevel marketing scheme.
I’m not going to offer you an answer. Rather, I’m going to ask a question: How does your team feel? Answering that question is the first step toward answering the bigger question of how to keep your team moving forward in a race that has a moving finish line.
Talk with your team.
Most of my team at KWI here in Atlanta has been working remotely since late March. One of the first things we did in those early days was to talk directly to our employees.
Textbooks will tell you that “PR is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.”
Did you catch that? It’s a management function. That establishes and maintains relationships. In the face of such a tumultuous year, it’s more important than ever to prioritize what is arguably the most important public for any organization: its employees.
Just like we do with our clients, we took a community-focused approach to engaging our employees. That has resulted in a team that feels connected to our mission and one another. Through surveys, group chats or one-on-one discussions, we got to the core of how our team was feeling, what was on their minds and what we could do about it.
And then, we acted based on that feedback.
We gave our team transparent weekly updates about the health of our business. We created multiple virtual settings for our employees to get together for non-work purposes (including a virtual murder mystery lunch theater). We found opportunities for employees to work on new projects. We developed a virtual wellness program to help our team prioritize their own well-being.
And then, after a few months, we checked back in with our employees and adjusted. I’d never prescribe these exact tactics for another company – each organization is different and will require different actions and responses. These are just what have worked for us.
Make the time.
Here’s what I would recommend for every organization: Take time to hear directly from your team. That is the first and most important step. You cannot effectively engage or nurture your workforce community without first understanding where they’re coming from and what they need.
Our team is still engaged, and we work every day to keep it that way.
Seemingly insurmountable challenges are less daunting when you have a team supporting one another along the way. Will it be easy? Certainly not. But this I am sure of: We have a far better chance of success if we engage, care for and bring our employees along. They are, after all, our most important public.