The wellbeing of staff directly impacts the productivity of an organisation, and supporting staff became even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees were forced to work from home, and managers had to swiftly learn how to direct and support their teams outside an office environment, so they were not isolated.
The impact of COVID-19 has paid a toll on the New Zealand economy, and as the country braces for further economic disruption, it is vital for employers to continue to support their workers. Our research, The Impact of COVID-19 on Workers and Organisations, found 52% of workers felt their organisations supported their emotional wellbeing during the pandemic.
Vector is an example of an organisation who ensured its workers had the support they needed during the pandemic. The majority of Vector’s business is an essential service so the responsibility the company has to its customers is paramount. Early on it set up a confidential helpline for employees to seek support and advice from the organisation. But it went a step further and established ‘Care Calls’ to make sure it was looking after everyone, not just those who called the helpline.
Every two weeks Vector called each person and checked in to see how they were doing. Those who had declared health risks or were more vulnerable were contacted at least once a week.
“Care Calls were one of our proud standouts, in terms of our responses,” Vector Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Sarah Williams says.
With employees spread out across the country and in Australia, Vector provided regular communication to ensure everyone was connected and up-to-date with what was happening in the organisation. Vector’s CEO Simon Mackenzie shared weekly videos and the executives interviewed each other on video sharing their experiences and coping mechanisms plus their ‘go-to’ books and Netflix shows.
“We have a regular email called ‘FYI’ to keep people up-to-date with what’s going on. We also realised quite quickly we had to bring some lighter moments to the day, so we’d have competitions and we would share funny memes that were going around, just to lighten this very unusual and intense time for people, while giving them the information they needed,” Ms Williams says.
Vector also set up a COVID-19 tab on its internal website as a one-stop-shop for all the information that was being circulated. “We had a FAQs page because staff had a lot of questions, such as payments, support and the mechanisms we had in place,” Vector Group Manager Teams and Talent Paul McCloskey says. “HR worked through all those questions and responded with the answers employees needed.”
To create clarity about COVID-19, and deal with any misinformation about the virus in the community, Vector commissioned Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles to create myth-busting videos as a tool for Vector employees as well as Vector’s field crews. This helped them understand what was known about COVID-19, which ensured they were able to work safely from home or in the community throughout all alert levels.
Preparing for a pandemic
Vector was quick to react to the early signs of a pandemic and started to create a roadmap to move its office-based workforce home, which meant it was prepared and able to equip managers and employees with the tools they needed to work remotely.
“Early on, the digital team went out and procured a deal with suppliers for home office kits, monitors, keyboards, connections to laptops and that sort of thing,” Mr McCloskey says. “We’re quite lucky that most of our employees had laptops and they were easy to set up in the home environment. It was a positive step in the right direction. So, from very early on, we were ready to go and the disruption to the business was quite minimal.”
The work Vector put into supporting the wellbeing of its employees came through in its engagement surveys. During the middle of the first lockdown, Vector wanted to gauge whether it was providing enough communication support, or too much, and it had a high response rate from that survey, Ms Williams says.
“We did a second one towards the end of the first lockdown around productivity while working from home. One of the things we need to consider longer term is how we want to shape our business and how we want to think about ways of working. We had an incredibly high response rate and engagement for that too,” she says.
Instead of waiting for a survey to act, the regular Care Calls flagged any concerns employees had, which meant Vector could respond and provide extra support, Mr McCloskey says.
Despite its office-based teams working from home, and Vector’s field employees practising social distancing, the organisation had to take the necessary steps to ensure the network remained online. It had to create a strategy to run its Electricity Operations Centre, which manages the Auckland electricity network from its Newmarket office.
“Our control room operators are critical workers, and we were very aware of our responsibility as a lifeline utility,” Ms Williams says. “It’s not a skill set that you can quickly acquire, quickly train or buy in. So, it was hugely important to protect that team, which was part of the reason why we all worked from home a lot sooner than other companies.”
Vector set up three control rooms, and split those teams into three, so if there was an infection in one team, the other two were protected.
Vector’s foresight in preparing for the pandemic early allowed the organisation to protect the health and safety of its workforce, while maintaining the integrity and reliability of the essential services it provides. It set up a Pandemic Response Team in January to generate a specific plan around what a pandemic in New Zealand would mean for Vector and its customers.
“We moved early to restrict and then ban travel. First, we stopped any international travel, and then all domestic travel was halted in February. We also started rolling out working from home trials a lot earlier than most companies and went into voluntary lockdown early too,” Ms Williams says.
A major milestone as a result of Vector’s efforts is that it has been able to maintain its employees on their full salary. Additionally, no one was required to take leave or reduce their hours.
“Everything we did was designed to look after our people, which enabled us to look after our customers and keep the essential services that we provide running during a time of incredible stress for New Zealanders,” Ms Williams concluded.