Staying Agile and Putting Employees First to Navigate Turbulent Times

12/11/2020

Organisations have been put to the test in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a lot of businesses have been put in positions where they have had to make decisions they hoped to avoid. They have had to make choices that the future of that organisation’s survival rested upon. And the weight of those decisions means their employer brand is even more critical when mapping out the future of an organisation.

Fortunately, the impact has been less severe on employment in New Zealand thus far, compared to other developed economies, however, we are not out of the woods yet as we prepare for further economic disruptions. Our research, The Impact of COVID-19 on Workers and Organisations, highlighted a shift in what employees value in a job, as job security becomes paramount, overtaking salary and benefits.  

Although businesses have been impacted differently by the pandemic, many employers believe the experience of lockdown has provided a catalyst for developing more agility and productive ways of working.

Chorus is an example of a business that has been able to transition quickly to deal with the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in a way that put its employees' health and safety first.

Within a matter of weeks Chorus had its 850 employees across the country working from home, and it equipped them with the right tools so they were able to maintain productivity.

In addition, the company has about 3000 subcontractors across the country, and during the level four lockdown a lot of their work came to a halt as non-essential field activities had to be stopped.

“During level four, our subcontractors, unfortunately did not have a steady stream of work,” Chorus People and Culture General Manager Shaun Philp says. “Whilst they’re subcontracting for us, we chose to provide $5 million of financial support to the service companies, so they could pay the subcontractors on top of the wage subsidy, giving them a level of income while they were unable to work.”

Chorus also set up a relief fund for retail service providers who needed help to alleviate the impact of customers who could not afford to pay their bills.

Despite Chorus being ready to adapt to the COVID restrictions, Mr Philp says there is only so much you can do to prepare for a crisis. “Throughout the crisis, we needed to make sure we had the right people making the right decisions at the right time. Because our crisis plan only accounted for a certain amount of what could potentially playout, we needed to respond quickly. So, while we had a plan, we needed to be nimble, quick and responsive enough to adjust, experiment and learn from decisions that we were making in quick succession.”

To support its staff and keep COVID-19 out of its workforce, Chorus introduced a MyStatus tracker. Everyone in the organisation was asked to answer three questions a day to track their health and wellbeing and to update the business on any changes to the support structure they had around them. This allowed the company to support its employees if they were unwell or struggling, and enabled the business to monitor any likelihood of COVID-19 in the workforce.

Chorus also introduced special leave for its employees during lockdown so they did not have to burn through their annual leave or sick days. “With 850 people working from home, and the vast majority with some sort of responsibility associated with caregiving or home-schooling, we gave staff an additional 10 days of special leave. This allowed them to balance work and family responsibilities without feeling disadvantaged,” Mr Philp says.

The company also proactively looked for ways it could support the mental health and wellbeing of its team and created a partnership with Sir John Kirwan’s Mentemia programme. Mr Philp say this became a regular platform for the company’s CEO, JB Rousselot, and Sir John Kirwan to speak to the organisation.

Chorus also introduced additional communications channels, which included Mr Rousselot recording a weekly video message from his home.

The work Chorus put towards assisting its employees was noticed and reflected in the results of its engagement surveys. Each month its positive results continued to grow which illustrated considerate feedback from employees.

“We’ve done a lot of work to maintain engagement throughout a tricky time,” Mr Philp says. “We are very proud of the work that we’ve done.”

When it was safe to do so, Chorus reopened its offices to employees, taking measures to alleviate anxiety as people emerged from lockdown. With social distancing requirements it couldn’t bring everyone back at once, so this set the path forward for its hybrid workplace. On any day there was a portion of employees in the office and the rest working from home as part of the company’s flexible work policy. The policy also extends to flexible start and finishing hours, encouraging employees to work in a way that suits the work they are doing.

“What we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic is that the old-fashioned notion that employers need to see employees to prove productivity has been dismissed,” Mr Philp says. “At Chorus, we have certainly proven that our workforce can work flexibly without hindering productivity.”

“Teams are asked to look at individual needs, the business and the customer to understand whether it would be more beneficial to work from home, or to work in the office because some tasks are still best served face to face,” he says.

“At any one time in our organisation, a third of the business is working from home, but the remainder are choosing to be in the office because they know it’s beneficial to their work.”

Before the pandemic began, Chorus worked with Randstad to diagnose its employee value proposition and to help gauge how attractive Chorus is as a place to work. The process identified opportunities for Chorus to look at ways it could present itself to the market, and ultimately how to connect with people who are considering working for Chorus.

“One of the things that came up in that whole process was the importance of flexibility and the support an organisation can offer to help its employees achieve a great work-life balance,” Mr Philp says. “Little did we know how important flexibility would become. Flexible working isn’t new to Chorus and we had a policy in place prior to the pandemic but that has now become front and centre. Randstad has helped us identify those critical elements employees value.”

Despite the obstacles the pandemic put in front of Chorus, the organisation never lost focus of how it looks after its employees, prioritising their health and wellbeing with every decision they made. As a result, it has heightened its employer brand, as proven from its employee engagement survey, and it has positioned itself to be able to continue to work productively in this ‘new normal’ that 2020 has sprung on us all.