How to keep your employees happy during lockdown 2

Case study: Ella's Kitchen HR director Catherine Allen shares her top tips on virtual employee engagement from the last lockdown.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 02 Nov 2020

In the countryside just outside Henley-on-Thames sits Ella’s Kitchen HQ, a barn where being childlike is a core value. 

As a producer of baby food, seeing things through the eyes of a child is key to creating new products, and Ella’s Kitchen places huge importance on having fun and being spirited at work.

“But we relied on face to face for our laughter and fun,” says Catherine Allen, Ella's Kitchen's HR director - or "head of keeping people happy".

Speaking at Management Today's Leading in the Hybrid Workplace virtual conference, Allen recalled the simpler times before the words COVID-19, pandemic and furlough became a part of our regular vocabulary.

Pre-COVID, Ella's Kitchen ran weekly catered lunches, lots of fancy dress events, monthly get-togethers, weekly yoga sessions and quizzes at the barn. So once the novelty of working from home wore off in March, Allen had to figure out how Ella’s Kitchen could make the new distributed workplace a happy one for its employees.

Pull people together

Like many companies, Ella’s Kitchen had employees who were living in solitude and struggling with loneliness, couples in the process of splitting up having to live together or rushing in to move in together after just a few months of dating, and families grappling with homeschooling.

As we look ahead to renewed lockdown conditions in the UK, Allen believes it's crucial to create clear boundaries as to what the employer can and can't do, “not being the rescuer but giving people the tools and support to help themselves in their personal life”.

For example, setting up support groups for parents and people living on their own - because not everyone living on their own knows who else lives on their own - enabled employees to connect to others in similar situations and share advice without intrusion from HR. 

Assure your team that (realistic) output supersedes hours

At Ella’s Kitchen, 50 per cent of the team are parents, and 75 per cent of them are mothers, so homeschooling was a key challenge - especially as Allen found that mothers were taking far more of the burden than their partners. 

“I kept hearing ‘this is just relentless’, going from homeschooling, to work with a little bit of sleep in between,” she says while adding that statistically, reports show that a mother receives one hour of interrupted work for a father's three hours. 

To reassure colleagues who would understandably be working fewer hours while juggling parental or other responsibilities, Allen told all staff that they would be paid in full regardless of the hours they work.

She adds: “This took away a lot of insecure feelings around pay and lots of honest conversations about what was realistic and what work pattern would suit each individual.”

Focus on employee mental wellbeing 

In a physical workspace the leadership team would wander around the barn, taking employees off for walks and talking about how they were. But opening up and having vulnerable conversations where you’d normally give someone a hug doesn’t work so well on Teams or Zoom.

Despite already having mental health first aiders at Ella’s Kitchen, Allen says “we really amped up that role and made sure people understood what the role was about”, while also starting a newsletter which explored people’s honest experiences of lockdown. 

“By making ourselves vulnerable, it made other people much more comfortable to come forward and talk to us,” she says. For those who still didn’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health with someone at work, they had an employee assistance hotline and bereavement hotline in place, and also paid for individuals who felt talking therapy would be useful.

The company also kept on with a wellbeing calendar - a mixture of events focused around wellness like yoga, water colour painting, gardening and sleep workshops - with a shift to attending these sessions online instead of in real life. 

“One thing about the calendar is it’s not massively expensive, so it’s something that most organisations could set up,” Allen advises.

Organise ‘water-cooler’ moments 

At the start of the lockdown, Allen was spending 20 minutes a day catching up with her team over a cuppa. While the frequency of those meetings has gone down to two times a week, its importance hasn’t diminished.

"That time you get up from your desk is really important," Allen says, adding that she’s also put in place "organised water cooler moments", where she calls four employees outside of meetings to catch up, weekly. 

Ella's Kitchen is also bringing back its weekly lunches which have been given a virtual makeover with speakers added into the mix and chat room breaks, “so that people can chat with others they’ve not seen all week”.

Moreover, not spending money on team entertainment has meant there is a new budget for “random team treats”.

“We did things like send cakes in the post and then have a tea and cakes meeting. The leadership team did a gin night, there were others doing cheese and wine evenings,” Allen adds.

Communication is key

Ella’s Kitchen has been having a company-wide weekly catch up to keep employees in the loop around reopening the office. Allen admits that while it was initially “because they thought the lockdown might last a few weeks”, now it's one of the ways they celebrate success. 

“It’s so easy to focus on the negatives and not draw out the good stuff when you can’t overhear conversations about positives. So we have a spot to talk specifically about wins,” she says.

And communication must be a two-way street. In this unprecedented situation, employers need feedback from their employees in order to better support them and make them happy.

“We did a lot of discussions with people on what we can do to help more. We are not the experts... I’ve definitely learnt a lot more in the last seven months than 30 years in HR, in some ways."

Image credit: halock via Getty Images

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