Turning isolation from colleagues into insight

Turning isolation from colleagues into insight
By Matt Ede
Apr 9, 2020
Navigating employee engagement, morale, and attrition in a work-from-home world

COVID-19 is the greatest galvanizing force we have seen since the financial crisis. In many respects, we are experiencing the very essence of great people engagement: establish a common cause (flatten the curve), root it in purpose (keep people safe, take the pressure off hospitals), create shared ownership (stay-at-home), create participation (stay 2m/6ft. apart), model good behavior (giving, creating, sharing, supporting), and connect through shared moments (clap for solidarity).

Organizations can learn a lot. How organizations begin to manage the isolation of their employees can spark new thinking about their future experience. 

Many articles are nodding to a post-COVID future that might look totally different from what came before. Will employees return to their offices? Will company cultures exist like before? Do we need this number of employees? Do we even need offices? These are topics organizations will no doubt be wrestling with in plotting their recovery.

While the work environment has truly changed (as have some of our technologies and habits), the reality is that organizational systems, rituals, and leadership structures remain as they were. In fact, these foundations have been critical in maintaining as much continuity as possible. Stability in a time of chaos has been the aim.

Many organizations will see “recovery” as returning to what was. But the organizations that see recovery as a reason to adjust, to accelerate, to reconnect, and to reset will likely be those that best navigate the chaos. To do that, these organizations will see this as a time to strengthen their connection to people and embrace what’s to come.

Now is the time to learn

It’s never been more important for your workforce to feel closer to you. People-centric cultures are faring better than production-based ones, and organizations have the unique opportunity to be learning right now about employees and how they behave.

Gaining the right insights now will help organizations to reconcile:

  • The best of what was there before.
  • The current reality of what employees truly desire and are motivated by.
  • The future direction the organization will need to adapt post-COVID.

Designing the mechanisms that will help you to capture these insights is your first step. Questions to ask yourself as a company include: What are you learning about your workforce right now? What attitudes are forming? What do they believe to be true about the organization and the way it has responded? How do they feel about work? What has been positive? What is challenging?

Employee observations

From conversations with clients, we’re seeing many emerging consistencies in their employees' behavior.

They are motivated by the scenario: Employees are balancing personal isolation with a sense of citizenship and solidarity as everyone in the business and beyond moves through the same experience.

Their social norms have changed: New ways of communicating are being adopted rapidly; the rhythm at which we connect as a workforce has changed.

The medium-term outlook is on pause: The workforce is feeling less connected to long-term organizational purpose and growth at work, instead focusing on short-term survival and what matters most right now.

Their sense of inequity is heightened: Employees are reflecting on their job security and are acutely aware of friends and colleagues in better or worse positions—within and beyond your organization.

Their motivation and morale are challenged: Employees are adapting to a higher level of self-motivation and some are lacking the energy of others in collaborative team environments.

They are shifting their comfort zones: Employees have been forced to adapt to new and potentially uncomfortable working environments without choice or preparation; others are embracing it.

They are more conscious of how they want to work: Office environments tend to be designed for those with higher extroversion, and the current virtual environment naturally benefits those with introvert characteristics.

A shift towards individualism

As we move through the first two phases of this crisis, we become more aware of the impact and influence that external factors have on the way we think, feel, and act.

For some, a new way of living and working is welcome as they spend more time with their families, repurpose commuting time, take up a new hobby, and learn to connect in new and sometimes more practical ways. This is a positive experience for them, despite the obvious social consequences of COVID-19. For others, this environment feels alien and uncomfortable.

According to this article by the CEO of Increase Media, humans are profoundly social and most of us are constantly surrounded by people. Isolation can create a sense of loss that is only compounded as the economic situation deepens.

As our circumstances change, the external factors that influence our mindsets, habits, and behaviors will become more individual and less predictable.

Shaping your recovery

So how do we approach recovery? Learning from crises of the past and what we know about employee experience design, there are a number of places to start:

Focus on the how.

Emotions are the driver of our decision-making process. Set out how you want the experience of the crisis to feel for people—what matters to you and your culture. Identify experience principles and then align to those in the way you engage people.

Collect insights weekly.

Using a range of qualitative and quantitative techniques, listen to your colleagues and gain an understanding of their sentiment, feelings, attitudes, and behavior. Observe as well as ask.

Create participation.

We define participation as the elements of choice, immersive engagement, and meaningful interaction that lead to long-term retention and advocacy. Create meaningful, shared moments for the organization to connect around—and deliver them virtually.

Plan your segue.

Employees need to feel a sense of belonging and purpose if they are to make a meaningful contribution. Fighting COVID is the new purpose. It will need replacing in an authentic, personal way when it’s gone. This is where your purpose or vision needs to take over. Make it compelling.

Equip managers.

People managers have become more important in driving the morale and engagement of the workforce, but many don’t know how. Virtual toolkits and support aides can help to educate managers and drive effectiveness.

Rethink what matters.

Many organizations will be asking serious questions about how they survive and respond to the impact of COVID. Employees will expect big thinking from leaders; make this an open conversation you’re willing to share.

Reconsider your employee experience.

Use your insights to proactively design the employee experience that you will implement as you emerge from the crisis. Engage employees now with your thinking.

Globally, we are broadly through the panic and disruption phase (except Latin America and perhaps Africa, which seem to be a few weeks behind). Crisis playbooks are in place, continuity is underway, and we are adapting.  

While the strategy has been about reaction, now is the time for proactivity. Fear and isolation can be overcome through forward thinking—by HR, communication, and business leaders strengthening the connection with employees. Keep talking. Keep listening. And be prepared to rethink the ”new normal.”


ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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  1. Matt Ede

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