Emergence of ‘Employee care’: Productive engaging in pandemic times

Tuesday, 21 September 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Employee care involves the trust, respect, and wellbeing, spearheaded by the leadership so that there are principles and practices showcasing the idea in action


With the continuation of the lockdown and the country still being in the ‘red’ zone, the combatting of COVID-19 is going through a crucial stage. As many have mentioned, the maintaining of essential services and to ensure the health and wellbeing of employees have become increasingly essential. Employee care comes to the forefront as never before in such a context. 


“It really breaks my heart to see the impact this pandemic is having across people’s lives and businesses around the world,” laments Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame. I still remember his inspiring way of declaring, “Staff first, customers second and shareholders third”. It is not shirking the responsibilities of a corporate towards its stakeholders but prioritising the vital need of the hour. “When this crisis passes, as it eventually will, the world will be very different to the one we are used to,” he further states. “I know we will come out stronger and kinder to each other as a result. Thanks so much once again to all of you, you continue to inspire me every day.” 

It is not only Sir Richard Branson, but a multitude of leaders worldwide have demonstrated employee care during the crucial pandemic times. Vineet Nayar, heading the HCL Technologies (HCLT), an ICT giant, has also preached and practiced the employee care towards excellence. As BusinessWeek states, Nayar’s simple yet significant initiative of ‘employee first’ has ignited a revolution in making HCLT one of the 20 most influential organisations of the world. 

Convincing support for such an approach comes from several fronts. A recent McKinsey study tells us that “organisations that have been building social capital during earlier phases of the crisis will be in better positions than others as the workforce transitions to the return phase”. As the report further advocates to build on the trust and affiliation you have earned by continuing to be present, action-oriented, empathetic, and fully transparent. 

Essence of employee care 

We cannot think of enterprise results without employees. Engaged employees make the difference as the engine of the enterprise that they are working for. Employee care involves the trust, respect, and wellbeing, spearheaded by the leadership so that there are principles and practices showcasing the idea in action. 

Soyars and Brusino, researchers of organisational behaviour, report an employee engagement story of Morrison, a multinational which provides food, nutrition, and dining services to the healthcare and senior living markets, employs more than 14,000 employees in more than 450 locations. According to them, the company is guided by a mission statement called ‘The Morrison Way,’ which focuses on five core values—trust, team, customer focus, learning, and profit. It represents Morrison’s culture in which people are the driving force. 

One of the ways Morrison fosters connections at work is through a program called CHAT (Communication, Help, And Training). CHAT is a monthly meeting that covers anything from safety to well-being. Because the topics of these meetings transcend the workplace, they offer managers and employees the opportunity to discuss issues on a more personal level, allowing them to develop a richer relationship. 

In addition to CHAT, Morrison uses a format of daily meetings that keep employees current on events in the workplace and reinforce key messages of service and training. According to them, Morrison also provides learning opportunities through stretch assignments and encourages growth through yearly reviews and a development plan for every employee.

Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, who oversees the company’s strategic direction is another strong advocate of employee care. He wrote to Harvard Business Review, highlighting that the future of work (and care) is flexible. As he predicts, hybrid work models are anticipated to proliferate in years to come. “One thing became very clear, very quickly, the undeniable interconnectedness of work and life. We all felt it acutely. Aspects of society and business that were long overdue for a change were now laid bare. We have a broken care infrastructure. Support for mental health is insufficient. And so many of us are entangled in demanding and inflexible workplace cultures that create burnout. Just to name a few.” These thoughts aptly point to the need for better employee care. 

Employee care in action 

We can meaningfully adapt what Seijts and Crim, two researchers of organisational behaviour termed as ‘ten Cs for employee engagement’, in the context of the present pandemic disruption. The key focus in each C can further be expanded into possible initiatives in COVID-19 era. Let’s discuss the details with local realities in mind. 

1. Connect

Leaders must show that they value employees. Recent letters addressed to the employees by several corporate leaders in Sri Lanka is a case in point. This can be further enhanced by maintaining open channels so that employees can approach their superiors to discuss matters in a mutually beneficial manner. People professionals should be conscious of the fact that disconnect leads to disengagement, with dire consequences. 

2. Career

Leaders should provide challenging and meaningful work with opportunities for career advancement. It may involve re-skilling, up-skilling, or multi-skilling as my panelist colleagues in the webinar highlighted. It will be very challenging in the post-Covid19 where employee aspirations and employer reality might mismatch. New modes of learning with more technology involvement will be the order of the day. 

The current wisdom suggests us to show employees the way forward in terms of career advancements and options, in motivating them to perform in exceeding expectations. As one leading multinational claim, “We do not offer jobs, but careers, the careers that brand them for life”. In transitioning to a post-COVID-19 economy, this might be more of a project-based or contract-based path with results-based remuneration. 

3. Clarity

There could be a great deal of confusion created among an insecure workforce. People professionals must communicate, communicate, and communicate, as our webinar emphasised. A clear vision, inclusive of employee wellbeing should be shared and supported. This includes building an awareness on strategic priorities among the employees, in ensuring that they are clear about why they are doing what they do. People professionals should ensure that employees are aware of the challenging side of the business that they are in, and to avoid unrealistic expectations. 

4. Convey

Leaders should clarify their expectations about employees and provide feedback on their functioning in the organisation. Perform or perish should be the slogan in the post-Covid19 era. People professionals should develop productivity enhancement schemes which are transparent and equitable. 

This also involves ensuring proper conduct of the performance appraisals by training the managers as to how to give constructive feedback objectively. It will be very challenging to tolerate under-performers and as such being proactive in setting high expectation at the outset is what is required. 

5. Congratulate

Leaders give recognition to others. Exceptional leaders do so a lot. Appreciating of good performance of employees by reward and recognition, in a timely fashion is something essential. 

Gone are the days of “employee of the year” or “employee of the quarter” or even “employee of the month”. What matters is giving due recognition to the “employee of the moment”. People professionals should develop cost-effective recognition schemes so that employees see they are being valued despite the economic challenges their organisation is going through. 

6. Contribute

Leaders should make sure that employees know how their contribution matters. This can be done by introducing a transparent mechanism of objective setting and then connecting individual objectives to broad organisational objectives. Tested and proven mechanisms such as Balanced Scorecard can be handy in this respect. People professionals need to reinvent the conventional systems so that irrespective of whether work at office or work from home, the contribution of an employee is traced, tracked, and taken care of. 

7. Control

Leaders need to set the boundaries with the buy-in of the employees. This involves setting the boundaries of activities with proper systems in place with the involvement of employees, so that they are a part of the decision-making process. Modern day control is more viewed as a way of ensuring consistency through conformance, as opposed to coercive courses of action. Stringent controls on wastage are essential in cash-strapped conditions, where people professionals must design and deliver learning initiatives to ensure proper controls are consciously being adhered to. 

 8. Collaborate

As it was the case often, great leaders are team builders. They create an environment that fosters trust and collaboration. By doing so, they ensure that teamwork is given due prominence with associated mechanisms such as team-based rewards to strengthen it. Such teams can either physical or virtual in the post-COVID-19 era. People professionals should promote collaboration with the message that economic challenges should not hamper team spirit. 

9. Credibility

Leaders should strive to maintain organisational reputation and demonstrate high ethical standards. They should demonstrate being ethical in decision making, so that employees will strengthen their admiration of the organisation. Credibility can be compared to a glass tumbler. Once it is cracked, it is irreparable. This will be truly tested in a post-COVID-19 era where people professionals must tread carefully. Even in the case of layoffs as a last resort, doing it in the most humane manner might become a huge challenge. 

10. Confidence

Good leaders help create confidence in a company by being exemplars of high-performance standards. It involves practicing “walking the talk” at all levels so that employees have better trust and confidence on their superiors. That has far-reaching consequences, including better relationships and higher results. This is a key aspect in the post-COVID-19 era where employees must be given the assurance of survival through performance. Possible increment suppressions for senior executives already seen in some large conglomerated is a case in point. Yet, it will be more challenging in the SMEs that contributes to 52% to the Sri Lankan economy.

Way forward

“Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled,” observes Anne M. Mulcahy, who turned around Xerox, primarily through employee care initiatives. As many leaders have proven in their workplaces, satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability. Amidst a ravaging pandemic, employee care emerges as a sure-fire way of harnessing the potential of people for innovative thinking, non-conventional approaches, and fresh initiatives. 

(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri, former Director of Postgraduate Institute of Management, can be reached through ajantha@pim.sjp.ac.lk, ajantha@ou.edu or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)


Recent columns