How to maintain and improve employee engagement during the COVID-19 lockdown

I’m sharing a great example of how businesses can maintain or even improve employee engagement during the COVID-19 lockdown.  It comes from one of my CIPD Advanced candidates, Natasha Mackness, who had started her Level 7 Employee Engagement module before the lockdown began. Natasha is Executive Assistant to Ian Nicholas, formerly Chief HR Officer and now Global Managing Director of the recruitment giant REED.

Melanie Martin
Melanie Martin, Director, Watson Martin

When completing her module Natasha saw the opportunity to undertake further reading on the topic and integrate her findings with evidence from the workplace. This contributed to her top marks and increased her understanding of the impact of good employee engagement practices for the business. Whilst we are not able to share any of the actual video logs (vlogs), the table below providing the title of Ian’s vlogs and level of activity plus the comments in response, demonstrate that this approach to communication to the wider business, which is transparent and honest in difficult times has a positive impact on employee engagement.  What also impressed me was Natasha’s use of up-to-date referencing and her analysis of the impact of COVID-19 and REED’s response.

Many thanks to Natasha for allowing us to share this extract from her work.

COVID-19 taken from Employee Engagement Module Submission

At the time of writing, the world is facing unprecedented times with the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) with the UK entering its third week of lockdown.  The disease is putting a strain on everyone’s lives both socially and in the workplace, and Reed Specialist Recruitment (RSR), like thousands of other businesses are having to make tough decisions to protect the business during incredibly difficult trading times. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for business leaders to respond (D’Auria & De Smet, 2020) and naturally provokes feelings of fear, worry and uncertainty amongst employees.  During a crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimisation, or, self-actualisation and engagement (Harter, 2020). Gallup meta-analysis have found four universal needs that followers have of leaders:

  • Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope

Keeping employees engaged

Ian NicholasThese needs are especially urgent during crises to keep employees engaged and people look for these traits in their leaders as a signal that their life will be OK and that they can be part of the solution in their role with the organisation (Harter, 2020). In February 2020 (amidst the beginnings of the pandemic) RSR saw a change in senior leadership with former Chief HR Officer, Ian Nicholas, moving into the role of Global Managing Director.

Adopting core values

To adopt RSR’s core values of being fair, open and honest, Ian has chosen to communicate with all RSR Co-Members via regular Vlogs whereby he provides an update on the latest situation and encourages Co-Members to engage in the discussion.  Whilst many of his Vlogs have delivered tough news that directly impact our staff and our business, the transparent and empathetic nature of Ian’s communication style has resulted in Co-Members buying into the strategic decisions that RSR are having to make because they believe in him as a leader and have confidence in him to get us through this difficult time.  Interestingly, one of his recent Vlogs around driving net income and the importance of saying in communications with our Clients, Candidates and Customers saw sales activity increase by 20% in the two days following.  Supporting evidence 3 highlights the recent engagement statistics of his Vlogs, along with qualitative comments posted.

Dealing with change

In times of crisis, employers should be empathetic, understandable and flexible as workers try to navigate the unexpected changes to their lives (Kurter, 2020).  Over the past few weeks RSR has seen a rapid technological change with all Co-Members now working from home and have been provided with the IT equipment to enable them to engage effectively with their work, in addition to relaxing many of our HR policies and guidelines given that many Co-Members now have to provide home schooling for their children, or care for older or vulnerable family members.  As stated by Kurter (2020) productivity, morale and engagement can deteriorate quickly if employees grow resentful for employers not caring about what they’re going through.

Whilst we are not yet able to directly measure the impact engagement from our current strategic decisions is having, we trust it will encourage Co-Members to demonstrate their loyalty to RSR and strive to play their part in helping the business through this time.  Indeed, it is possible that RSRs approach to its Co-Members now, during unprecedented times, may strengthen the psychological contract between employee and employer.

As we have explored, Employee Engagement (EE) has been conceptualised in many different ways, however whichever concept employers adopt or relate too, they are all categorised as being a positive attribute that employers should seek to maximise. RSR has made an excellent start on implementing EE strategies, however there is more work to be done as the concept continues to evolve.  The initial recommendations for RSR (as outlined in the previous supporting evidence documents) should be looked into as a priority as now, more than ever, RSR needs committed and engaged employees.

Supporting Evidence to accompany text

Ian Nicholas Vlogs during COVID-19 – Employee Engagement Statistics

A sample of Ian’s Vlogs are listed below, captured 16/03/2020 – 27/03/2020, inclusive.

Vlog Name Video Plays Video Finishes Average % Watched TH Blog Views
Providing important info re Covid-19 1054 539 66 1097
An update on our response to Covid-19 1041 578 72 1257
Our response to school closures next week, & more 962 543 73 1040
The ‘team comes first’ 998 655 80 1016
Early morning Vlog on Tuesday 1681 956 75 1392
IMPORTANT cost saving measures across RSR 2280 1462 78 1732
Some positive news at the end of a tough week 1139 829 85 1034


As of 6th April 2020, Ian’s Vlogs were the highest played videos on TalentHub (internal communication / L&D platform).  Ian has been posting his Vlogs via his blog and our engagement stats show they have the highest view of any blog on TalentHub, ever. It is also worth noting that Ian’s Vlogs are also available on another Internal Communication platform called “Yammer”, however at present we do not have engagement statistics available for Yammer given the business is in the process of migrating over to Office365; where Yammer is hosted. We can, however, assume that the total number of views is indeed higher than the TalentHub statistics show alone given the second communication platform.

A sample of qualitative comments/emails left by Co-Members in response to the Vlogs:

“Congratulations on the new role, I am delighted to hear you will be leading the business. I have just seen your debut Vlog. Thank you for taking the time to do that. I know it’s been really well received, and it has calmed a few jitters that I know were worrying my team. Thank you.”

“I listened to your Vlog yesterday and once again thank you for being the face and voice of the Senior Team during these difficult times.  I find your updates immensely encouraging and supporting both mentally and emotionally, as many others do too. Having an honest leader has been serving as an enormous boost to my wellbeing during this challenging period!”

“Just wanted to drop over a quick note to say “thank you” for your honesty and transparency during these incredibly difficult times – regardless of the outcomes, people will genuinely still value how you have dealt with this as it is a completely different approach to what we’ve been used to, and it is so clear to see that you are a people-orientated leader that well and truly does put the “team first”.  Also, as much as I can only base this off of what I’ve been privy to and can only imagine how mentally and physically tasking all of this will be, my hat goes off to!  If there is anything the Co-Members of REED can do to support during this time, I am sure you will have everyone’s backing.”

“I wanted to drop you a line to say thanks for the vlogs – not easy messages to pass on and hearing them rather than reading on an email them does make a difference. Thanks, and best of luck as we all work through this.”

“Thank you for mentioning the staff banks on your vlog this afternoon, I have sent messages out to them as some of them don’t have audio on the NHS computers, but I know they will appreciate the thanks from you and James.  What a couple of weeks! I have been so impressed by so many this week.”

“Thank you for your support and transparency on all matters across the entire business Ian, the Vlogs are a great touch, and we all appreciate the hard work which you and the SLT are doing at the moment to protect our company and all Co-Members, where possible.”

“Thank you so much for the Vlogs – I think they have been so helpful for comms and keeping everyone fully informed from the top!”

© 2020 – Natasha Mackness.