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TOE Podcast Ep. 7: Continuing Engagement & Workflows During A Pandemic

SVP, Global Head of Employee Experience at Manulife, Mike Dallas delves deep into what it was like navigating the workforce challenges during the trying times of the pandemic. He talks about the change in employee psyche and how they managed to continue engaging their employees, maintain a constant workflow over the last two years, and how new engagement trends and tactics implemented could lead to an efficient transition back to the new normal in 2022. 

Yash: Hey everyone, welcome to the Turn on Engagement Podcast; this is Yash Chitre and I am super excited to have a very special guest with me today. I’ve got Mike Dallas, who is the senior vice president of employee experience at Manulife Financial with me today and Mike is going to talk to us all about what happened over the past oh almost 2 years now hard to believe it’s coming up and two years since you know the world turned upside down and COVID-19 started and as you can imagine a company as big as Manulife Financial with several diversified operating units in North America, Asia, all over the world and how they reacted what they had to do, what they had to put into place How has that succeeded, what does that look like today, and in the future so Mike thanks for joining us.

Mike: Yash, Great to be here. Really looking forward to it.

Yash: Great, great. So take me back. What was it like in the early days of Covid 19 last year at Manulife. How did it start and what was that initial reaction like?

Mike: Yeah it’s really like most companies especially global. We had a little bit of an advantage, as you mentioned a strong Asian operation so we got some early indications as the pandemic was starting that we would have to pivot large portions of the workforce to home office. So we leaned into that pretty aggressively early on. What was interesting for us is we were really on the precipice of trying to drive the Microsoft teams space as more of an embedded part of our culture and we had a long roadmap of intended training and approach that would have been later than the pandemic timing would have suggested and we made the end moment decision to just go bold and turn that on for everybody everywhere and let people organically learn how to embrace a more video-based culture and so one of the main things we had done right away in the pandemic was to drive hard to Microsoft Teams space encourage video usage right away and that really helped our groups lean in. We also worked hard to see where we had inventory of  PCs, monitors for people who needed them. That was a bone of contention in the beginning but we really pivoted hard to home office and embracing the new tech as a first stop to get people working and just stabilized.

Yash: Right, right, and it’s interesting because you know I think tools like teams where there and companies had access to them but not everybody was using them or was comfortable you know going on video or using things like that so what was the employee experience like were they quick to adopt it you know did everyone want to turn the cameras on at home when you know interact in this sort of new normal?

Mike: It was interesting for us that we really wanted to lead from the top and make that a shared experience so we did press hard in the beginning for leaders to set that norm the cameras on regardless and embraced people having pets, and children and other things in the background and show the humanity, it’s one of our core values. So I think it really stood well for us and raised engagement, the experience of being in this uncertain time together and having the leaders show more humanity and vulnerability because they were experiencing it as well so from a corporate culture for us and that stood throughout the pandemic and it is embedded in elements where we are intending to drive as we mix the office space more into argo forward. It’s okay to be yourself at work and less shielded types of environment. So we went directly towards that and the change curve was very small. Most people resisted video in the pockets of teams use we were using before the pandemic so it really took that leadership showing up that way and making that the cultural norm. Another good byproduct we’ve had of that and we’ve got great feedback is people have really appreciated that it took some of the hierarchy out of meetings that everybody lands in a video way the same versus the normal seat at the table or order of who gets to speak so having the video on was important we also used some of the hands up feature and other normative behaviors whether you are a Zoom or a Teams or other, The video was important for us to kind of level the playing field for everybody.

Yash: That’s great and I love that you guys engineered it from the leadership, it was a top-down thing because I think leading by example obviously is not only very important but to your point shows authenticity right you know the dog coming in behind barking, you know maybe screaming kids because you know kids were all remote from school and   things last year and that just shows how everybody else in the company that look our leaders are authentic and the leaders can kind of get that across you know organically like I get it you know I am in the same boat as you and I’m trying to make sense of everything and juggle 1 million things at home and work and this is the new normal and it’s okay that that happens.

Mike: And it’s okay to lean in, that we were asking people to be productive in uncertain times so the other thing that it gave us and we are blending like many towards more hybrid work and we talked about flexibility and flexibility really meant you’ve got to find the space to work but we appreciate that you need the space to live in so we are not going to dictate the exact hours and we really opened up some of the apertures and norms that were a little bit different as people had to do homeschooling or other if you need a window in the day and we talked in our terms about working better and meeting better. We try to create bookends in the day where we really want you to not schedule regular meetings before 9 AM in the morning so that you can get the rhythm of your day going and we want you to block out the lunch hour and we want you to have these windows and in exchange, we know that you may have to pick up work at night or in different times so this working better, meeting better and having everybody experience it together has created a nice organic blend for us. But it does take some normative leadership as you described and what are the boundaries? That’s always something that we’re tinkering with and I think will be a challenge for all going forward is how do you blend the needs.

Yash: Sure, sure, yeah I think boundaries are a moving target, and you just kind of have to go with it as you go along and adjust. Given the different environments that are there. So once you’ve got everybody you know kind of engaged and technology is in place and people are getting comfortable with it in terms of just general employee engagement for all the things that Manulife does, providing the products and services that you do, were there special initiatives from the employee experience that you had to undertake? I know you guys do things like Fuel Up Fridays and things like that but special initiatives that you had to kind of rapidly put out maybe you are planning these you know pre-COVID but now just kind of had to get them to the front burner and fast forward them what types of things did you have to do?

Mike: Yeah, there’s a few things that I would like to highlight that maybe helpful for others is, well, we certainly were looking at the on boarding experience for new hires as a topic of interest pre-pandemic but we really had to lean in hard on how do you hire people in a pandemic virtual world and get them to start and know your culture and thrive without the typical experiential items so we worked very hard on creating virtual pathing for new employees that led us to think a lot about what matters to people and continually people were expressing challenge with the separation of time to think time to learn among all the things they’re doing so you mentioned a concept called Fuel Up Friday where we were giving people Friday as a designated day to split the day between learning initiatives and then the time to either do personal growth items outside of learning or take time off or meet with other colleagues virtually but we accelerated the virtual learning approaches from an experience perspective we wanted to give people time we created more capacity for people to tap into whether it’s LinkedIn learning or we created unique modules for how people were achieving different work tasks in a more virtual way. We worked hard leveraging some of the onboarding approaches we were taking to create more communities so if you think of diversity equity and inclusion and employee resource groups how do those thrive in a virtual way when a lot of that work historically was driven with people connecting in the office so a lot of our experience efforts were driven under this header of pursuit, learning and creating pathways for people to engage more virtually and we accelerated a lot both from creating time for people to do those things which scheduling and we talked briefly about boundaries making it okay for people to plan in their day to do learning activities and then certainly content that people were craving. It ranged in the beginning of the pandemic from you know just virtual experiences to go do team activities or take a virtual tour of things that people couldn’t do externally to more specific skill set learning.

Yash: Great ideas, I’m sure a lot of our audience will definitely benefit from maybe even trying some of these things because I think you had to get creative right and some of the stuff will stick and some of the stuff maybe won’t work but perhaps some of the things that you do did do now will just be part of the fabric of what you do in the future what you are going to continuously do next year and beyond so that way you’re prepared no matter what. I’m curious you know given now that we’re kind of we’ve been in you know the pandemic for a while and we’re kind of turning the corner even though the new variants are coming out and things like that there is a labor shortage and has that caused any kind of hiring or development challenges for you guys across the enterprise regardless abroad and things like that. How do you attract and retain the talent that you have right now as well?

Mike: So certainly the attraction, retention and having the right roster of people is a challenge in any environment in height now so like most we are seeing a need to be as creative as possible and environmentally it’s interesting and I bridge one of the things we were just indicating with a theme that I think has worked for us we created a camp Manulife which was a virtual event for summer camp for kids to give them something to do while their parents were working and in our ability to create this type of programming to allow the concept of people coming to work for a new company knowing that we embrace some of their broader life needs has been important but also when to stop certain programs because the pandemic conditions whether they’re flowing to endemic and it’s variants and it varies around the world are changing so we look at talent attraction, what are people expecting? They’re expecting some flexibility with work and so we’ve leaned in on this hybrid approach to our intended work as more of a perpetual and for us hybrid does include the office and having people know that going into the process and knowing what some of our boundaries and programmes have been and will be has been key for us, I think candidates are looking for clarity and I am a big believer that there are people for any job type and any company culture just don’t be confused on what your company culture is. And we’ve spent more time clarifying than we had before because we know it’s competitive for talent and the clarity has helped us retain our retention is actually quite strong at the moment but also to more quickly attract those are some of the things we’re thinking more diligently on than we used to when it comes to the ebb and flow of talent.

Yash: So what does the future look like specifically in terms of you know I know a lot of your company and a lot of companies are in the same boat now where everybody is remote but come January Q1 and next year, we want to start to get people back into the office, rotating hybrid teams and also what does the setup look like in the office now? There was this big scene pre-covid of you know get everybody out of you know individual siloed offices more collaborative working environments, now given social distancing, mask-wearing what is it going to look like inside your offices now?

Mike: It’s a great prompt Yash and like most, I think it will be a blend depending on the status of the pandemic and the endemic. We do intend to have office utilization, we are trying to rampen and have ramped successfully in parts of the world. When the pandemic conditions allow, we see a lot of that in Boston, in Canada and other places intending for January. We do expect the workspace to be fairly common to what it was. So still use cube space and open collaborative, the delta for us, I think, will really be in the bar that’s more the permanent bar is how do you truly make your space innovative and leverage development. So we think you do that more by scheduling so we’re intending to have common days in the office where we have much higher density because we think that will allow people to develop, collaborate, learn from each other. That means we are going to have to be creative on space utilization and distancing and other things that occur but we believe that the concept of flexible schedule and hybrid where you blend home and office still should be where the majority of your people in a working team or in the same condition at the same time. So let’s have more – if we have an on day where you are in the office, have more people there, or if it’s an off day in terms of offsite we think that the challenge will be people coming into mostly empty offices if that’s their designated day or being the one person who is not in the office who is remote you know the pre-pandemic conditions where people had challenges of the one person on the phone or others so for us we think the space will be physically fairly similar to what it was before. We need to create more meeting room space so probably less designated office space. Have people be flexible to come in and out but schedule it so that it’s common within a working team.

Yash: I see and I would imagine it’s going to be different for geographical locations. It might be looked different here in Boston than it does let’s say in Toronto or Asia where you have a big presence is well.

Mike: Yeah I’d say that certainly the Asia locations have been more comfortable with more mask wearing so the ability to have more people in space with less distance earlier has been something we’ve monitored and the ability to wear masks for a period of time but as you said certainly Boston and much of our Canadian space, you know the desire is to have as much time without mask in buildings as you can and so to have scheduled timing or flexibility to make those things happen in the conference room spacing and other is what we are looking at.

Yash: Right and in speaking of you know mask wearing and every company I think that I’ve spoken to has a different position on this but just in terms of mask requirements for mask wearing and also vaccine mandates right or weekly testing and having shown some sort of negative PCR test or a molecular test, rapid test before coming into the office. Is that going to be something of a requirement or some sort of you know initiative and you know will you be using technology to have people report that?

Mike: Yeah so we took the month of September to leverage Workday technology which is our core platform to have people declare their vaccination status. So the declaration was your vaccinated, you have a religious or medical exemption which we require proof for which was very few and or you’re unvaccinated. For people who are vaccinated, we have freedom of office movements and there is no additional testing that they need to do, if they contract Covid because we are fully aware that you can contract Covid while vaccinated. There is a specific protocol that we have enacted throughout the pandemic that applies to anybody who’s been exposed to Covid but for the unvaccinated, we track that as well, they’re fully welcome into our offices. There is a mask requirement that’s in addition to what an unvaccinated person, has to wear a mask whereas a vaccinated person does not have to wear a mask. We also require biweekly testing or at least once within a three-day period so again with the working flexible schedules, you may only work three consecutive days and would only need one test. We do allow rapid testing as one of the options for those. So again we did track, we do believe in vaccination, we had the overwhelming majority of employees above the typical averages in the locations we’ve seen who are vaccinated so that’s been helpful to us but we do embrace that that’s not a choice for everybody so we did not make it a condition of employment or a barrier to do jobs but we did add the testing element for those who did not receive the vaccination.

Yash: Okay, wow. So you guys have obviously thought this through, it’s very detailed and has lots of great ideas here that I think a lot of audiences are going to benefit from and speaking of all these great ideas. Lastly, I’d just like to ask you one of my favorite questions that I like to ask folks you know at your level that are doing the things that you are doing. Are there opportunities to connect some of the internal employee experience, the things that you are doing right now to your external brand at Manulife right? So that essentially your people are your brand and your customers eventually see that so they see the authenticity of your company, of your leadership, taking a role, of your happy-engaged workforce and then maybe then your customers look at that and evaluate that in their mind – hey you know what? This is a company I want to work with, these are good partners. Are there any good opportunities to see some of this come across in that external marketing maybe down the road?

Mike: We 100% believe that. Everything that you outlined in that there is actually a strong connection, our external approach to customers and to business is decisions made easier, lives made better. That’s related to our business and so we’ve actually amplified what we’ve been doing internally and sharing some of those elements in our external messaging and in some of our customer and business development initiatives. In particular on how we approach working better, how we’re approaching the development of people during this time of challenge. Where we are retaining productivity we think that definitely leads to better consistency of experience for our customers and so we have been showcasing some of those elements whether it’s our pursuit learning approach or Fuel up Friday but again our intention, we’ve been pretty transparent and I believe firmly that employee experience initiatives, how you live your brand in the work you do does show up and whether you intended to or not those of our employees and those listening who represent your brand externally share what is happening with them their customers ask well hey how’s it for you doing the pandemic what’s going on what’s your employer doing and so being upfront with some of those messages, living our brand that way through experience and blurring those lines of how to connect those messages, I absolutely Yash, think is impactful for the business and then further feeds into your employees sense of pride in their company or at least in our case in Manulife and it is a virtuous cycle so we absolutely believe that.

Yash: Yeah absolutely, I mean providing intrinsic motivation for employees do you know be engaged, feel like they have skin in the game, the company listens to them. I mean these are all things I think we all strive for you know as employee engagement and experience folks. So some really really great things I am hearing today and great ideas. So Mike I would just like to thank you so much for joining us today and offering all your expertise and these great ideas. I know a lot of our audience are members of SHRM and HRCI as well and what we’ll do is include your LinkedIn link in the description of this video so if you like to connect with Mike, we are all about connecting people and you know you want to chat about some stuff off-line peer to peer we would love to facilitate that and make that happen so definitely click on that and get in touch with Mike send him a message and keep the conversation going.

Mike: Great Yash, I really appreciate it and look forward to connecting with the group as you described.

Yash: Great, thanks so much and we will see you on the next podcast coming up, stay tuned. We’ve got some great folks lined up for January and February as well all around employee experience communications and engagements but thanks for joining us today. Thanks, Mike. Have a great day everyone.

Zainab Kapasi

A Marketing Manager at HubEngage, Zainab specializes in employee engagement and developing strategies and techniques to elevate the employee experience and work environment in order to subsequently improve productivity, quality of work, and ROI.

Marketing Manager & Editor, @Hubengage

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