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Lastminute: how to build a virtual engagement strategy

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Two weeks ago, we had the pleasure of interviewing valued friend and people expert Stuart Bagnell, chief of culture at Lastminute.com.

With ten offices globally, headquarters on the Swiss-Italian border and firm roots in the travel industry, it has, unsurprisingly, been a challenging period for the business. However, their incredible think-pink attitude has been reflected in the decision-making process, and the approach to this situation is a real testament to Lastminute.com’s family culture and values.

Aside from being the proud owner of the best job title out there, Stuart is responsible for everything culture; from corporate communications and learning and development, to people policies and employee engagement.

During our discussion, it became clear that building a virtual engagement strategy right now isn’t just important – it’s imperative.

Here are just a handful of the things you can consider:

Purpose

To survive this period, Covid-19 has forced companies to re-evaluate their strategy, restructure teams and ultimately reprioritise what is essential and what is not. Having a clear sense of purpose is vital to achieving successful virtual engagement.

At Lastminute.com, supporting customers has become everyone’s main priority. They’ve had to reset focus to ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal: helping the customers who have paid for holidays they can no longer go on. Every division in the company has pooled together to help the customer service team and join in where they can.

Bagnell explains: “It’s about understanding what the priorities are and giving people a clear sense of purpose. We’ve looked at the company objectives and key results and we’ve had to revise them and reprioritise – and we will continue to do this as we adapt to the circumstances. There are teams which can be working towards the goal and obviously the ones who can’t have been temporarily furloughed.”

It’s so important to communicate new business priorities openly. Honesty fosters a culture of transparency and trust, and will encourage everyone to get on the same virtual bus and move in the right direction.

At Wiser, our focus right now is purpose, performance, progression. We’ve had to diversify our offering, restructure teams and, in some instances, wear hats that we haven’t worn before.

Our recruitment team leads have temporarily moved into the sales team, our new Ppeople & performance director, CJ, is leading weekly webinars (and doing an excellent job at it!) and our sales team (myself included) have started recording podcasts, carrying out interviews for content purposes and writing articles like this one.

This transition has been smooth, largely due to the fact that the leadership team has communicated with everyone transparently and consistently. They have outlined the new business priorities and subsequently increased engagement as we all work towards a common goal.

Recognition and appreciation

Recognition should be at the top of any employer brand agenda. However, it’s often overlooked and it’s easy to prioritise other areas, especially in the current climate. Where previously this might have happened organically during a meeting or at the desks in front of colleagues, now that we’re all working remotely, there’s an element to which this needs to be more thought-through.

It’s widely acknowledged that recognising and giving appreciation to an employee is very motivating, provides a sense of accomplishment and makes individuals feel valued for their work. A simple ‘well done to...’ or ‘this person has gone above and beyond today...’ can make a real difference, especially when you consider that quite a lot of people are isolating alone right now.

Bagnell tells us how at Lastminute.com they use their values (’Live Bold, Be Yourself and Own It’) to reward and recognise the actions of their employees:

“We usually recognise good work and behaviours during our ‘All Hands’ meetings – it’s always nice when it comes from the chief executive officer. Then, managers utilise Workplace communities to recognise people and teams. We also have a high five programme built into our performance management process, which is great when doing check ins and reviews.”

This is a really powerful and organic way to recognise and appreciate the actions of your employees whilst also making sure that it falls in line with your brand.

At Wiser, once a week the most positive email lands in our inbox - the ‘Friday Update’.

Put together by our culture council and design queen Meg, it’s a review of all things concerning Wiser; screenshots of our yoga sessions, uplifting-news articles totally unrelated to coronavirus, Netflix film recommendations and photos of pets – the new dalmatian puppy was a personal highlight last week.

But the feature piece, nestled in the middle of the email, is focused around our five values and who has demonstrated them in the company that week. This serves as a lovely reminder for who we are and what we stand for – regardless of coronavirus and our furloughed community there’s always shoutouts to be made and virtual claps to be given.

It’s our community of like-minded people who make up our employer brand - whether they’re demonstrating ‘Take Ownership’ during a client call or ‘Be Real’ leading a company-wide Beyonce dance class. It’s so important to recognise and appreciate acts of behaviour that fall in line with your brand, purpose and most importantly the culture of your company.

Learning and development, done remotely

Keeping minds stimulated is a bigger challenge than it sounds. It’s easy to think that a long list of to-dos, team video calls and a new-found love for housework would keep our minds satisfied, but this is nothing in comparison to the amount of stimulation our brains receive on a business as usual basis in busy offices, especially for Londoners with the added chockablock commute.

Formulating ways to counterbalance the lack of brain stimulation should be a high priority on Covid-19 comms strategies. Here are a few to consider:

Online training

Taking your current L&D content and making it digital - there is still a lot you can do to run shorter, bitesize sessions on a video call. The level of engagement can still be really high if you plan well in advance, get people working in groups, use whiteboard functionalities to brainstorm ideas and mixed media like videos to keep everyone’s brains entertained.

Apprenticeships

You can still start apprenticeships for employees who haven’t been furloughed and most providers are delivering their programmes virtually. The reality for most of us having more headspace whilst working from home makes it a great time to start an apprenticeship. These are also very low cost, especially for small businesses.

Reskilling

A lot of training providers (apprenticeship and otherwise) are providing significantly reduced cost or free courses, which anyone can access. Encourage your people to share their ‘secret’ skills with the team if they’re up for teaching others and motivate everyone to achieve personal goals independently. Within the Wiser team, we have French lessons, After Effects tutorials and fitness training all motoring on from home, led by both active and furloughed individuals voluntarily.

Bagnell tells us that over at lastminute.com, ‘We activated an L&D programme campaign about ‘taking care of yourself, your team, and your colleagues’. This includes training programmes on specific topics, access to LinkedIn learning modules, we also have our own e-learning platform called Discovery, and we’re looking out for businesses and companies providing support resources so that furloughed staff can stay active, which I think is really important for wellbeing.’

Inclusion culture and wellbeing

Creating a structured L&D and meaningful virtual engagement plan goes a long way to safeguarding the mental health of our people, but how we approach communications, especially around furloughing, is very important.

The Lastminute.com workforce was thrown in the deep end early on, as most of their HQ employees live across the border from the Chiasso office in Italy.

It was a really challenging time for the team but the experience of what they were going through in Italy gave us the foresight to act early in our other countries. We were part of their lockdown from the beginning in virtual terms. Since then, we've had to put in place a furlough scheme or equivalent in seven countries with very different rules, policies, procedures, and tracking for each office. I’d say we’re now two-thirds of the way there in terms of optimum remote working.

Familiarising the unfamiliar

Wiser’s Covid-19 messaging strategy is to be proactive, positive and prepared. Once the formal conversations about our decisions had been held with teams and individuals, we set our minds to creating an identity and sense of community for those furloughed. We wanted everyone to understand that being furloughed did not indicate any significance to an individual’s role or value to the company and we also wanted to preserve our strong culture.

Familiarising the unfamiliar, we created ‘Furloughborough University’ – a tongue in cheek play on the alien term and a tie to positive memories of student life. University was also a time where work and home were melded, making the prospect of managing our free time and taking responsibility to learn and develop independently relatable.

This triggered a tonne of ideas around engagement, from ‘freshers week’ where everyone was invited to share a skill or hobby with the team to create remote ‘societies’, to creating WhatsApp groups dedicated to supporting anyone feeling unwell or struggling with their mental health, to hosting daily morning yoga and wellness workshops.

On engaging furloughed staff, Bagnell adds:

It’s about giving people space when they need it but also purpose, focusing on wellbeing, focusing on engagement, making sure people are reassured and giving real transparency on what the company is doing.

A multi-media approach to communications

Covid-19 communications plans need to be varied and engaging for both active and furloughed employees. Company-wide Monday morning virtual check-ins where business decisions are shared transparently gives everyone the opportunity to ask questions, feel valued and included.

Encouraging everyone to share photos, videos and work achievements can also connect a team and fuel social media content in a genuine, emotive way. Wiser’s films team has put this content to excellent use by creating bi-weekly ‘Wiser works from home’ videos to share internally to our people.

Stu tells us that Facebook’s community driven comms platform Workplace has been really helpful in keeping Lastminute’s global workforce connected.

We have a very strong and talented communications team and carefully select the tools we use. Being spread across many countries (and continents)... digitalising comms and creating communities was always a focus.

We would regularly run local all-hands meetings, like a road show where the chief executive and myself would visit each of our offices in person. This has now evolved into a weekly virtual Q&A. So essentially, we put a poll out to staff and say, ‘hey, what you want to talk about, add a question and we'll give you a brief update’ and then we'll have an informal chat and people can interact on the comments.

These sessions have become so invaluable, you have no idea the difference it’s made to employees and morale. From a messaging perspective we try to be as transparent as possible, Marco (our chief executive) has always been really open with the company to try and paint a realistic picture without misleading anyone.

Engaging a remote workforce is not totally unchartered territory for most modern businesses, but Covid-19 has meant we need to roll out virtual communications 100% of the time – and figuring out where to start is difficult.

Wiser is hosting a panel discussion webinar 6 May at 2.30pm: How to build a virtual engagement strategy from home. We’ll be joined by Heineken UK, The Lego Group, and Kraft Heinz to hear about what their businesses are doing to optimise communications at this time.

You can sign up here

Anya Claxton, special projects, Wiser

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