Key takeaways

  • To engage employees, leaders must communicate clearly, be transparent about their challenges and ensure that internal and external facing stories are aligned.
  • Cultivating a sense of community among people will help make everyone feel like part of a team.
  • Collaborate with employees to develop a new normal — leverage their strengths, skills and collective creativity to respond to business challenges.


COVID-19 has plunged the world into unprecedented uncertainty.

Almost instantly, employees used to the rhythms and dynamics of the office have had to become remote workers, often without the chance to adequately prepare. Many may also be balancing their professional commitments alongside caregiving responsibilities or dealing with physical separation from family and friends.

In times like this, engaging employees effectively has never felt more urgent.

To do so, it’s essential to prioritise clarity, create a community and foster working relationships that lead to collaboration, co-creation and creativity. Leaders will need to rally staff, tap into the resources already available, and treat employee engagement as an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-sided conversation.

with clarity

Throughout history, business leaders have responded to crises by focusing on their external communications, tightly controlling their public narrative. But the circumstances around COVID-19 are evolving at such a breakneck pace that what’s true today might be irrelevant tomorrow.

It’s never been more crucial for organisations to be transparent about their challenges and maintain clear lines of communication with their employees. It’s also imperative to ensure that the stories organisations share with their people and the messages they deliver to the public are completely aligned.

Many business leaders are dealing with obstacles such as cash flow, supply chain issues, and disruptions to their industry. But they’ve also been gifted with the chance to better understand what motivates their employees and build accountability. This can help foster a culture of empathy, resilience and openness that can see their workforce thrive. An organisation may not have all the answers, but they must reassure staff that leaders have a clear process in place when it comes to responding to the crisis.

It’s equally important to communicate to staff how their roles have changed, the most pressing priorities for the business and how expectations may shift. So far, the pandemic has sparked a flurry of speculation and misinformation, which can exacerbate collective anxiety. That’s why it’s essential for leaders to establish a clear strategic narrative, communicate complex information simply and create a single source of truth where employees can ask questions and access important messages. Engaging with your employees ethically and responsibly – even when delivering bad news – can help steer businesses through these testing times.

as a community

Humans are hardwired to band together in times of trouble. During COVID-19, we’ve seen the power of camaraderie and connection such as virtual catchups between friends who can’t see each other and online groups to support vulnerable neighbours.

The same goes for workplaces. In challenging times, feeling connected to a community, working towards a clearly-defined purpose and upholding company values – even if that company is dispersed around kitchen tables around the city – will help in motivating and engaging teams. The old ‘town hall’ approach to leading, that sees the CEO deliver a forecast during a weekly staff meeting or make sweeping statements about the state of the business will no longer work.

So, what will?

Embracing the possibilities of virtual working to cultivate a sense of community among your employees and make everyone – even the new hire that may have never physically met her colleagues – feel like part of a team.

Connecting as a community in this moment will take ingenuity and imagination. It could mean developing new channels or social tools for employees to share stories or positive affirmations. Or embracing videos an augmented reality to create a sense of physical presence. It may even be holding a virtual festival, featuring tailor-made learning modules, online forums or digital competitions that gamify your employees’ contributions and skills.

Even small investments in building genuine community can have a big impact on your employees’ purpose and morale.

with your people

For businesses that take a ‘top-down’ approach to employee engagement, this moment offers the rare chance to engage staff in a bigger mission and give them a sense of ownership over the trajectory of their organisation. It’s also a powerful opportunity to pool the team’s collective creativity to respond to new challenges and co-create products and outcomes that can help business endure.

Developing a new normal shouldn’t be the domain of an executive team. It’s a collaborative process that should harness the strengths and talents of everyone a business employs. When co-creating within a virtual workforce, it’s important to create respectful dialogue, draw on different perspectives and life experiences when it comes to tackling looming challenges and give people the tools to test, iterate and learn. To engage employees effectively, it’s vital to give them every chance to connect with each other and use their individual strengths to work towards a bigger whole.

from uncertainty

The novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown up challenges that organisations may never have considered. It’s also made the art of employee engagement more complex and its need more urgent. Responding to a crisis with a process that is transparent, consistent and respectful will equip staff – a company’s most valuable assets – with the resources to work towards a stronger future and mitigate confusion and stress. Times of uncertainty are also times of opportunity –– they can help business grow in ways leaders never expected.


Digital Pulse: Lawrence Goldstone


Lawrence Goldstone

Lawrence is the Future of Work lead partner at PwC Australia.

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Contributor Sonia Clarke


Sonia Clarke

Sonia is the national creative comms lead for The Difference at PwC Australia.

More About Sonia Clarke