Seizing the Moment: A Retrospect on Engagement during Radical Disruption

The unplanned worldwide disruption of this year has proven more than ever the importance of a strong workplace culture. Businesses that were forced to shift suddenly from office-based work to a diaspora of homeworkers have had to rethink fundamental behaviours like collaboration, performance management, and tasking to name a few. The suddenness of this change, which for some organisations has bordered on radical, meant that management could not afford to prepare staff or “test the waters”. When businesses can no longer rely on tried-and-true tools and methodologies, the pre-existing values, interactions, and relationships that make up workplace culture become the lifeblood of success.

At Payara we keep our fingers on the pulse with consistent staff surveys, and we have been delighted that throughout this year’s long-term disruption Payarans’ sentiment towards their roles and the business have substantially improved upon its already high engagement scores. This is likely thanks to a strong existing foundation of engagement in addition to multiple proactive initiatives that we undertook during the COVID-19 lockdown, which saw our office-based Employees working from home even before government mandates. Let me briefly explore some of these factors of engagement – both pre-existing and newly initiated – below.

The Pre-existing
These are some basic cultural features, which any business can adopt, that Payara had in place during business-as-usual, bolstering our culture generally so that we were better prepared to handle the challenges we that didn’t see coming.

Company Values as Polaris
In my article on core values at the beginning of this year (when the idea of a 21st-century global lockdown was the stuff of speculative fiction), I wrote that core values “can keep a company culture consistent and on track throughout challenges, when stability is perhaps most crucial.” We have certainly been challenged since mid-March, and Payara’s success in weathering the pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of core values.

Payara has always integrated values into company-wide events, monthly 1:1 reviews, and staff recognition, among many other spheres, so that they are active drivers in the business, from the day-to-day to our grandest organisational objectives and goals. During a time when many Payarans’ routines have been radically disrupted, our values – as well as our mission and vision – have remained stable. Community, Trust, Passion, Openness, Growth, Initiative and Excellence did not lose relevance after shifting from the office desk to the dining room table, and they have continued to be rewarded.

Team-Bonding Events
Payara enjoyed its annual company conference – Payara Week – not long before shutdown. The timing seemed perfect as this event encourages our team to bond in the personal sphere, which enhances trust in the professional sphere with particular effectiveness. This year’s Payara Week was in Funchal, and while surveys prove that his event was especially successful, every Payara Week sees a surge of engagement and connection amongst the entire team in the immediately following weeks. As it allows each Payaran the opportunity to build business strategy and find solutions to organisational challenges, Payara Week also enhances ownership of Payarans’ roles within the context of how they contribute to the business’s mission and vision. What’s more, evenings and various days during Payara Week are dedicated to activities like meals out together, exploration and fun. Events like this have a rejuvenating effect on company culture in multifarious and valuable ways, from enhancing relationships amongst staff to realigning staff with business goals.

Recognition Culture
Our use of explicit recognition has increased since our shift to WFH – again, with an emphasis on company values. Payara has three levels of recognition: Payaran-to-Payaran, team-to-Payaran and company-to-Payaran – all explicitly driven by our seven values. Recognition enhances positivity and connection amongst Payarans whilst advertising optimistic examples of resilience and normalcy during generally uncertain and abnormal times.

Standard of Communicative Transparency
If a business practices transparency, trust follows, and this becomes particularly vital during seasons that feel generally insecure. Payara has many avenues of communication, from standard announcements on internal communications platforms and published KPI’s from all areas of the business to monthly newsletters and quarterly virtual company conferences. All Payarans also know that their Team Leaders are their contact point for any concerns or questions, and Team Leaders in turn know who they should contact within senior leadership.

The Newly Initiated
We wanted to ensure that our staff remained engaged during this generally stressful time, so we built initiatives to combat isolation and stress for those in lockdown in the UK and abroad. These include:

Increased Contact from Leadership                                                                                                              Knowing that many Payarans would be working in their living environments for the first time in their careers, we have increased contact between Team Leaders and their reports by instituting daily stand-ups. This ensures that teams maintain a consistent alignment with objectives as well as reinforce the support and guidance that Team Leaders provide to their teams.

Increased Opportunities for Feedback
As mentioned, Team Leaders are Payarans’ clear contact point for questions and concerns, and HR is identified as a contact point for non-work-related issues, like mental health, as well. In addition, we kicked off “Word Box” in which Payarans can anonymously express any comments, suggestions – even personal concerns. We have also distributed additional surveys, publishing and responding to feedback.

C19 Heart Initiative
Soon after lockdown we initiated the C19 Heart Initiative – a paid volunteering benefit through which Payarans are welcome to use their work time to benefit their communities through charity. In other words, Payara committed to paying staff to do some good for society in this time of need.
This responds to Payara’s commitment to making a positive impact on general society during this exceptional time and to making a positive impact on our team, recognising the proven mental health benefits of altruism. With this benefit, we are acknowledging that the world is a bigger place than our industry. We’re also respecting Payarans’ compassion and, in some cases, even personal responsibility.

Operation Nightfish
This initiative was our recognition that the effects of this stressful time don’t begin and end with the workday (to say the least). Some of our staff live in metropolitan areas, making outdoor activity ill advised, and some live alone. So, we created this out-of-hours program, complete with a communication channel and several diversions – from movie night to gaming groups and just general chat – that are specifically for personal connection amongst Payarans when they are not working.

Operation Nightfish does not directly relate to business objectives but rather to the overall wellbeing of Payarans, targeting their after-work time where their opportunities for social interaction and diversion have been exceptionally reduced in this time of lockdowns and social distancing. Using business hours to set up Operation Nightfish and business platforms to advertise its events is motivated by the business’s duty of care for Payarans.

Isolation and boredom can have a detrimental effect on mental health, and we hope that providing opportunities for socialising as well as the healthy distractions of Operation Nightfish’s missions might mitigate this risk – and build trust in a business that innovates and prioritises for its team-members’ best interest. As practical bonuses, happy staff are more productive, and this out-of-work activity enhances relationships and trust amongst teammates, which in turn improves workplace culture.

These are some elements we have identified upon retrospection that have buttressed Payara’s success in adapting to the unexpected disruption caused by COVID-19, including the necessity for office-based Payarans to work from home suddenly and without preparation. Radical disruption – which many businesses throughout the world have seen this year – reinforces the value of nurturing a strong workplace culture during times of security. Exigent events also present unique opportunities to strengthen a team’s emotional trust in the business and each other. If these times of disruption are handled well, a business may find on the other side of the challenge that the foundation of their company’s culture has become deeper and stronger than ever before.

Topics: Fish Food

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