Engaging Employees During Turbulent Times: Virtual Summit Recap

by Melany Gallant | Posted | Industry Buzz

Engaging Employees During Turbulent Times: Virtual Summit Recap

It's been said many times since this pandemic started, that life and work are forever changed. Such a tremendous amount of uncertainty requires of all of us to tap into and hone our resilience so we can move through this experience with our well-being and sense of growth intact. But for many leaders, there is also the responsibility of facilitating this journey for their people.

It's why we were proud to partner with achieve Engagement to sponsor a virtual event this week focused on helping talent leaders with new ideas for engaging employees during turbulent times. This interactive summit featured sessions from leading experts and offered practical tools that talent and business leaders can start using now.

As I sit in my at-home office writing this article, surrounded by the sounds of my husband and daughter working on a school assignment, I'm grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference with two of my colleagues, Heather and Katie, so we could share what we learned.


We hope these event takeaways are helpful as you lead your people through the changes you're facing now. But even more so, we hope this information helps you in creating a new sustainable approach to work and leadership, built on the meaningful lessons we are all learning throughout this pandemic.


First up, our working from home reality check

Our good friend Jason Lauritsen who is an engagement expert, author and the Chief Content Officer for achieve Engagement, kicked off the conference with this relatable truth:

"Dogs will be barking; doorbells will be ringing; just another day – an experiment in high speed."

That working from home reality check is one many of us can relate to. Whether trying to do our job at home or working in a frontline role, we are all navigating a journey of immense change, and our ability to lead others through this experience requires a shift in mindset. It's why Let's do our best to not waste this pandemic! surfaced as a core message throughout the conference.

Leading teams through profound uncertainty


Cy Wakeman, President & Founder of Reality-Based Leadership, kicked off the first session of the day with this point:

"First thing to do in a crisis is getting to an 'AND' perspective... get to a place where we consider the option that many things can be true at one time."

While many are espousing that "now is the time to reinvent yourself," as Cy points out, we don't all have that luxury. If you're an essential worker, or if you've just been laid off, you're in survival mode. Concurrently, we are all at different stages of trauma when it comes to dealing with this pandemic. We need to acknowledge that our personal reality is not what everyone is experiencing.

Many of us are coming from our place in the trauma cycle and judging others who are at a different stage than us, versus looking for the opportunity to interact and lift others up. The role of a leader in times of profound uncertainty is to connect with your people and help them focus on the right next thing.

Cy mentioned there are five stages to trauma and that leaders must absolutely find out what stage their people are at in order to know how to lead them forward.

Stage 1: Safety and the basics

At this stage people are in pure survival mode – looking to secure food, ensure the safety of themselves and their families. The leader's role at this stage is to convey the message "we've got you" and do what you can to provide resources and information your people need. Two great questions to ask in this stage are: "How are you doing?" and "What do you need right now?"

Stage Two: Connection

Help your people understand they're not alone. Cy says this stage is a great time to teach your people to stop judging and start connecting. If you or some of your people have moved through the stages of trauma more quickly than others, this is the time to help bring other people up and support them in the ways they need it most.

Stage Three: Figure it out

"Leaders need to manage energy, not work." (I think that is one of the best anti-micromanaging messages I've ever heard!) At this stage, Cy says leaders need to encourage their people to "figure it out." This pandemic is creating calls to greatness and new standards of excellence. At this stage, ask your people, "How can we make this work?" to find solutions for what is needed now.

Stage Four: Question everything

This is the stage to get people to question how they want to go forward personally and professionally. People and organizations need to look to radical simplification: question the ROI on everything! This pandemic is an opportunity to get rid of stuff that didn't serve us personally or the business well. Ask your team, "What is the essential driving force... what's the impact we need to have? Can any of this work be eliminated, automated, delegated or innovated on?

Step 5: Curate and capitalize (aka, don't waste the lessons of a pandemic!)

As leaders, we need to get ourselves and everybody to a point where we recognize what we've gained and learned from the pandemic. Because the entire experience will be a waste if we go back to business as usual. We need to examine this pandemic for the learning and – yes – the growth opportunity it presents.


While "don't waste the pandemic" is the opportunity we need to strive towards, Cy also shared that none of us have all the answers for how to get through this time. And that's ok. The most important thing for leaders to do is to lead with love and tap into the power of connection to help lift your people up.

Employee communications in this moment: Do this, not that

Teryl O'Keefe Taglieri, Founder & Communication Strategist of The O'Keefe Group, started off this session by acknowledging we're all feeling the upheaval this pandemic has caused. And while we're working through providing the information and resources our people need now, organizations need to be thinking, planning and adjusting to the communications that need to come in the future.

Echoing Cy's advice, Teryl shared the first thing leaders need to do is shift focus to a place of caring and compassion and how to meet the needs of employees. Understand that your employees are depending on you as their employer to provide facts and information about the pandemic, not just from government and public health sources.

Here are Teryl's tips:

  • Provide a single source of truth – Identify one leader at a senior level who is visible to employees throughout this crisis and put a defined cadence in place on when employees will hear from that leader (at minimum once per week!). Convey a message of caring and compassion and make it a "one-stop-shop" for everything employees need to know to get through this pandemic.
  • Carefully assess your messaging - Don't be tone deaf in who you're communicating to... Tap into your employee resource groups - understand how they're feeling and frame or reframe your communications to ensure your messages resonate. Respond to employee feedback quickly!
  • Remember the silver lining – Teryl acknowledges that where people are in crisis right now may make it challenging to see a silver lining from this experience, but there always is one. A great step towards seeing it is to communicate and share information about the good people are doing during this crisis. And celebrate it with your people. Tell these stories because your people want to hear them.


Act with uncertainty: Skills and strategies to manage anxiety in uncertain times

Tayyab Rashid, Ph.D., Associate Faculty, University of Toronto Scarborough kicked off his session on managing anxiety with a quick attendee poll on the positive feelings they're experiencing during this time of physical distancing. (Yes, there are some positives!)

The results showed that people were mostly feeling gratitude, joy and love. It was a wonderful start to a session in which we learned how to tap into our positive emotions and strengths in order to help us through stress and uncertainty.


Tayyab highlighted the importance of acknowledging our stress and anxiety as a way to move past these feelings. He also shared several resources during his session. One of them was this recent blog post, 101 Strengths-Based Actions to Connect, from a Safe Distance, which offers a valuable list of tools we can employ to search for the silver lining within this time of anxiety.

Tayyab's top tips include:

  • Be calm, don't allow yourself to be inundated with information if you are anxious. This may mean employing some self-regulation when it comes to media consumption. Set limits on the amount of news you need to consume, unfollow accounts if needed, choose your platforms wisely, start a new offline hobby, and connect offline if you can.
  • Act with uncertainty. Recognize your negative biases and try not to let them get you "stuck." When you feel that anxiety could cripple you from taking action, focus on self-care. Doing so will help you get past the anxiety to a place of action.
  • Connect with friends, but not with a "co-commiserater." Focus on relationships that are positive and forward-looking, not the ones that wallow or mirror worry.
  • Shift your focus to a place of meaning. Gratitude is a powerful element to this practice because it helps us focus our attention on meaning and growth. Strength-based actions such as self-care, helping others, or spirituality are also great ways to find meaning out of stressful or uncertain situations.

Tayyab also shared examples of what practicing gratitude might look like:


He wrapped up his talk by circling back to the poll from the start of his session. He used the poll results to help frame what we feel we're good at. I was encouraged to see that the top strength was a love of learning! Something all leaders should help their employees embrace.

What is the role of employee feedback in this moment in time?

The key question this panel of engagement and feedback experts explored is one important to many talent leaders:

"In this unique time, what should we do about employee surveys?"

The short answer is to "meet people where they are." Now is not the time to seem out of touch; it's never been more important to get a pulse on your organization. Things have changed dramatically for everyone, and it's important your communications reflect that reality.

The panel also offered some insightful guidance for organizations to consider when it comes to collecting feedback:

  • Start a discussion instead of a survey. Consider hosting a virtual town hall where leaders ask questions like, "Do you have the information and resources you need to move forward and be well?" Or, "What have you learned about telework so far?" However, when you ask these questions, you need to be prepared to accept and act on the feedback you receive.
  • Ask for "a rose and a thorn." For smaller teams, this activity involves inviting employees to each share something personal that is going well and something that is a challenge as an effective way to open up the team dynamic and create warm connections.
  • Focus on getting feedback instead of giving it. Collecting feedback, thoughts and ideas is something all leaders should be doing right now. The opportunity to improve how work is done and come together to solve challenges requires leaders to listen.
  • Be realistic. If you have workforce segments doing different types of work (e.g. essential vs non-essential work), you need to be realistic and recognize your employees will have varying levels of ability to give or receive feedback at this time. Be patient and thoughtful in your expectations of feedback.

The panel wrapped up with a great conversation about the importance of leaders recognizing their own weaknesses and biases when it comes to communication during a crisis. Even leaders who generally do the right thing may be struggling with stress and anxiety, which may trigger less than ideal communication practices. Self-awareness is critical.

How to bring your human to work when you can't bring your human to work

Erica Keswin, Founder of the Spaghetti Project, began her session with some good news. Being human in a time of unprecedented change isn't rocket science! While none of us have experienced anything like COVID-19 before, it's still possible to bring our human (self) to work if we do it with intention and purpose. And the key is to honor relationships.

An academic study out of Cornell University found that firefighters who routinely sat down and enjoyed a meal together achieved higher levels of performance. It turns out that these firefighters were doing something we should all be doing today – honoring relationships.

Erica shared how to honor relationships using the 3 P's: prioritize, position and protocol.

  1. Prioritize. Reflect on how you are prioritizing relationships with your manager, customers, colleagues, and even yourself. Make sure your calendar reflects your values and priorities. In Erica's words, "You simply can't say yes to every virtual meeting." Schedule in what's important and communicate to employees what meetings are optional versus mandatory.
  2. Position. To honor relationships, match the message to the medium. Don't plan a video chat if an email is fine, and don't just fire off an IM to an employee whose well-being you're concerned about. Keswin stressed that this step includes turning off technology when the time is right.
  3. Protocols. Identify the protocols you need to follow to honor your relationships. These protocols can be simple, such as being transparent. This is no time to be hiding information, so make sure employees are hearing from leadership as much as possible. Another protocol could be maintaining old rituals and-if the time is right-creating new ones. Rituals give a sense of safety, a reminder that some things are the same even when everything else has changed. Whatever protocol you come up with, ensure they make sense for you, your industry, culture and values.

Essential well-being

In addition to financial, structural and physical uncertainties, this pandemic is also creating collective trauma, explained Maggie Gough, Founder of Realize Wellbeing.

We're all experiencing the disruption, fear and uncertainty about what the future brings. No one has the capacity to add anything new to their plate, so don't run your staff through programs or offer them anything new. Leaders need to help their people achieve well-being in the life they're living today, and the best way to do that is to offer support and model well-being practices.

Here's how Gough explained it:

"Right now, leaders are like flight attendants in turbulence. Everyone is looking to you – do you seem calm? Do you seem in control? Do you know what needs to be done in this situation?"

The best way to offer support? Stay calm, stay in control and be an authentic leader. It's okay to acknowledge that there are things you don't know; doing so provides more support than silence.

Gough also shared that leaders have an opportunity to shift away from traditional wellness models. Think about wellness as something more fluid, like a light a person carries. As a leader, your job is to pay attention to that light and recognize if your work, the way you're communicating and the way you're showing up for your employee is amplifying or diminishing that light.

One way to amplify the wellness light is through "micro-moments":


Maggie's final piece of advice? Look at what's next. Wellness experts have been asking employers and leaders to provide greater flexibility and work-life balance for years. This pandemic offers a massive opportunity to shift the way we work. Ask your employees about their experiences, and let their answers shape a healthier, more balanced workplace for the future.

Managing employee performance from your couch

Jason Lauritsen led the final session of the day, offering advice on how to engage employees to perform their best in this new work reality. What matters most between team members and leaders, according to Jason, is the relationship:

"I want to feel valued and trusted and appreciated, and that someone cares"

Jason shared how a series of intentional practices create an experience of work that fosters a healthy, positive relationship that helps people perform at their best:

  • Adopt that cultivation mindset – remove barriers!
  • Care for your people, as hard as you can – and they will care for your organization and customers.
  • Relationships ALWAYS come first.

The most important of these practices is the concept of "cultivation," or the idea that, much like farmers, leaders don't need to motivate employees to perform. Rather, they must provide what is needed and remove barriers to growth.

"Humans are much more complicated than plants, but we are also programmed genetically for growth and performance." - Jason Lauritsen

A cultivation mindset is more important now than ever before and can provide solutions for many of reasons employees do not perform. For example, if an employee shares "I'm unable to meet expectations," the cultivation mindset solution is for you as the leader to check in on the human 3H's – Head, Heart, Health – all key to overall wellness.


Work is a relationship, not a contract

Jason drove this point home. Far too many employees today are trapped in a dysfunctional work relationship. Only by designing work to feel more like a relationship can we finally create the kind of work experiences that allow human beings to truly thrive. And creating that kind of environment matters now more than ever.

Empathy, gratitude and authenticity – all are needed to not to waste this experience

Jason and Jody Ordioni, Founder of achieve Engagement, wrapped up the conference with such a fundamentally human note. They shared gratitude for one another, the speakers and attendees - who contributed by sharing experiences and leadership tips of their own in lively chat discussions.


There is an undeniable truth in all of this. If we can all look for the opportunity to turn a bad situation into something good, this pandemic can change the experience of work for the better. Acknowledge that the people you lead, and that even yourself, may not quite be ready to do so but do what you can to be curious, to drive growth and move yourself and your people to a better place.

Thank you Jason, Jody and the achieve Engagement speakers for a great virtual conference! Let's not waste this experience, let's continue to take care of ourselves, and our people.

Ready to keep learning? Solving Big Problems Starts With Thinking Small

For more strategies to successfully navigate the unique challenges your organization is facing right now, join Saba's HACKLAB webcast with Jason Lauritsen on April 23: Solving Big Problems Starts with Thinking Small.

Jason will share a timely, practical problem-solving framework you can apply immediately in your new work environment – or use to drive innovation and iterative change at any time in your organization. You'll learn how to embrace a "hacking" mindset to break down problems with speed and efficiency!

HACKLAB: Solving Big Problems Starts with Thinking Small

Learn how to solve problems through smart, small changes (hacks!)


Register Now
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

HACKLAB: Solving Big Problems Starts with Thinking Small

Learn how to solve problems through smart, small changes (hacks!)


Register Now


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