How technology can strengthen your company's culture during COVID-19 pandemic

Manulife's global chief human resources officer explains how the company is keeping employees inspired, motivated and engaged

How technology can strengthen your company's culture during COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced every company to take a hard look in the mirror when it comes to culture and their ability to leverage technology to keep employees inspired, motivated and engaged. The companies that get this right will be ones that dive in with both feet when it comes to technology investment and adoption.

Just as we ask ourselves when things will return to normal, we should be asking ourselves how we can emerge stronger from this period of immense change. It’s an incredibly interesting challenge. How do you recreate the feelings of inclusion, closeness and energy that our employees typically experience when they’re physically together? How do you get a new hire excited about your company without so much as a handshake? How do you inspire your employees to go above and beyond for customers while they’re working from homes that are rife with distraction?

The answer to each of these questions, at least to some degree, is technology.

Manulife is a good case in point. When you think of digital agility, a 155-year-old financial services company probably doesn’t spring to mind. But, our digitization efforts over the past couple of years have paid off: we’ve been able to quickly shift 98 percent of our 35,000 strong global workforce to remote work during the pandemic and remain fully connected with our nearly 100,000 agents. The validated strength of our network became a catalyst to launch additional digital tools to enable everything from virtual town hall meetings and open Q&A sessions hosting tens of thousands of employees simultaneously, to a weekly drumbeat of leadership video messages, podcasts, a speaker’s series, and a hub of tools and resources to help our colleagues navigate their new “normal.”

Any company can choose to invest in technology, but the magic lies in both how its deployed, and most importantly, employee adoption. Our experience with COVID-19 demonstrates how important it is for companies to leverage their investments not just for customers but to create a fully digital employee experience that can strengthen and help drive company culture.

Re-thinking the employee experience begins with how you hire new employees, where first impressions mean so much. Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to recruit talent, shifting to using video technology, which has worked well and been embraced by hiring managers and candidates. It’s also been compelling to candidates that we can still have them join us, without having to come into the office to get set-up.

We’ve had to reimagine what a remote onboarding experience looks and feels like since physical orientations are off the table. We are now shipping devices to new employees before their start dates, and through virtual sessions with HR and IT the new hire is well prepared and ready to get going. We’ve revised the hiring manager’s checklist, ensuring they not only connect quickly but have regular follow-ups, including a full introduction to their teammates. And recruits get a welcome message from the CEO too. Feedback from our new joiners tells us this entirely new, digital process makes them feel connected and ready to contribute.

Of course, a strong company culture is created through an employee’s day-to-day work life and the impact of COVID-19 and physical distancing can have a big impact if you don’t think differently.  
Building close relationships and feeling part of the company has often involved coffee with a colleague or manager; it’s developed when a teammate sees you are grappling with a difficult business challenge and offers advice or rallies others for an impromptu brainstorming session; it’s the shared experience of attending a training session or meeting with others and, during breaks, having the chance to learn more about each other’s experiences. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has changed many of those planned and spontaneous moments that build strong connections. Beyond the expected use of video training and meetings, we’ve still made these moments happen with teams sharing virtual lunches, coffee breaks or happy hours.  We’ve also introduced new ways to come together that reinforce our culture, like video exercise and nutrition sessions, a book club, and even a talent show, injecting a little more fun into everyone’s day.  Surprisingly, we’ve seen that working remotely has actually sparked everyone to share more of their full selves, which is how long-lasting relationships are made.  

Despite the many challenges we’re all dealing with, our experience reinforces that technology can – and is – enabling us to support each other, our customers and strengthen our culture.

Pam Kimmet is the Global Chief Human Resources Officer at Manulife.