(Illustration by Ani_ka/iStock by Getty Images)

During the Covid-19 shutdown, the multinational food company McCormick & Company was in the midst of a new global-purpose launch. Instead of putting that on hold to wait for calmer times, “the company decided to move forward with that launch,” said Tracie Hall, the company’s senior director for global talent management and acquisition strategy. “We decided to leverage all types of technology.”

While it might feel like defining company purpose or embarking on a culture alignment should move to the backburner in the midst of abrupt change, the opposite may be true. “From a research perspective … cultural alignment is a tremendous tool to leverage in a time of stress and challenge, even if you haven’t started yet,” according to Natalie Baumgartner, the chief workforce scientist for the employee-experience company Achievers.

Both Baumgartner and Hall participated in a panel discussion examining the tools and policies that can increase a sense of belonging even during an abrupt shift to a remote workforce, part of From Day One’s April conference on “Digital Tools for Building an Engaged, Productive Team.” While digital transformation and remote workforces pose challenges, there are still ways to leverage tech to accommodate all types of diversity in the workforce and empower existing programs like employee-resource groups (ERGs). Crucially, as moderator Lydia Dishman noted, “the sustained effort is key.”

Baumgartner expanded on her research about culture alignment during upheaval. “There’s no better time to start than now. Make it simple, what’s that north star, your missions and values, and talk about them at every opportunity,” she said. “We also talk about decision-making in alignment with your core values. And when you make decisions that are not aligned with your core values, speak to it.”

By reinforcing culture and purpose, companies increase employee engagement. Panelists expanded on that sentiment by sharing how their companies have managed engagement during the pandemic. At Achievers, that includes daily “all-hands stand up” meetings, quarterly town halls, and an internal tool called “Coffee Chats” that connects employees in a quick, easy manner.

Speaking on tech and inclusion, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Natalie Baumgartner of Achievers, and Elizabeth Fryman of the E.W. Scripps Co. Bottom row, from left: Pamela Sherman of the American Heart Association and Tracie Hall of McCormick & Company (Image by From Day One)

At McCormick, in the midst of its purpose launch, the company’s marketing and branding team leveraged social media and hashtags to bring together employees. The company also launched frequent pulse surveys to get real-time feedback. “We got feedback from our ‘employee ambassador groups’ and they came up with ways to stay engaged,” Hall said.

Elizabeth Fryman, VP of HR for the E.W. Scripps Co., said the company utilizes the Slack communication platform not just for tasks, but social connection too. “We found that having Slack channels dedicated to certain things really worked greatly for the entire organization,” she said. One of her favorite channels: “What are you binging now?”

Pamela Sherman, senior director of HR for the American Heart Association, spoke to what digital engagement looks like for an organization that’s been around for nearly 100 years. “Our senior leaders–the whole C-suite–were super-visible, with weekly Covid broadcasts,” Sherman said. Broadcasts included word-cloud polls asking participants how they were feeling and about news that affected them. In the midst of this summer’s protest movement, senior leaders started speaking about racism and feelings of disconnect that came with working from home.

The nonprofit also led two organization-wide training programs on health equity and structural racism, then followed up with “learning and dialogue sessions” for smaller employee groups, Sherman said. “We did a lot of work on giving history and some of the facts around structural racism, and then got down to how people really feel and how they’re related to what’s happening in the country.” She also facilitated role playing that was thoughtfully scripted out and practiced by participating employees.

In the midst of change, stress, and a proliferation of digital tools, the panelists emphasized that communication from leadership is vitally important. “There’s just no substitute for checking in with our employees around how they’re experiencing the things HR is doing in an effort to be mindful and engaging around these topics,” said Baumgartner. A forthcoming Achievers report, she added, found a gap between the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs that companies say they are offering, vs. what employees believe is really happening: “29% of employees in the study said there are no programs in their company with this focus, but just 8% of HR leaders agree.”

Indeed, companies need to be transparent with their employees about the effort they’re putting into these issues. During the American Heart Association’s programs on inclusion and social equity, employees asked about diverse hiring. “We had someone from talent acquisition talk about the different places we’re looking for talent and how our interview process is designed to be free from bias,” Sherman explained. In the same spirit, the chief diversity officer fielded employee questions about an internal diversity report released last year.

Different generations may engage in different ways when it comes to remote work, which is something managers should understand. At McCormick, the employee-ambassador groups were helpful in that regard. Longtime employees started a “Seasoned” employee group to talk about things like retirement planning, but also to collaborate with other groups like the “YP” group of young professionals.

While each generation tends to have its own style of communicating and approach to work, Baumgartner said that employee-engagement research shows that there’s not a significant generational divide. The older generation adapted well to remote work, the research shows, in some cases better than younger workers did. In terms of needs and aspirations, the generations are remarkably similar, said Baumgartner. “When we talk with different generations, folks are saying that we want those same things too.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.