We all know that our people can be our greatest assets when it comes to projecting the image of an organisation.

But when faced with a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic; where people are scared for themselves and their families, everything is uncertain and where they are physically distanced from their colleagues and their students; then nurturing our best ambassadors is far more challenging.

Barry Holmes, HR Director at RCSI – University of Medicine & Health Sciences – and W100 Network Member, explains how employee relations, wellbeing and support were at the forefront of all they did in managing the COVID-19 crisis.

When the word of COVID-19 initially emerged, what action did RCSI take to prepare?

In early February, Professor Sam McConkey, Head of Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine, advised RCSI’s Senior Management Team that this virus represented a serious public health concern and it was spreading fast – way faster than many of us could have ever anticipated – and that pro-active planning and action was required to protect our students and staff.

From the get-go, we communicated swiftly and honestly with all of our employees, as is the culture of RCSI. On the 5th of March, we held a Town Hall meeting where we shared all our knowledge, progress and plans with our employees. They were given the opportunity to ask any questions they had to RCSI’S Senior Management Team and Professor McConkey, who was at this point was also providing his expert advice at a national level.

On 12th March, the Irish Government announced that all colleges, schools, and childcare facilities were to close with immediate effect. Where chaos could have ensued, we were well prepared.

Our Business Continuity Planning (BCP) team, which I led, was mobilised and coordinated moving campus operations to a remote working model, with employee health, well-being and connectivity firmly at the forefront of all considerations.

Our employees successfully started working remotely from 13th March.

Once employees were working remotely, how did you ensure communication with them?

We continued to engage with employees through a number of mechanisms. These included: daily emails from our Chief Executive & Registrar, Professor Cathal Kelly, which included the daily communications issued to our students, monthly Virtual Townhalls where RCSI Senior Management present to employees in an open, honest and transparent manner and answer any employee queries or concerns, and regular updates on Workvivo, our internal employee engagement portal.

We provided regular health, safety and well-being advice and tips, through our internal employee programme RCSI Inspire which aims to promote the benefits of Physical, Nutritional, Mental and Occupational health.

Were there any new and innovative initiatives introduced to ensure you supported your staff?

During this challenging time we wanted to ensure we were supporting our senior leaders in order for them to provide strong leadership to their teams. Taking inspiration from the ‘Schwartz Rounds’ approach, a structured forum where staff come together to discuss the emotional and social aspects of working in healthcare, our HR Partners engaged with Senior Leaders to arrange facilitated sessions with their management teams.

These sessions gave staff an opportunity to reflect on the emotional aspects of their work through a facilitated conversation – what’s working well, where are the people related challenges, what specific support do their teams need and what support do the leaders themselves need? These ‘Schwartz Rounds’ also provided a ‘safe space’ where leaders could share experiences of leading through uncertainty and connect with colleagues all facing similar challenges as we adjusted to this new way of working. These continue today as a valuable tool to support leadership teams across the University.

What has changed in your approach to employee engagement and will this be a long-term change?

We consolidated all our efforts under a new employee-facing brand #RCSItogether based on some core values:

#RCSItogether is ultimately about ensuring our employees are:

Recognised – we recognize that living through a pandemic and working remotely is not the same experience for everyone.

Connected – keeping employees connected and engaged with the University and colleagues.

Supported – providing employees with the support they need to look after themselves, their families, and to successfully work remotely.

Informed – keeping employees informed of news, research, events, and progress the University is making during the pandemic.

And we have used these values to shape our engagement programme with staff and throughout our communications.

We introduced the #RCSItogether weekly bulletin that highlights some of the key articles, tips, learnings, webinars, and support available to our employees in one place.

Now on its 20th edition, #RCSItogether has four key themes: Learning, Health Science, Minding Others and Minding Yourself.

As a university that is wholly-focused on medicine and health sciences, who better to support our efforts in supporting staff with their mental and physical well-being, than our own academic experts.

It has been really rewarding to see just how willing our busy clinicians and health experts have been to be involved in our staff engagement efforts; from our physiotherapists offering advice on exercise and home-working posture, to our psychologists providing the very latest guidance on positive mental health.

Running webinars on Attention-based Training, providing weekly nutrition advice online, and taking part in a debate on Ireland’s response to COVID-19, RCSI academics have played a vital role in #RCSItogether.

Our professional services teams have also been eager to support. For example, our Learning and Development team has developed a host of relevant courses on the LinkedIn Learning tool which is available free to all RCSI employees; our engagement team has created a family history project with the aim of offering a way to connect younger and more senior family members during the time of physical distancing. And very popular is the weekly timetable of fitness classes from our RCSI Gym team who continue to provide 10 virtual classes a week for all RCSI employees and students.

In addition to the bulletin, we have also rebranded our staff intranet #RCSItogether and it’s the badge we are using in all our CEO comms, Town Hall events, and senior leadership workshops.

When we eventually come out of the other side of this terrible situation, we will continue with #RCSItogether and continue to involve our own experts, both academic and professional, in engaging with our staff.

What has been the feedback from your staff?

It was extremely important to us that we actively seek employee feedback to ensure they felt engaged and supported. We were mindful that everyone’s situation was different; some were juggling work with homeschooling, some were living alone and some were caring for elderly relatives. Regardless of personal situation, we have a duty of care to our employees and now more than ever it is crucial we provide that care.

On the 2nd April, we issued an employee survey and received a strong response rate. The first part of the survey related to RCSI communications and support in response to the COVID19 pandemic. The results were overwhelmingly positive with 98% of staff agreeing that RCSI is communicating effectively and 93% reporting they feel supported during these times.

The final question set in the Pulse Survey was a free text question asking staff for feedback on what employees would like to see RCSI ‘Stop, Start and Continue’ doing to better support them during this time. There were 853 individual comments submitted from our employees showing their active engagement:

“This type of messaging coming from the top will really help to embed a supportive organizational culture going forward when normal times resume.”

“The message in this week’s bulletin in particular about how people are coping differently and we should check-in is so wonderful to see and so important.”

Using this feedback, we continue to tailor the support mechanisms we provide to our employees to ensure we remain well connected during these challenging times.