COVID-19 brings employers, employees closer together

As unemployment soars, it’s time to invest in employer/employee relationships

As a small business owner, today’s depressing unemployment data stirs many emotions in me: grief for the loss so many are enduring, including people close to me; anxiety about what lies ahead; gratitude to lead a team of knowledge workers, who can work remotely, doing work that remains in demand; and determination to be part of the solution.

What will get us through this crisis – as businesses, and as a nation? Employers can’t control the macro-level economic, social or public health challenge. We can, however, act at the micro level. The one thing Canadian employers and employees can influence most is their relationships with one another. In fact, the Argyle Public Relationships Index™, conducted through a Leger survey last week, suggests these relationships may be one of Canada’s greatest economic assets.

COVID-19 brings employers, employees closer together

Even as Canadians are isolated from their co-workers, or working in essential services under tremendous stress, our research shows that the shared crisis experience is bringing employers and workers closer together. 49 percent of respondents report an improvement in their relationship with their employer during the pandemic, with only 29 percent reporting a decline.

It also appears that even those who have lost or left their jobs during the pandemic do not blame their employers – with a narrow majority (53 per cent) still reporting satisfaction with their most recent employer.

While the improvement in employer-employee relationships is common across Canada, this trend is most acute in Quebec – the region hit hardest by the pandemic so far – where 57 per cent of respondents cite improved relationships with their employers. The next strongest improvements come in Alberta (55 per cent), and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (54 per cent).

A blip, or a trend?

This isn’t just soldiers clinging together in a foxhole. It’s deeper. Canadian workers rank their employers highly on five out of six dimensions of relationship:

      1. 1. trust;
      1. 2. satisfaction;
      1. 3. a perceived commitment to meet expectations;
      1. 4. caring for those with whom you work or do business (“exchange relationship”);
      1. 5. concern for “people like me” (“communal relationship”); and
    1. 6. a perception employees can influence the organization.

Giving employees influence is where employers score weakest, and yet it is perhaps the easiest thing to change. In times of crisis, one of the most terrifying things is feeling like we have no autonomy or influence over the events shaking our lives. Wise employers will be more transparent than ever with their teams, and engage employees consistently and creatively to help address business and organizational challenges.

As a CEO, last week was the most challenging of my career. While our growth from a boutique shop into one of Canada’s largest communications firms was not linear, we are used to thriving through adversity, growing even during the global financial crisis of 2008. But it was now essential to contemplate the possibility of a dramatic change in our business environment – and the potential impact on our firm and its people.

Being transparent led to an emotional, unanimous decision by our leaders that if the situation required it during a downturn, we would all take a pay cut if it would help to save cash and employee jobs. And, subsequently, being frank with our team has unleashed unprecedented creativity and internal knowledge-sharing – yielding ideas that we are using internally, and also sharing with our clients, for mutual benefit.

Our research suggests that many responsible employers across Canada are thinking, and acting, in similar ways. With employers anxious about their businesses, and employees worried about their jobs, both sides are working harder on their workplace relationships.

This is essential from multiple perspectives, as we adapt to new ways of working. For essential-service workers, these are stressful times as they try to balance the twin imperatives of social distancing and customer service. For people working remotely, there’s an intimacy to interacting with co-workers from our homes, creating connection even when we work in isolation. And, finally, for employers hoping to hire back temporarily laid-off workers, showing care and concern, and earning trust, will be critical.

The strength of employee-employer relationships – or relationship capital – is a hidden, rarely measured, and yet critical asset for business, and for the Canadian economy. We need to invest in those relationships more than ever. With so many clinging to fragile employment, and so many laid-off workers needing to come back to work, Canada’s recovery may depend on it.

About the study:
This edition of the Argyle Public Relationships Index™ is based on a survey of 1,590 Canadians, completed between March 27-30, 2020, using Leger’s online panel, LEO. The margin of error for the study was +/-2.5%, 19 times out of 20. Leger’s online panel has approximately 400,000 members nationally and has a retention rate of 90%.

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