Belgian testing firm Eurofins Digital Testing was already measuring employee engagement prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, but since lockdown and with work-from-home now an established practice taking the pulse of its workers sentiments has been more critical than ever.
Using surveys, aka pulses, the organization - which pitches itself as “a trusted provider in a broad spectrum of quality solutions”, including managed test services, lab-based testing services & infrastructure and comprehensive cyber security services & tools - has been able to address a variety of workforce challenges, such as problems with home working set-ups and ensuring remote infrastructure is in place, as well as generally just keeping on top of how its employees are coping with the new way of working.
It’s been a challenging time, but one to which the company has risen, according to HR Manager Sophie Van Ham:
We have a headcount of 150 co-workers for the Belgian division and we are quite young. It is a very dynamic organization with an average age of 31. Almost all co-workers have a Bachelors or a Masters degree…Because we are in the IT industry, for us it is really important to keep track of innovation. We need to train our people, and they need to be informed about new trends within testing, so we invest a lot in our co-workers to have them really on the right level.
There’s also a lot of competition for the type of employee demographic that Eurofins needs, so keeping on top of staff sentiment is essential for retention purposes. Van Ham explains:
It is very difficult to attract [the right] technical profiles. It is also a challenge to keep them, especially because our competitors know that we are investing a lot in in training and development of people, so they become attractive to the competitors. For this reason, it is important that our people are engaged and happy in the organization.
Next to that, we are a service organization. We don't have products. The main focus is services. The quality of the services that we are delivering is dependent on the quality of the people, so they are really the biggest assets that we have in the organization. We value them a lot. For this reason, and to overcome these challenges, it is important to keep them engaged and for us this engagement is actually the key element to grow the business.
Prior to the COVID crisis, the firm conducted annual surveys of its employee base, Van Ham recalls:
At that time, we were using Unit4 as a tool, but not the engagement modules. We implemented all modules of the Unit4 talent management tool, but the engagement module was not launched yet.
Then in March came COVID and the imposition of lockdowns and working from home became the norm. It became clear that there was a need to accelerate the frequency of employee engagement assessments now that everyone was operating remotely, she says:
At that time, we were not actually prepared for [this situation], so we needed to speed up the process and to really keep track of this big change in the organization. We decided to implement an engagement module of the Unit4 talent management tool faster. So we started with these weekly pulses and we were really focused on all the practical implications, like connectivity hardware issues, etc.
As these weekly pulses rolled out, they threw up some interesting learnings, says Van Ham:
We noticed that there was kind of a pressure on the relationship between the manager and the-co workers, but also in the teams. This was something we decided to add into the pulses, together with happiness and wellbeing. We all know that COVID-19 has an impact on the mental health of people so we wanted to keep track of how our co-workers were doing, because we were not seeing them face-to-face. It was important to have this information.
Around April, we noticed that there was really a need to connect more between the co-workers and the managers, so we decided to go to a frequency of weekly conversations. We decided to do video messages from the Managing Director on a very regular basis, focusing on how we as an organization were actually standing in this COVID-19 situation. We needed to share with [employees] that they didn't need it to be afraid of losing their jobs because that was something that we noticed as a remark that popped up.
This second phase of pulses also started to provide valuable insight into employee attitudes towards the idea of coming back to work in the office:
It gave us really good insight in the actions we needed to take to overcome the fear to come back to the office. So we sent employees, for instance, a package with hand gel and a mask, small actions, but they really gave the feeling that we were doing something with with their feedback.
In the event, the weekly run rate of employee pulses was deemed to be too frequent and this was cut back in a third phase. Van Ham explains:
Of course it is very nice to have this information, but for us it is very important to also be action-oriented. For the co-workers, they take the time to fill in the surveys, but they have to see what is happening with this information.
What phase three has done is to focus more on the longer term - how does the organization need to re-shape itself for an operational model for the so-called ‘new normal’? Van Ham says:
We adapted it to 50% home working, 50% working at the office, even after this period of COVID. This was really based upon the feedback that we received in the survey. This is really valued a lot in the organization. Next to that we see also in the figures and the pulses, especially on the driver of happiness, that we need to keep the focus on wellbeing, so this is something that we are really active in now and being on top of the mental health of the people.
The three phases have delivered valuable learnings, reckons Van Ham:
We went from the one shot [approach] to continuous monitoring and we saw actually some advantages in this approach. So the first one is that we were able to get the insights into the issues and the difficulties of co-workers that they were confronted with in this very special situation. And actually the time investment [for them] was really short. It just took them a couple of minutes to fill in the survey and we had really very valuable facts and figures to go further with. Especially within HR, it is important to have figures because it's always [seen as] the soft thing within a company. It is nice to really go to facts and to the figures, especially when we define actions and then we can see how the figures are actually evolving together with the actions.
What is also very positive about this continuous monitoring is that you keep track of the overall feeling within the company. The good thing is that we were also able to combine it with individual engagement of the co-workers, because we were doing these conversations in a very frequent way. We're still doing that. We get a very good overview of the total company, combined with the individual engagement of the co-workers and doing so it is a very good way to keep retention under control.
There are some downsides to the continuous approach, she admits:
The response rate is something we need to pay attention to. How do we keep co-workers motivated to fill in the pulses that they receive on a bi-weekly basis? To make sure that the response rate is high enough, we have seen that it is important to link actions to the results. When the Managing Director was presenting the videos, he referred a lot to the results of the surveys, so for people it was really like, ‘OK, it is important to fill in the survey because they take action based on my inputs’.
As things currently stand, Eurofins is tapping into the best of both worlds when it comes to employee engagement, concludes Van Ham:
We are still doing the annual survey like we did before, but we are combining now with the bi-weekly pulses which are really focused on drivers that are important now in the current situation that we are in. We did an annual engagement survey in September and what we have seen is that we had a score of 72, which is quite good, That is higher than last year, and we had a participation rate of 75%.
The good thing to see is that even with the difficult situation, we managed to keep the people engaged. Even when people were not really working physically together, we managed to have an engagement score that was high enough to keep them on board and to keep people happy. So for us it was really the perfect way to handle the situation of the lockdown and to keep working on it as we are doing now during the upcoming months.