How BAT has kept 53,000 employees engaged remotely during Covid-19

A 24-hour virtual get-together for all staff, fun activities such as at-home workouts and regular comms have all been key to maintaining a sense of connection and morale, reports Ali Phillips

How BAT has kept 53,000 employees engaged remotely during Covid-19

On 18 March 2020, BAT unveiled its evolved corporate strategy – as well as its new corporate purpose and ethos – to investors, employees and external audiences. Twenty-four hours later, as the global emergency unfolded, BAT had all but shut its head office ahead of Covid-19 restrictions along with most of its other offices around the world.

Against this backdrop, how do you continue to communicate with and engage employees – not only about an evolved strategy but also the implications of the pandemic for jobs and the company as a whole? 

As the group head of internal comms, one of my main challenges is to keep our workforce of 53,000 across 180 markets informed and engaged. Coronavirus threw up a whole new challenge: how do you do that when your workforce is working remotely? How do you encourage teamwork and collaboration when you’re all working separately? How do you foster an inclusive culture and sense of belonging when there’s no physical workplace where employees can meet every day? Lockdown has shown us the feasibility – and challenges – of working remotely and the lessons learnt during this period will therefore remain important for years to come.

At BAT, we operate in a highly competitive market and our employees work hard. Their resilience and motivation in these unusual and challenging circumstances has been inspiring and integral to the continued success of the business. However, we also know that the best ideas often come from chatting with colleagues ‘at the water cooler’ or in the cafe, and working relationships can be cemented over a post-work drink or team lunch. Lockdown has put many of these activities on pause. Working remotely can often make relationships with colleagues feel transactional because you only speak about work-related matters. So it’s important to maintain the social and fun aspects of working. 

This was how we came up with the concept for our #StrongerTogether event, a 24-hour global, virtual get-together for all employees across the world. Staff were able to take part in a host of activities, including an at-home workout delivered by an official Adidas ambassador (and BAT colleague) and a behind-the-scenes tour of the McLaren F1 garage, who we have a global partnership with. People also shared pictures and videos showcasing their hobbies, talents or attempts to juggle work and childcare. 

Importantly, this cannot be a box-ticking exercise – you don’t just host one fun company event and suddenly you’ve secured employee engagement for the year. It’s about establishing a positive work culture over time by ensuring there is a steady drumbeat of communications as well as continuing to find creative ways to keep employees motivated. 

So, in addition to our #StrongerTogether event, we have been in regular communication with all staff regarding the company’s recommended ways of working through Covid-19, providing practical advice and also sharing good news stories of employee volunteering from around the group. Other fun events have included the R&D team hosting a challenge whereby each person was mailed some Lego and invited to build their ideal workplace and share pictures. While these events and activities may sound frivolous, their impact is invaluable. 

With remote working set to become more common, ensuring you have adequate digital capabilities to deliver virtual events and activities is critical. If this period has taught us one thing, it’s that a jittery video call where one person’s camera is delayed while another can’t hear anything is frustrating and disruptive. It can make employees feel even more disconnected. The technology needs to be seamless. 

So for the #StrongerTogether event, we built an internal micro-site using Yammer and SharePoint which had never been used for an event of that scale and complexity before. Investment in the right technology that makes communication across the business as easy and instinctive as a physical encounter is essential.

Maintaining employee engagement has become more important and more challenging during lockdown. It’s not just about organising fun events and entertaining activities, but ensuring employees continue to interact with each other and connect about something other than that day’s to-do list. Ultimately, engagement depends on employees feeling their hard work is recognised, valued and contributing to the wider goals of the organisation – even more so when you can’t thank them in person. 

Ali Phillips is group head of internal communications at BAT