Principals’ Steve Main explains how a brand lens can help businesses managing workforces out of Covid.

For many businesses working remotely during Covid, there’s strong team spirit and a heightened sense of empathy – especially towards those juggling young kids.

And, counterintuitively, in some ways, this way of working is more personal than being in the workplace. The candour of seeing into each other’s homes with various pet and children interruptions has, in many cases, built a stronger connection between teammates.

However, the most recent extended lockdown seems to be loosening the social contract between employer and employee resulting in landmines for the future, from workarounds to changed work terms and conditions that may surface as low engagement or departures down the track. With less daily physical presence in the workplace, what does belonging to a team mean now?

The reset, when this is eventually over, is going to present an almighty challenge for leaders as they attempt to unlock the same amount of discretionary effort from employees that was taken for granted before the pandemic. Coming into the office every day was taken for granted, travelling far and wide for face-to-face meetings was taken for granted, deferring family and outside-of-work commitments in favour of work was taken for granted.

A brand lens is a valuable approach in dealing with this challenge. As a piece in the Harvard Business Review notes, leaders need to manage expectations, embrace ambiguity and stay focused on the bigger story.

One lever suggested is the opportunity to focus on enabling joy. That could mean, for example, weekly sharing of WFH mishaps or delights through humorous and inspiring stories that will give rise to a continued sense of community.

To give shape to the challenge of engaging talent and maintaining team spirit in a less physically present context, it’s helpful to think in terms of engaging Heads, Hearts, and Hands:

• Heads – are we enabling understanding of what our brand stands for?

• Hearts – are we inspiring commitment to what our brand stands for?

• Hands – are we giving our people the opportunity to operate at their best?

It is necessary now for employers to work harder than ever on all three than when the employee was a ‘captive’ audience in a workplace.

The implications of the extended WFH experience on organisation culture have been well noted with a report from PWC pointing out that, “The challenge for leaders now is to maintain, strengthen and harness a sense of belonging across their teams to something bigger.” And that’s where brand can help. A more compelling than ever brand purpose, clear cultural behaviour guidelines, true staff development and creative communications are critical levers to pull.

There’s a very real concern in the biggest businesses about ‘getting people back’ and recommitted to campus-style working environments anywhere near full-time. Beyond the practical safety aspects – and a need to understand the factors affecting individual hesitancy such as fears of using public transport, no reliable solutions for childcare or home-schooling –  definitive help is needed around maintaining strong cultures in a blended scenario.

Throw in talent shortages and the future of blended WFH/office makes for a whole new set of engagement and organisational culture challenges as employers look to maintain and grow the high engagement and team spirit that unlocks discretionary effort.

While not everyone will resist a snapback to BAU in the office, new norms will need to be improvised/negotiated/co-created – and critically, team spirit rebuilt. It may be necessary to revise what your brand stands for in this new world order and what that means for the people who imbue it.

If ever there was a time for an empathy-based brand-led design approach it is now as employers look for ways to engage employees who are less present in the workplace but may be more present in the life they want.


Steve Main is a Director of branding agency Principals.

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