Insight into engagement challenges & solutions for leaders during COVID-19

Tools and tips to help teams stay in sync within in-person, hybrid and remote formats

As an organization whose services reach a broad range of individuals for a diverse and growing set of needs, there are many ways CHD’s leaders have adjusted their day-to-day operations in accordance with new and evolving protocols and a need to keep both staff and people served safe.

Many leaders have adapted to a remote or hybrid model as they continue to manage multiple staff and/or multiple programs. A common practice across the workforce at large in the time of COVID-19, this adaptation allows for a new, safety-centric model while also requiring leaders to continue to consider how their staff not only carry out their work but feel connected and engaged with it.

While the crisis continues to have a rulebook that’s written in real time, each chapter presenting a new set of accomplishments and setbacks, it’s also had an unusual effect on employee engagement across the global work force.

According to Gallup, a global analytics and advice firm specializing in employee engagement, “…engagement levels have fluctuated more than ever before,” but despite rising and falling throughout the course of the pandemic, has since “reverted back to pre-COVID-19 levels,” by October 2020. Surveying over 110,000 business units, Gallup reports that, generally, about 35% of employees surveyed are actively engaged. This comes after a recent peak (40% between late June and mid-July) and dip to 35-36% of those surveyed who reported being “highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

But what does employee engagement look like, and how is it effected?

Put simply, employee engagement refers to the relationships between an organization and its employees. But in an organization as broad and multifaceted as CHD, the concept of employee engagement goes a bit further.

“In CHD’s case, employee engagement is centric to staff being committed to and personally and emotionally invested in the mission and success of the organization,” said CHD Vice President of Human Resources Carol Fitzgerald. “Beyond being happy in a job, it’s about putting forth extraordinary effort because they’re proud of the organization and feel grounded in the mission.”

Employee engagement is an especially important focus for CHD as the organization continues through an evolving and difficult time, and staff both at CHD and workforce-wide experience feelings of “COVID fatigue,” which raises the risk of a negative impact both on staff and those they serve.

“A lack of engagement can lead to poorer quality services, staff burnout, absenteeism and even people ultimately leaving who we might otherwise wanted to retain. It can also have a real negative impact on our service delivery, and staff individually,” Fitzgerald explained. “We spend a lot of time at work, and while not every day is perfect, it’s important, especially now, to know you and your team are working toward the same goals and therefore able to provide support to one another. When that doesn’t happen because staff are disconnected or disengaged, it could have a traumatic effect on an organization.”

Fitzgerald said that some teams have shared anecdotes to suggest they’re really thriving in a hybrid environment, with leaders reporting better and more quality participation in meetings, attributing such to staff who would previously have to travel to meetings having more time to focus. Others have reported difficulty trying to manage teams they don’t get to see on a regular basis due to rotating schedules, as well as difficulty in teams keeping connected for similar reasons.


“In CHD’s case, employee engagement is centric to staff being committed to and personally and emotionally invested in the mission and success of the organization. Beyond being happy in a job, it’s about putting forth extraordinary effort because they’re proud of the organization and feel grounded in the mission.”

Carol Fitzgerald, Vice President of Human Resources


CHD staff have had a variety of experiences as they continue to adapt in order to provide services. Below are some ways that leaders across CHD, as well as leaders in engagement scholarship, have efforted to boost connection and engagement in their own teams:


Begin with supervisors

Since May 2020, Gallup reports that, of those surveyed, managers reported feeling less engaged, informed and prepared by a large margin. Simultaneously, Gallup notes that managers “account for an astounding 70% of the variance in team engagement,” so working to help a manager re-engage can have a direct impact on not only the respective manager but those they oversee.

Some ways Gallup suggests leaders drive this engagement is by having consistent one-on-one conversations with managers to discuss immediate needs as well as training to manage dispersed workforces and effective coaching conversations. Through this chain of leadership, managers can listen and relate to their leader’s firsthand experience and feel supported through commonality.

“We really want to think about how we can support managers in facilitating a higher level of engagement,” Fitzgerald added. “The whole idea around communication is critical, and so we’re continuously examining opportunities for us to communicate either in new ways or sharing new ideas, one of those being managers sharing best practices. Through this type of communication, we can really learn from each other.”


Keep the communication flowing

Gallup suggests that managers are also one of the most important communication channels. “They are uniquely positioned to support and coach employees. To this end, leaders should hold managers accountable for maintaining a two-way exchange with their teams. The best managers provide consistent, meaningful feedback, ask questions and value employees’ opinions.”


Listen, and do so individually

Though we have collective experiences, we each experience a different set of challenges during a crisis. Whether it’s outside pressures or their own wellbeing or feelings of safety, employees have their own individual needs, and those can evolve on a given day. Elizabeth Barron, ACCS Clinic Director for two of CHD’s programs in Springfield and Holyoke, shared that her team approaches everything person-first, and that can make all the difference.

“Every conversation starts with ‘How are you doing?’ first, whether it’s an email or a conversation over the phone or Zoom. We ask, ‘How are you, and what do you need?’” Barron explained. “Giving staff and people served permission to ask for more than they would normally and checking in a bit more has helped people understand that they matter above all else. That really cascades top-down, from leadership to all clinicians, and then to those we serve.”


Continue routines or traditions, even if you have to get creative

Whether it’s regular team check-ins or monthly meetings, having designated times to help staff connect or to celebrate accomplishments, can have a direct impact on morale and help remind teams of the impact they make each day.

Before COVID, Program Director of CHD’s Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative services Sue Sullivan used to cook breakfast for her management team every Tuesday morning. As the program’s leaders adapted to a remote and hybrid setting, Sue still wanted to try and continue this tradition of having a meal together even if it had to be adjusted for safety. Once a month, when the weather cooperates, Sue changes their meeting venue from Zoom to the parking lot of CHD’s West Springfield office, where they can still get together for breakfast and keep a safe distance.


Use tools to close gaps and stay connected

In the earlier days of COVID-19 Linda Thouin Quinn, a Registered Nurse for CHD’s Meadows Homes who oversees medication administration across the program’s many houses, was unable to go from site to site to complete medication audits in-person. Using V-Comply, a compliance, governance, and risk software platform CHD is implementing across the entire agency, Thouin Quinn set up a procedure for supervisors to submit all medication sheets monthly so she could audit them remotely. She’s also used the software to track the daily temperature readings of three individuals served who are currently on a medication that can affect their immune systems to help the team stay on top of their general health, especially as COVID-19 lingers.


Continue to empower others, and lead by example

In the early days of COVID-19, CHD’s behavioral health team met via Zoom for a daily check-in led by Vice President of Behavioral Health Katherine Cook that created a space where Cook could not only share new information as the crisis unfolded but also one where the team could connect on areas where they could support one another, exchange ideas and share in their experiences during what was an especially stressful time.

As things began to settle and workflows began to adapt, the meetings were able to shift from daily to three days a week, and then to weekly, but they’ve continued to hold a lasting impression on Director of Substance Use Services Trish Pollicina. From that model, Pollicina has also worked to incorporate opportunities to check-in about work and more, and create opportunities to ensure staff have an opportunity to make their voices heard.

“Katherine really did a lot for her team to help us stay focused but also ease anxiety, and so I took her lead and really tried to emulate a lot of what she did. In the very beginning when we were meeting every day, she did a lot to help us stay connected but also to help ease the stress you could see in everybody’s eyes,” Pollicina said. “I’ve tried to do something similar. I meet with each of my program directors regularly but also try to meet as a group once every two weeks at the very least to check in and make sure we’re all on the same page. But that meeting is also something where they can share anything that’s troubling them or talk about what they’re doing to help residents. Because of this recurring collaboration we’ve done a lot of idea sharing and come up with a lot of new ideas we might not have otherwise.”