May 7, 2020 • Workplace5 min read

How to win engagement with alienated people

City Pantry’s Head of Talent, Alex Jones, reveals the six steps your company can take to increase employee engagement during times of social distancing.

So here we are, mon amis! Week 8 billion of isolation and 17 series of Loose Women down with little to no understanding of when we might get back to some kind of normality. If ever.

I work for City Pantry, a business that's entire purpose is to enhance company culture and employee engagement through the power of food and getting together, something that’s taken a little bit of a twist lately due to “you-know-what”.

First, a bit about me - it’ll be easier to understand why I’ve written this if you know who I am. I’m Alex, passionate Head of Talent at City Pantry, musician, and egg-chaser (that's rugby to you). 

However, my position at City Pantry has changed recently. I’ve gone from leading City Pantry’s efforts in scaling, introducing strategy around sourcing, EVP, and Branding to now helping lead our internal Learning and Development initiatives and Employee Engagement due to a bit of a hiring freeze. A stark contrast and no mean feat, I can tell you that for free.

So, reader, I guess you’re here for the catchy title, huh…? Well, riddle me this: 

How do you nurture a historically outstanding workplace culture, when you have no physical place of work? 

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few hundred times over the past few weeks sat at my desk at home.

So, I thought you might benefit from my experience to date. Here is what I’ve done to drive employee engagement at City Pantry, in the face of an overwhelming isolated lifestyle; all (very fashionably) contact-free!

What is ‘employee engagement’, and why does it matter?

woman on laptop sitting on the floor

If you don't know, get to know. 

By definition, Employee Engagement is;

“ …a fundamental concept in the effort to understand and describe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the nature of the relationship between an organization and its employees. “

To City Pantry, it's the understanding and appreciation of our employees, their mental and physical wellbeing, their drive, their passion and their lives. It’s how they feel, how they believe, and how they relate; to each other, the work they’re doing, and the company they work for. 

It’s the framework that creates high-performing, intelligent and captivating teamwork. It’s how we, as a People and Talent team make all of that happen.

Let me be straight-up with you; there is nothing more mind-numbing than being in a disengaged team. And the reality is, there will be teams in your company that are disengaged and you have no idea about it. 

Unbeknown to you is that disengagement in a business is like a wet paper bag; it can only hold so much crap before it all falls through.

I’m not sure you really know how important it is that you're taking an interest in this blog post, but I’m proud of you for thinking of your people more like actual people, and not workers.

Kudos to you!

How to win employee engagement in 5 steps

Video call on zoom between two colleagues

You’ve got this far, might as well read on eh? It’s not like you’ve got anywhere to be right now...

Unlike most blog posts, I’m actually going to tell you what you can do. You can copy these ideas wherever you like (if you do, let me know how it goes?). I’m a bit of a storyteller, so it’ll be overly dramatic of course, and you’ll have to read between the lines. Don’t want to make it too easy for you. 

And, my dear reader, all with the mind-bogglingly mega minimal amounts of selling of City Pantry’s amazing offerings to both remote teams and office teams, including the frankly lifesaving Pantry Packages and teams@home gift card initiatives (I’m writing this on company time, so cut me some slack).

STEP 1: Forget what you know.

Done that? Awesome. Achievement unlocked. Bingo. Fist pump. Completed it, mate.

Jokes aside, we’re all operating in a world full of unknowns. If you reckon what you thought you knew was going to work nowadays, you’re probably wrong. 

Sorry, not sorry.

STEP 2: What are you missing?

Personally, I really miss interacting with my people at City Pantry. 

You know, the chance meetings in the corridors, the coffee machine catch-ups, the frantic rush to the lunch tables to grab your food order, and excuses to pop into the coffee shop... 

My dog is a nice dude, but isn’t overly chatty. Also, I think he only likes me because I feed him.

Even after a few days of lockdown, everyone was already COVID-19’d out. It was fast becoming a bluntly depressing subject, cabin-fever was settling in quickly, and as a mental-health sufferer myself I know how fast that s*** can go south. We all were feeling pretty alone and a bit lost. All of us.

So on the first Monday of company-wide WFH, I created the #the-isolation-club channel on Slack. A club that’s solely dedicated to our people, keeping remote working interactive, as joyous as possible, fun, informative, relaxed and ultimately - you got it - engaging. 

The rules are simple; minimal “talking shop”, regular challenges, virtual coffee shops, and as little COVID chat as possible. 

It’s a place where people can share music, laughs, appreciation, their banana bread recipe (we’ve all done it), pictures of their dogs/kids/workstations, and so on with no judgement. 

Think of it as a little get-away, haven or a void of what's going on around you.

STEP 3: Think outside the box.

We’re all self-made Quizzy-Rascals now; general trivia knowledge is at an all-time high. Quizzes are great, but when you’ve got more than 10 workmates, making something like that work for 100+ people on Zoom is a REAL attack on the senses.

So, step aside, Chris Tarrant.

As a fairly keen fitness person, we thought of ways to get people up and about for a few minutes at least, without forcing people into gruelling AMRAP workouts or running challenges. 

So, instead, we thought up Hunts.

We developed a list of randomly generated items one might find in their house and challenged teams to find said items in the quickest time possible.

Not only does this increase levels of collaboration, communication and cross-functional* teamwork to find the items in the optimum time and order (*in mixed departmental teams) but also, gets people moving about and the blood pumping a bit. 

Physical movement stimulates the development of new mitochondria (think battery cells) within your cells, meaning that your body will be able to produce more ATP (think the charge a battery gives off) over time. That gives you more energy to exert yourself physically, but it also means more energy for your brain, boosting your mental output.

This aligns well with NEAT methodology, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It’s the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise.

Bit of a wordy step - but I just want to back up the reasons we’re doing things. 

TLDR; get people moving + without forcing exercise + distract with fun = boosted mental output & engagement. We got a winner.

STEP 4:  Give your people some purpose.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve been super lucky to not have furloughed any of our staff. 

They’re the heart and soul of what we do, and we just wouldn’t be the same without them. 

However, it wouldn't be true to say that we’re as busy as we usually are, and married up with working remotely, this can lead to some idle thumbs (and brains). 

So, we’re encouraging our staff to take up volunteering opportunities for vulnerable communities and our charitable partners. It gives them some extracurricular activities and purpose. We think that giving back is a great way to generate a healthy and happy lifestyle. 

We also (as a business) help with logistics across our charitable partners and vendors to distribute food and goods to the NHS, care homes, fire departments, police stations, and more across the UK. 

Everyone is welcome to contribute - whether that be sharing contacts in those areas or bouncing around ideas to generate more opportunities for us to help out where we can. 

With meaningful connections to others being a little sparse right now, it’s paramount that we create catalysts to overcome that distance. 

Studies show volunteering helps counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety. The social contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being. 

Nothing relieves stress better than a meaningful connection to another person.

STEP 5: Communicate, communicate, communicate. 

I think it’s fairly apparent that things in business aren’t going to be the same as they were before. 

Businesses are having to pivot slightly to accommodate a potential new world, a new type of customer, and different offering to a more distributed workforce. 

Making sure that your business communicates openly, thoroughly, and effectively about changes, prioritisation, and what needs to be done is key to a successful team. 

Having a clear understanding of what part you as a team member (or your team members) are playing in the company's focus gives them a greater sense of structure to their working day. 

So whatever changes you’re making, make sure they’re in the know.

BONUS STEP:  Make them feel good. 

One of the shortest, but probably most important steps is to make sure your team feels valued and don’t feel forgotten. 

Give them more praise when they do something well than you would usually and reward them for the work they’re having to do at the moment. 

A great example is that this Bank Holiday weekend (08/05/20) we’re sending every single person here at City Pantry a Pantry Packages food box so they can treat themselves to something delicious this weekend. 

It’s the little things that really brighten up people's day.


So there we have it; 5 (+ a bonus) proven things that myself and the team here at City Pantry have done to maintain an engaged and high-performing team in the face of uncertainty.

It won't happen overnight, it’ll take a little bit of teamwork, planning and belief. But if you really value your teammates, you’ll take the above to your next meeting. 

Be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, and if you have any questions, drop me a Tweet (@Hi_Im_AlexJ).