The need to create a supportive, inclusive environment in the workplace is not new. The best employers have always looked for ways to energise, motivate and encourage the people they rely on for success.

The need to create a supportive, inclusive environment in the workplace is not new. The best employers have always looked for ways to energise, motivate and encourage the people they rely on for success.

But the health crisis currently facing the world has brought the need for that support into sharp focus for many more organisations. And it’s changed the nature of what employees need to do their best work.

Sodexo’s corporate concierge service, Circles, was created to help promote wellbeing and minimise distractions. A workplace service that can take care of the to-do list or the ‘life admin’ that might otherwise interfere with the working day, allowing people to prioritise the tasks they need to, as well as make better use of their downtime.

New distractions and the need to adjust to new ways of working have made such services more important than ever, and the Circles team has been well positioned to adapt.

Where they were once providing ideas for weekend day trips and booking MOTs, now they are arranging grocery deliveries and providing advice on setting up a home office.

For some clients, the biggest worry is the people they can’t see. Making birthdays and anniversaries special despite the restrictions, or even simply making sure the vulnerable are safe and supported.

The emphasis may have shifted, but the purpose is the same as ever: Improving the employee experience by providing the support each individual needs to be at their best.

People will remember this. Post-Covid-19, when we begin to enter the new normal, whatever that looks like, people will remember who helped them when they needed it most.

Michael Fildes, Managing Director at Circles UK and Ireland

A tangible difference at work and at home

Employees, referred to as members by the Circles team, consistently say they feel more valued and supported when their employer provides this service. In some cases there is a concierge offering personal assistance and support on site, although many will use the virtual service with a tailored web portal and email address. 

For companies, this isn’t just a simple enhancement to the employee experience. It becomes a key differentiator, central to attracting and retaining the best talent and reducing stress and anxiety levels across the board.

Members’ lives have, of course, changed significantly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. For the UK team, this means many more members are working from home, as is the Circles team itself.

Under normal circumstances, advice and help booking leisure activities make up a significant proportion of requests. Now, the focus is on home services, securing deliveries and equipping people to work from home.

Michael Fildes, Managing Director at Circles UK and Ireland, says the latter has been one of the biggest changes and it’s likely to have a long-lasting impact.

“There’s always been a misconception that homeworking is easy, but now people are starting to realise how hard it is,” he says. “Juggling distractions, working with children, flatmates or parents around, even the challenges of setting up a suitable home office.”

But some are still thinking about a brighter future, as the team has booked at least one holiday for an optimistic member who wanted something to look forward to.

Adapting to new challenges

A member typically saves around 2.5 hours on every task when they interact with a Circles concierge. That time becomes their own again, allowing them to enjoy their time away from work as well as eliminating potential distractions.

In the last few weeks, Michael says, the figure has moved closer to 3 hours per task, given the extra time required to adapt to new situations and ways of working.

A lot of businesses are facing several huge challenges at the moment - how to engage a dispersed workforce, how they can support them away from the workplace, and of course how they can maintain a level of productivity. That’s without even factoring in all the usual distractions that life throws at us.

Michael Fildes, Managing Director at Circles UK and Ireland

Grocery shopping is not something the team typically deals with, but now it makes up 30% of all requests. Of course, supermarkets are under unprecedented pressure and delivery slots are extremely difficult to secure.

So the Circles team has been getting creative, seeking out local suppliers like butchers, greengrocers and convenience stores to find those who can provide what members need in their areas. In some cases restaurant suppliers have switched to making produce available to the general public, but it takes time to find and arrange these local deliveries or collections.

“The great thing about this is we’re supporting the local community as well as finding fresh, farm-quality produce,” says Michael. “The supermarkets are doing a great job but they’re inundated, so we’re thinking of innovative solutions to help our clients.”

Home service requests have always been common, but they’ve increased by 200% during the lockdown as the focus shifts. The team has helped source plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople, while many members are asking for advice on how to become more self-sufficient, particularly in the garden.

But it’s not all about maintenance and basic survival. The concierge service has truly excelled when it comes to restoring a sense of normality.

Michael gives the example of a member in London, whose sister lives in Dorset. The sister had been unwell with suspected symptoms of Covid-19 and was about to celebrate a birthday, so the member wanted to make it special. She couldn’t travel to Dorset, so she hoped to have something delivered, but no one she contacted could guarantee a timeframe.

That’s when she got in touch with the Circles concierge team. The request was seemingly simple - a lemon meringue pie (her sister’s favourite dessert) delivered to the doorstep on her birthday.

“We knew we would be extremely limited, but we scoured the local community, called bakers and delicatessens until we found someone who would make and drop off the pie,” says Michael. “They also had some helium balloons, which was a nice added touch. It seems simple, but it took a huge effort in this environment and the effect it had on the member and her sister made every second worth it.”

Support for the NHS

Much of Sodexo’s knowledge of how to provide the right support in this unprecedented situation comes from involvement at Arrowe Park Hospital. In the earliest days of the outbreak, before any cases were confirmed in the UK, the NHS engaged Circles to look after the non-clinical needs of people who were quarantined after returning from Wuhan, China.

This led to a deep understanding of the challenges that would ultimately face the population as a whole, including difficulty sleeping.

Now, the team is providing support for the NHS in another way, as Buckinghamshire Healthcare Trust sought help for its staff who are battling the virus on the frontlines.

“Lockdown is putting an immense strain on the NHS. People are working longer hours, for more days and weeks, so maximising downtime is more important than ever,” Michael explains. “The Trust was looking for ways to support those frontline staff, to truly care for its members. It’s a powerful message - even during this pandemic, we will look after you whatever way we can.”

The support of a concierge service allows clinicians to be fully present, taking away distractions like a boiler breakdown at home and resolving them so members can focus on the task at hand.

Some doctors and nurses have been forced to live away from home for this period, in many cases because of a need to protect vulnerable family members. The need to support each other is greater than ever in this environment, and members say it makes a world of difference when employers take practical steps to ensure that support is there.

Advice and guidance

Alongside that practical support, members in every client organisation have access to tailored advice and guidance through their web portal. But there’s been a shift in emphasis here too, as needs have evolved.

Now there are more articles on things to do indoors - as a couple, as a family, or as an individual living alone. The Circles team has also generated ideas for cooking with ingredients found in a typical cupboard, and how to make substitutions for foods that are frequently out of stock.

People may not be at their designated workplace, but they’re inviting the work into their house. We need to think about the employee experience - what kind of support and benefit can the company give in this situation?

Michael Fildes, Managing Director at Circles UK and Ireland

As with Sodexo’s wellbeing support for its own employees, this content and the guidance is not about the virus itself, but is particularly useful and meaningful as people adjust.

A more supportive future

Despite the difficulty of the situation, Michael has noticed a boost in morale among the Circles team and the members they’re supporting.

People across the UK are facing the same challenges and the same confusion, so everyone is more understanding.

Many of the requests the team receive are about supporting others, whether it’s finding a pie for a birthday or ensuring food is delivered to a vulnerable relative. For the staff fulfilling these requests, the work is more rewarding than ever, and they feel like they are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Feedback surveys and messages of gratitude confirm this, creating what Michael describes as a “cycle of happiness” that lifts the spirits of everyone involved.

So what does this mean for the future of the support employers will provide when the pandemic has passed?

Michael believes we will see more dispersed workforces, and organisations will have to respond and adapt to the ‘new normal’ by providing the support people need to do their best work no matter where they are.

“Concierge isn’t just a luxury, especially when the workplace is at home,” he says. “There is no other benefit or service an employer can provide that deals with the home life and provides a personal assistant programme for the entire workforce.”

No matter when, or how, we emerge from the current situation, organisations will still rely on their people for success. The world of work will change, but creating a supportive, inclusive environment - wherever that happens to be - will only become more important.

To find out more about how Sodexo can improve work and transform workplace experience for your business, click here to contact us.

April 27, 2020

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