Building resilience: Field staff engagement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic


This guest blog, written by Jackie Stenson from GDC member Essmart, explores strategies to move operations online and keep field staff engaged and motivated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building resilience: Field staff engagement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Guest blog authored by Jackie Stenson, co-founder and CEO of Essmart. Jackie is also a member representative on the GDC’s Advisory Council.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed workflows, overturned office hours, and necessitated huge changes for many employees. While some are able to work their office jobs from home, others have been forced to confront a seeming impossible reality: remote, home-based field work. With about 75% of Essmart’s staff in remote, field-based positions, we had to think creatively about how to keep staff, network, and operations engaged.

COVID-19 in India

India has been in a nationwide lockdown since the 24th of March, restricting many activities not deemed ’essential’, and mandating that individuals stay home save for essential outings in the most affected regions. This has made rural households and the shops they depend on more vulnerable than ever before. Shop owners – especially the majority of shops that specialize in goods other than groceries – still face weeks or months with diminished sales prospects. Rural economies are at risk, and households face challenges in accessing essential products beyond food items, such as agricultural tools, cooking appliances, and lighting.

Essmart’s response: kick-starting a remote work strategy

Essmart’s role as a distributor of essential goods enables us to help rural shops and the end customers who depend on them continue to access critical goods. In order to keep supporting our shops and our field team through the lockdown, we needed to find a way to translate daily in-person shop visits to remote virtual platforms.

We developed a remote work strategy for our field team, consisting of predominantly our sales teams as well as our field office administrators. The strategy needed to accommodate both our team members stuck at home and those members of the sales teams who were able to move around a bit more – a number which is ever-changing, as local travel restrictions are placed or lifted. With 18 offices across three Indian states, we also needed to consider a range of safety precautions at one time. Below are some elements of our strategy that have worked well for us in keeping our field team engaged and motivated while facing new job challenges.


1. COVID-19 relevant information

As a distributor of essential products, we wanted to also make sure we were distributing essential information to our field team and the shop owners they work with. We introduced videos to promote social distancing, digital flyers with recommendations for proper cleaning and health procedures, and regularly reminded our teams of the evidence-based information about COVID-19.

2. Daily plans

For our field team, the new working day was a complete upheaval from what they were used to. Instead of driving around on motorbikes to visit our network of shop owners (who are our customers), they were now ‘relegated’ to sitting at home. To create a feeling of structure and to ensure the team knew what was expected of them while working at home, we created a master daily plan template on which we could add and remove items every day; and which was relevant for the 80% of our field staff who interact with our shop owners. This was sent out over our team WhatsApp groups and, at the end of every day, everyone submitted a daily check-in Google form which recapped their daily tasks. This daily form submission reinforced both a sense of accountability and a sense of individual achievement during an otherwise confusing time period. Additionally, we held weekly remote team meetings via WhatsApp and Google Hangouts.

Essmart Daily Plan

3. Personal growth and distance learning opportunities

At our weekly remote team meetings, we offered professional development opportunities to staff to keep them engaged and motivated. These included in-house software training led by our IT department on both our own internal logistics software and on some basics and shortcuts of Microsoft Excel; a program that our field team uses quite frequently in addition to our logistics software, when keeping track of various records.

Additionally, we also ran product reviews and evaluations, which were perhaps the most impactful learning opportunities. Our training team put together short online quizzes about different products in our catalogue which each sales team member completed. These modules were supported by specific product reviews, and helped keep sales and product knowledge fresh despite the lull in sales.

Essmart product quizzes

4. Staying active and having fun

Our team is used to being on the move, so we kicked off the lockdown with daily exercises challenges. We also launched a variety of fun activities to continue building our sense of community. These ranged from doing virtual tours of one’s home to sharing favorite recipes, to matching people in your office to their baby pictures. In one of our favourite and most engaging activities, “Aliens Have Landed!”, employees were asked to describe Essmart to aliens through drawings and symbols, and each office selected their best images. All of these activities were simple, fun, and engaging, and could be done on a mobile phone and shared over WhatsApp. Ultimately, they helped to keep morale and team spirit up during what was otherwise a challenging and isolating period.

Essmart fitness challenges

Learning from experience, and from others, is key to adapting
We are all faced with daily, weekly, and monthly challenges. Without clear precedents to follow, we lean on each other’s learnings to navigate this uncertain terrain. Essmart’s current field engagement strategy was born from over a decade of experience navigating the complicated terrain of last mile distribution and decentralised team management and company culture, combined with extensive conversations with our very active team on how they want to stay engaged with each other. Working from the field in rural sales is challenging, and we hope that sharing some of the activities we’ve pursued can serve as inspiration to other field teams facing similar challenges.

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