AstraZeneca is embracing belonging, inclusion and volunteering to keep its employees socially connected and engaged as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

The isolation that accompanies remote working due to the pandemic has been challenging for most employees, says Gena Restivo, the biopharmaceutical company’s vice-president of human resources, communications and sustainability in Canada. “We recognized early on that the more we bring our people together and reinforce the work that we’re doing in our communities and organization, the stronger we’ll all be together.”

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AstraZeneca’s more than 1,200 Canadian employees logged around 700 hours of volunteerism and contributed to 87 different charitable causes last year. In 2020, about 600 of its employees across the country tuned in to a virtual concert in support of Food Banks Canada, raising $45,000. It also held a holiday concert for its Canadian employees and their family members in December 2021, during which employees were able to share their stories of gratitude and experience volunteering, as well as their different festive traditions.

“As an organization, we believe that we’re at our best, when our employees are at their best,” says Restivo. “And in a pandemic, [when] people are isolated and trying to learn new skills and capabilities to work remotely while managing their personal responsibilities, we made sure to stay true to our culture.”

In addition, AstraZeneca leaned into its inclusion and belonging strategy. In November 2021, the organization held a “power of diversity” week, bringing employees from all over the globe together virtually to discuss key diversity, equity and inclusion issues and to celebrate diverse perspectives. Last year, the company held an employee appreciation day, which featured a discussion on finding success and motivation by connecting with others. “We believe if we create the right environment where people feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo they’ll bring their best selves to work.”

Read: Diversity, inclusion at work a priority for younger employees: survey

Almost two years into the global pandemic, the need for human connection has really come into focus for employers, says Jennifer Kirby, a principal at Vital Partners Inc. At the beginning of the public health crisis, employers dabbled in creative ways to keep staff engaged, all the while hoping the crisis would be weeks or months — not years — long.

But as the second year of the pandemic winds down with no clear end in sight, Kirby says employers are realizing they need to dedicate more time and resources to building structured social engagement programs into their businesses. From paying for virtual co-working bubbles to online board games and quizzes, she says employers are turning to creative tools to keep employees connected.

“With an increase in people going on disability, paramedical claims for mental-health issues and utilization of anti-depressants, the lack of social connectedness is beginning to hit employers’ bottom line. For every dollar they invest, they’re seeing a return on the investment in terms of healthier, happier employees.”

Alongside Oxford University, AstraZeneca developed a coronavirus vaccine in 2020, since supplying more than 2.5 billion doses of vaccine to hundreds of mostly low- and middle-income countries. Restivo says the company’s goal is to deliver life-changing medicines to patients and that’s hard to achieve without a workplace culture built on growth and development, health and well-being and inclusion and belonging.

“In the face of the greatest health emergency in our lifetime, our employees are so proud that we did not stand on the sidelines. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on what [company] cultures that have strong engagement can achieve. A company’s success is directly related to employees’ belief in a shared purpose and an environment where they can bring their best selves to work.”

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