ITL #420 - Rising to the challenge: how CAE maintained employee engagement amid the pandemic

1 week, 5 days ago


A four-pronged employee empowerment strategy with measurable objectives helped Canadian aerospace technology company CAE keep morale and performance levels high. By Hélène V. Gagnon.

As communicators, we were all probably tasked with maintaining company culture and employee engagement since the onset of the pandemic, despite having most staff working from home. It was the case at CAE as well, and I would like to share some insight on how we rose to the challenge.


The company I work for specializes in aerospace, an industry that has been among the hardest hit as a result of the pandemic. How could we quickly turn this disastrous situation around while keeping our employees engaged? The answer was to actively involve them in the solution while building on our corporate values.


As is often the case, engaging stakeholders in defining the solution along with you is a powerful strategy.


One of our core corporate values is empowerment, so it was strategic for us to leverage the empowerment of our 10,000 employees during the pandemic. We aimed to actively engage employees on a global scale, keeping them involved and proud as they contributed to helping us find innovative solutions to increase our revenues and improve our processes, all while reducing costs and key risks.


Following several employee surveys, we developed measurable objectives and established a four-pronged empowerment strategy.


We empowered our employees to:


  1. Tell us what they wanted to hear, ask questions to senior management and get answers based on their real concerns.


We relied on the personal involvement of our CEO and his management team. The CEO hosted about 20 sessions open to all employees in the last year. Employees could share topics, questions and concerns ahead of time, and each presentation would focus on what was on their mind at that time. During the live session, the CEO answered questions on the spot, sometimes hundreds of them. Any questions he could not immediately attend to, either due to lack of time or information, were answered in writing and shared company-wide through weekly newsletters. Full transparency.


Needless to say, many questions were tough – but the openness paid off. CAE’s employee engagement was maintained over the last year despite the very difficult situation in which the company found itself and the tough measures that needed to be implemented. In fact, 84% of our employees confirmed they were confident that CAE would overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic.


  1. Find solutions during the crisis.


To stimulate our employees’ innovative spirit, we developed a digital platform to gather their ideas called Alleviating the Impact of Covid-19 Together. The 310 submitted ideas have generated significant revenue for CAE (over $250 million) and led to significant cost reductions (over $100 million). We received 2,714 web-based interactions from employees on the site from 84 locations around the world.


These are a few ideas our employees came up with:

  • CAE Air1 ventilator: Employees demonstrated their inventiveness and lateral thinking by designing a ventilator from scratch to contribute to Canada’s self-sufficiency and the fight against covid-19 – even though we were not in the med tech business. CAE obtained a contract from the Canadian government to produce thousands of these lifesaving ventilators, which not only preserved 300 jobs at CAE during 2020, but also 3,000 jobs in the supply chain.
  • Airside ( Employees developed a digital platform to bring together airline pilots from around the world to help each other cope with the covid-19 crisis, all while offering career and training resources on the same platform.
  • Flight simulator acceptance and qualification by regulatory agencies, and customer support all performed remotely.



  1. Reduce cybersecurity risks.


We launched a cybersecurity awareness campaign called The Impact of One Click to reinforce that everyone is personally responsible for CAE’s cybersecurity. We simulated a cyber attack to show that even a single click on one malicious link could have disastrous consequences for the company, and 90% of employees found the campaign effective.



  1. Maximize recognition, pride and morale.


We developed initiatives to recognize employees who contributed to our success during the crisis, one of which was called Behind the Mask/Behind the Screen. We asked employees to nominate colleagues who exceeded expectations during the pandemic, either behind the scenes, their mask or a screen. We put the spotlight on these lauded individuals and their work, giving them well-deserved recognition through stories written by their colleagues, as well as visibility internally and on social media. It was a feel-good initiative that was appreciated across the company.


To further increase the level of engagement and boost morale, we created an appreciation week called In the Spirit of One CAE. During that week:


  • We encouraged employees to spread cheer and encouragement by sending virtual kudos to as many colleagues as possible. Ramping up recognition is always a good idea.
  • We invited employees in every time zone to dress in a specific colour and then send us their photos, which we compiled to recreate the world’s largest rainbow. Here in Quebec, as in many other parts of the world, the rainbow has fittingly become our universal symbol of solidarity and hope over the past year, bearing the promise of brighter days to come.
  • We shared a playful, heartfelt video featuring 60 managers and executives from around the world thanking employees for all their efforts during the pandemic. They filmed themselves in their real-life scenarios, which really resonated with employees: whether they were homeschooling, playing hairdresser or baking bread, the upper management team members showed a very relatable side of themselves that further drove the point home that, even though we’ve had to recalibrate and learn some new ropes, we’re all in the same boat.


Thousands of employees around the world participated in our various activities and 81% of employees confirmed they were proud to work at CAE despite the current situation.


Empowering employees turned out to be a resounding success, both on a human level (employee engagement) and on a financial level (business results and risk mitigation). When faced with a difficult communications challenge, always think of asking your audience what they would do. Your audience’s involvement may turn out to be your best strategy!




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The Author

Hélène V. Gagnon

Hélène V. Gagnon is Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, Global Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility at CAE since 2015 and is a member of the Executive Management Committee. She manages CAE’s brand and reputation including public affairs, web and social media presence, corporate events and issues/crisis management.

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