What has COVID-19 taught us about employee engagement?
Business is being disrupted. New business models, exponential technology, agile ways of working, and regulation are constantly changing the way organisations work. COVID-19 has only accelerated this transformation, grounded in human experience principles and which, in turn, can drive sustainable change on a behavioural, cultural, and organisational level. We take a closer look at lessons learned through the experiences of employee engagement during COVID-19.
Despite COVID-19’s negative effects, it is likely that we all agree on one thing – we’ve learned a lot! After local businesses were forced to close shop and manage all their employees remotely, the learning curve for managers was initially steep. Yet this new way of functioning has brought with it some valuable lessons about how to boost employee engagement that should not be forgotten in the ‘new normal’.
Employee engagement refers to the emotional commitment an employee has to their organisation and its employees, vision and goals. It is NOT about employee satisfaction, high salaries or thanking an employee after a long day of work. Many companies make the mistake of treating employee engagement as a human resources issue, when it is actually a business one… that’s right upper management, this article is also for you!
The onus is on management to introduce work methods and policies that nurture the emotional connections between employees and their workplaces and motivate them to remain committed to the company for the long-term. Here are three recommendations about how to improve employee engagement.
1. Take a ‘supportive management’ approach
During the work-from-home scenario, senior management who did not have remote working measures in place at the pandemic outset had to find a way to manage their team’s performance from home. Some common online methods used were daily team meetings and frequent 1-1 check-ins. For many, having frequent check-ins led to micro-goal setting and gave employees the opportunity to receive constant feedback. This ‘coaching’ approach allows management to easily assess and measure progress whilst also boosting team-productivity which, in turn, keeps employees engaged – giving them a sense of purpose and achievement in reaching goals. Increased communication between management and employees allows issues and concerns to be voiced, allowing time to more easily anticipate or resolve them. Commitment from the top, to adopt such a supportive management approach, has proven to be beneficial to all.
Equally important for employee engagement is for an organisation to have a culture of recognition, to drive engagement - an aspect of the ‘coaching’ method described earlier is praise. Research shows that high performing teams have a praise to criticism ratio of 5:1, meaning they give each other 5 times more positive feedback than criticism. Praising employees keeps them engaged; the feeling of being trusted releases oxytocin in the body, making people more energetic, creative and reliable, so praise your employees!
2. Create a positive work environment
For the majority, a change of environment was the biggest challenge, going from the office - where everyone is among colleagues in work-mode, to home - where varying contrasts abound such as being alone, or having young children at hand or elderly to care for or even a neighbouring baby or pet making noise, all of which would be disruptive to any workflow.
That said, the flexible working environment, that most employees experienced during COVID-19, has changed our understanding of work-life-balance. Working from home has allowed employees to do their work whilst also attending to personal needs (e.g. taking care of children, elderly and pets and errands) simultaneously. This has served as a reminder to managers that there are a number of non-work related factors that can affect an employee’s mindset and therefore their engagement. Employees have proven the ability to maintain balance between work and personal needs, albeit through a forced period of testing. In the post-COVID period, management must not forget the importance of constantly creating a positive work environment for their employees. This must include making sure that work fits into their employees’ lives and not the other way around. It is essential that management pays attention to factors that impact employees outside of work. Some recommended solutions are; working from home, child care facilities, pet friendly areas, parental leave and mental health days. When employees feel that their personal needs are valued by management, their emotional connection to the organisation is strengthened and they are more likely to stay on. Indeed, in the remote working scenario of COVID-19, the flexibility to determine one’s working hours has sometimes resulted in the increased commitment of employees who were willing to work beyond expected hours, as a direct result of positive engagement.
3. Encourage ‘trust in leadership’
During COVID-19, employees had to trust leaders to take the right direction and to make tough decisions for the future. A key part of trust in leadership is transparency, where employees have visibility into what is happening within their organisation. This is particularly important during a work-from-home scenario, where employees are reliant on leaders to take crucial decisions for the future of their jobs and the organisation. A key part of this has been communication between management and employees on how the organisation is tackling COVID-19. By way of examples, in some organisations, discussions have centred on the effects to the organisation, strategic plans for acquiring clients and re-shuffling of roles, etc.
To inspire this trust in leadership in the post-COVID-19 period, we recommend having frequent check-ins and transparent conversations between directors, managers and employees so that employees feel included in what is happening within the organisation. Moreover, it is also imperative for employees to learn about individual growth opportunities. Leaders who invest in the learning and development of their employees will be encouraging engagement - not only relating to education and training but also the learning that occurs through constructive feedback; a crucial element to achieve a learning organisation “status”. Another benefit of having frequent team meetings, is that a constant feedback loop can be developed, whereby employees are continuously improving their work through transparent communication with management. These practices will boost employee engagement and help organisations to retain their employees for the longer term.
Although many organisations have faced challenges in adjusting their management styles during COVID-19, lessons learned about employee engagement will bring about positive changes in employee mindsets. The development of emotional connections between employees and their place of work, post-COVID, will lead to lower employee turnover, improved productivity and motivation. Fostering these connections requires a commitment from senior management and C-suite to adopt the above styles and rethink their current working culture.