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8 Employee Engagement Ideas for a Changing Workforce

June 25, 2020 Employee Experience
By Dom Nicastro

The dynamics of work changed rapidly due to the COVID-19 world health pandemic. But employee engagement still saw an upward trend. Gallup reported in early May the percentage of "engaged" workers in the U.S. reached 38%, or the highest since the company began to track that data in 2000. 

It’s not surprising to see that number rise because many companies during the unprecedented shift for the workplace are doing all they can to ensure employees stay engaged, according to Dr. Sanja Licina, future of organizations lead at Globant. “I think a lot of organizations recently have become concerned about engagement and want employees to feel motivated,” Licina said. “It's creating that transparent understanding that all of us live in a different reality today. We're in this constant adjustment period, and at first it was chaos. Everybody was assembling. Does our company have the right technologies and can we connect? A couple months of that, and now we’re seeing constant iterations recognizing what our people need.”

Construct Your Definition of Employee Engagement

Companies will have even greater challenges helping employees stay engaged when the workplace begins to move back to offices, which is already in progress. Massachusetts, for instance, now allows 50% capacity at workplaces in the state. And workplace analysts are already beginning to design strategies around workplace design post 2020. 

How can you continue to keep employees engaged through continual transition? A first step could be to recognize how your company defines employee engagement. “Engaged employees are those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” said Ben Wigert, PhD, MBA, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup. Gallup, Wigert added, has identified 12 elements of employee engagement that predict high team performance in critical business outcomes including retention, productivity, safety, sales and revenue. These 12 elements of engagement include basic employee needs (e.g., clear expectations); individual employee needs (e.g., opportunities to do what they do best everyday), team needs (coworkers committed to quality work) and growth needs (e.g., opportunities to learn and grow).

Jennie Knowles, PHR, SHRM-CP, head of human resources at Sendoso, said employees who are engaged at work feel passionate about their jobs and committed toward the organization. “This starts,” she said, “by creating a culture that is inclusive, welcoming and constantly striving to improve.”

Related Article: Tips for Improving Employee Engagement

Train Your Managers to Engage Remote Workers

It’s doubtful many HR certification courses or educational programs had lectures prior to 2020 on boosting employee engagement during a world health pandemic. What is important about employee engagement now in the era of COVID-19 that wasn’t as emphasized, perhaps, before the pandemic? Employees have had to figure out how to balance work and life in new ways over the last few months, according to Wigert.

”Whether employee engagement sinks or soars will largely depend on how well managers are trained to manage remote workers,” he said. “Engaging remote workers largely depends on effectively communicating, building relationships, providing meaningful feedback and developing employees while they are working from home.”

Hold Managers Accountable

Companies with the highest engagement levels in Gallup studies see employee recognition as a means to develop and stretch employees to new levels of success. Recognition of outstanding team leaders sends a strong message about what the company values. Accountability does, too.

Companies with strong employee engagement define high team performance based on a combination of metrics such as productivity, retention rates, customer service and employee engagement, Wigert said. "It is clear to managers that their job is to engage their teams," he added. "The best companies have consequences for ongoing patterns of team disengagement — most importantly changing team leaders."

These organizations believe that not everyone should be a manager, and they create high value career paths for individual-contributor roles. No one should feel their progress depends on getting promoted to manager. The best organizations know there is no meaningful mission and purpose in the absence of clear expectations, ongoing conversations and accountability.

Build Organizational Resilience

A make-or-break trait for organizations during tough times is how it builds “organizational resilience,” according to Wigert. This is especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, he added. “People's compounding concerns about their health, financial future and disrupted lives make this the toughest time most of us have ever experienced,” Wigert said. “Gallup analytics are finding unprecedented spikes in daily worry and stress, while overall percentages of people ‘thriving’ have dropped to Great Recession-era lows. It takes an exceptional level of resilience for organizations and employees to thrive in such an uncertain and radically disrupted climate.”

More resilient cultures have a competitive advantage during times of crisis and disruption, according to Wigert. Gallup’s recent meta-analysis of 62,965 business units and teams shows that the relationship between employee engagement and performance outcomes — such as profitability, productivity, customer perceptions and employee turnover — was actually even stronger during the past two economic recessions compared with non-recession years. Gallup wrote about its five engagement elements that most impact organizational resilience during times of severe disruption May 20, which included: 

  • Clear expectations.
  • The right materials and equipment.
  • Opportunities for employees to do what they do best.
  • Connection to the mission or purpose of the organization.
  • Coworkers committed to quality work.

Related Article: 9 Employee Engagement Survey Questions to Ask

Don’t Discount Small Gestures

HR leaders and those charged with employee experience and engagement need to prepare to engage all employees — regardless of whether they’re in the office or at home — because chances are a hybrid work environment will be the new reality, according to Knowles. That can mean a few small gestures to start. “Sending digital gifts, plants, beverages and sweet treats are fun ways to connect with your team members and drive engagement during this time,” Knowles said. “So while we may have limited control over our current situation, we can still plan for the things to come.”

Knowles isn’t suggesting digital gifts will send employee engagement numbers soaring, but small gestures could at least acknowledge that management cares about their employees' well-being during these challenging times. “You can always start with activities everyone can experience regardless of location: host virtual happy hours or cooking classes, send them treats and supplies and other gifts,” Knowles said. “At Sendoso, we like to balance physical and mental activities. Our team members can attend virtual workouts in the morning or trivia sessions — like Disney trivia with family on Wednesdays — in the afternoon. ... Everyone can use a reason to smile right now, and these little gestures will go a long way.”

Intentional efforts to spark reflection and deeper conversations are also valuable, such as reading books for professional and personal growth, according to Knowles. “One month we might read about a new sales strategy, then the next we’ll read about diversity and inclusion,” she said, citing examples of how her company does this. “In this way, we learn together, have conversations and grow as a team.”

Initiate Culture Change With Executive Leadership

Leadership commitment is the primary reason that organizational change succeeds or fails. That’s why it is essential that top executives across the organization believe in a high-engagement, high development strategy — and lead by example, according to Wigert. “Strategic alignment is more than just business speak,” he said. “Strategic alignment happens when managers and employees see a seamless connection between what they are asked to do and what the organization stands for and is trying to get done.”

Leaders should agree on a well-defined purpose and brand for their organization then create a strategic business plan that commits to a development-focused engagement program as a key driver of business goals. Leaders must also speak authentically and enthusiastically about how engagement fits into the purpose, brand and strategy of the organization.

“Leaders must walk the talk by championing engagement in corporate communications, meetings, key decisions and performance measurements,” Wigert said. “Leaders must model attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that reflect their engagement strategies. They should embed engagement in daily conversations and use engagement as a tool for solving real work problems.”

Related Article: Can Tech Alone Help Boost Employee Engagement?

Practice Company-Wide Communication

The best organizations have exceptional chief human resources leaders who build systems that teach managers how to develop employees in line with their innate tendencies, according to Wigert. These organizations have a designated “champions network” that communicates, collects best practices and answers questions.

“The ongoing collection of best practice examples,” he said, “creates a vivid picture of what highly engaged teams look like.”

Give Your Employees Clear Objectives

Another way to keep employees engaged is to give them precise directives and feedback on what’s expected of them, according to Licina. “One of the really key things is to give people clarity on what's expected of them,” she said. “And then in some ways, help them find out how to achieve that and put them in a position to succeed. If a person doesn't know what kind of contribution they're expected to make, it causes a lot of anxiety about doing the right things. If you have clarity on what you can achieve, you can create your own experience to get there.”


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