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Employment Engagement during COVID-19

Is it appropriate to talk about employee engagement when so much has changed? The answer is yes.

Jul 3, 2020

By Nichole Wood, WGU SHRM Virtual Student Chapter Treasurer

By now, most HR professionals are familiar with the idea of employee engagement. The concept has been around for decades but was called things like “employee satisfaction”, “employee morale”, or “workplace satisfaction”. Over the last decade, countless organizations have forged strategies to capitalize on employee engagement. This is because engagement has been proved to increase employee productivity, safety, satisfaction, and retention. Engagement is a people factor. Employers who get it right benefit from a happier, more fulfilled, and more productive workforce.  

I have a lot of passion for this topic. I firmly believe that in order for organizations to truly succeed, they have to get the employee piece right. As I was thinking about this article, I thought about all of the different techniques and research I could share. And then I took off my rose-colored glasses and reorganized my thoughts to align better with the current reality. We are in unprecedented times dealing with a pandemic that has shaken the fabric of our society. Is it appropriate to talk about employee engagement when so much has changed? The answer is yes. Definitely, maybe even more so. But how we help employees stay engaged during this crisis requires a different approach.

So today the focus is not on the elements of employee engagement, how to measure it, or how to maximize it. Today the focus is on one single factor of employee engagement, the one leaders and co-workers still have some control over: connection.  

Many employees started working from home as businesses closed in response to COVID-19.  Seemingly overnight, the workplace was dramatically different. Employees were at home, scared, perhaps dealing with their children, significant others, or other family members and internally wondering when this will end. And on top of the overwhelming rapid changes, there was still work to be done. Employees have to figure out how to get the job done away from the office, in the midst of turmoil, and with more life distractions than ever before. And it feels like they have to do it all alone.  

People crave and need social, human connection. There are many different ways we connect with others in our work day: smiling and greeting others as you come into the office, chatting with your desk mates or coworkers about the latest news or what you did over the weekend, having lunch with coworkers or trying to delicately eat a crunchy salad during a working lunch, the customers you talk to, the looks you share with others in meetings, at the desk, in the hallway.    

What does this have to do with employee engagement? Over half of the factors that drive employee engagement are directly related to the interaction between the leader and employee. The leader’s job is usually fairly difficult, but right now it’s even more so. As leaders navigate the uncertain business environment, they still have teams to lead and work to produce.  It’s all too common to hunker down and go into task management mode during crisis. Leaders might think to focus on the tasks and worry about the engagement thing when work goes back to normal. Except, if we don’t actively find ways to connect there may not be employees to worry about when the world becomes a bit more predictable. 

Keeping connection as the leading factor of engagement here are a few techniques leaders can use to facilitate connections with their virtual teams.  

  1. Every morning send each employee a friendly hello through instant message (or email if your company doesn’t use IM).  This is not a task request or a status report. Think about what you might do or say if you were making the morning rounds back at the office. Keep it short and sweet but let the employee know you “see” and value them. 
  2. Ensure the employee has a clear understanding about how the work they do helps the organization.  This can’t be understated in times of crisis. If they don’t know how they are adding value, or what purpose they fulfill in the company, they won’t feel engaged enough to connect. 
  3. Make space for to talk about life—not just work. In the office, these conversations happen spontaneously as life occurs, and, to some, may seem like wasted time. One of the factors employees consider when they think about workplace satisfaction is whether or not they have someone at work to share life events with. In a virtual world, the leader needs to facilitate the space for these discussions to happen. Save time in one-on-one meetings to just talk.  And leaders: be vulnerable. Share something personal to help create a safe space. 
  4. Meet at least weekly with each employee. Many leaders already hold weekly one-on-one meetings.  Don’t stop this activity when you’re remote. It’s critical for creating connections and providing necessary support to employees.  
  5. Use video weekly, if possible. Having worked from home for several years, I know that being on video all the time can get old quickly. However, holding a weekly team meeting where people can see the other team members is a good way to facilitate connection. 
  6. Help facilitate connections between team members. Use a group chat to encourage they connect with each other. Encourage events where they can connect without you. If you have close-knit group, consider asking an employee to host some type of happy hour or team activity.  

During these unprecedented times we’re all under stress. We all worry about what comes next and what “normal” will look like. But don’t wait for “normal” to consider engagement or the other human factors in the workplace.  Be present. Engagement is the outcome of the conscious efforts of connecting with people and creating purpose at work.   

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