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How to Maintain Employee Engagement During Difficult Times

  • by: Adam Coath
  • On: 26, May 2020
9 min read

During the global coronavirus pandemic, all organisations not carrying out ‘essential’ work have been forced to allow staff to work from home full-time. Whilst millions of employees have adapted well to the new arrangements, more extroverted individuals or those who rely more on structure have found it harder to adjust.

The positive impact of employee engagement is far-reaching and business-critical. Salaries are no longer the top consideration for potential staff: 1 in 3 people now count benefits packages amongst their top considerations when job searching. Benefits packages, positive workplace culture and collaborative teams are the most desired factors in new hires. These three elements empower employees to feel valued, motivated and engaged.

Disengaged workers are much more likely to make mistakes, demotivate their colleagues and ultimately leave their jobs. Individuals who are bored, stressed or unhappy during Covid-19 will be uninspired, find it difficult to concentrate on tasks and projects, and will be less collaborative and helpful to colleagues. Here are eight tactics that managers and leaders can use to sustain employee engagement during the crisis.

How to Motivate Employees During Covid-19

1. Consistent, Clear & Custom-Made Communication

Communication is the first step in maintaining strong connections between teams and across departments. Company-wide communications such as regular video calls, monthly newsletters and Intranet systems can reassure the workforce on company progress, update on planned initiatives and enable workers to access the rare chance to ask questions of their senior leadership teams.

Communication is also the most integral part of an employee-manager relationship, but is often neglected or downplayed. A quick debrief following a client phone call or a causal chat whilst waiting for the coffee machine do not help facilitate the mutual trust and connection needed between individuals and managers. Weekly 1-2-1 meetings provide a dedicated time and place for individuals to connect with their manager face-to-face and get support on problems and challenges, as well as keeping track of professional development.

1-2-1s are particularly vital when remote working: support from management is core during unusual and difficult times. Regular video or phone calls can enable employees to structure their questions and challenges and store them for the dedicated support time, reassuring employees in difficult situations and freeing up other blocks of manager time to concentrate on team members and activities individually. Although development may have fallen down the list of priorities as companies scramble to diversify to bounce back from crisis, these 1-2-1 sessions should also cover the employee’s Personal Development Plan and identify any potential roadblocks preventing them from progressing.

Communication is also relative to experience level, employee longevity, current project status and even individual personality. Some team members will feel more comfortable with greater autonomy over deliverables and some will prefer a closer level of guidance: ask each team member about their preference, and check to see if this changes with time and projects, to find the right level of support for them.

Workforce Communication during Covid19

2. Build & Maintain Trust

Whilst increasing management might be tempting when staff are not sat at their desks in their usual office, micro-management will have a dramatically adverse effect on workers. Managers must trust staff, who are by nature experienced, knowledgeable and fully capable in their existing roles, to get on in their jobs without instant supervision.

Since the almost worldwide lockdown, 74% of those currently working report being more productive than when they were working from the office. Contrary to the opinion of many business leaders, staff can significantly benefit from quiet spaces and time to reflect and concentrate on difficult tasks, leading to increased efficiency and quality of work. To best support your staff without overwhelming them, speak over the phone or video call. Ask them how they’re feeling, what they’re finding difficult and what they would like or need help with. Involve individual employees in establishing their own communication processes and reporting systems, including project management tools and online teamwork software, so that managers are up to date on their departments and employees feel they have the space and autonomy to be productive and creative.

Enhancing trust enables employers to offer greater flexibility for the benefit of employees and business results. Companies that operate flexible working policies see greater staff engagement and retention. Physical and mental illness loses British businesses £77 billion every year; flexible working schedules allow individuals much-needed work-life balance, which has a positive effect on their mental and physical health, resulting in fewer sick days and increased effectiveness at work.

3. Reflect & Revolutionise

Use this time as an opportunity to step back from your workforce and truthfully, holistically assess your culture and employee wellbeing. Look back through recent years at the take-up and impact of benefits and employees initiatives that have been introduced, the effect of these on retention, and the rates of employee turnover both as a whole and in different departments, across levels of seniority and diverse groups. Even in companies that are described as great places to work, previous employees will have left their job to receive something better or that they valued more in a new employer.

Exit interviews are the most honest direct feedback you will ever receive from your workforce. Use these, as well as previous employee engagement surveys and Glassdoor reviews, to gain first-hand experience into the working lives of your employees. What do they like about working for your company, and what would they change if they could? What would help them become more effective and efficient in their roles? What benefits, environments or experiences do they prioritise, which would make them happier in their roles and more likely to stay with the business for longer? Give your employees what they want to make them as happy, productive and loyal as possible.

4. Prioritise Mental Health

Work/life balance is critical when individuals are working from home: our always-on, instant communication culture reinforces the ability to be reachable through technology at all hours of the day and night and pressurises individuals into extending their working hours. Without visibility throughout the working day, employees can feel anxious that their bosses might miss their contributions or misunderstand the time and effort taken on new projects when working remotely. Help your staff feel comfortable with putting distance between their work and home lives by setting clear boundaries. Outline the number of hours or required results that are expected per day or week, and emphasise that output and results are far more important than time logged in.

The well-known saying ‘people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers’ is often true – however, new research shows that managers are not as directly linked to employee engagement as previously believed. Whilst a close relationship with a highly effective and supportive manager does increase engagement, the personality of a worker has the most impact upon their happiness, productivity and involvement. A recent study shows that employee ‘self-engagement’ (personal outlooks and innate abilities such as optimism, resilience, assertiveness, enthusiasm and proactivity) is far more important o engagement than management style or working relationships.

Self-engagement is closely aligned with mental health during a crisis such as Covid-19. Individuals who generally cope better with stress, responsibility, deadlines, risk and uncertainty are likely to be more naturally resilient and therefore better equipped for positive mental health. Their less resilient colleagues, through no fault of their own, will be more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression during a fraught and unprecedented situation.

As most employers do not currently test or record self-engagement, Human Resources teams must speak to each staff member individually to identify those most at risk of poor mental health. By speaking with every employee over the phone or video call, HR professionals can make employees aware of existing mental health policies, direct them to the in-house Mental Health First Aider and alert them to potential signs of depression or anxiety and the support they can receive if they feel their mental health is suffering. Somewhat ironically, many self-engaged workers may also be at risk of mental illness due to a discomfort asking for help or an inability to identify new mental health difficulties. To best protect the whole workforce, HR leaders can share helpful guides and external organisation support numbers with employees who don’t feel comfortable speaking with their bosses and colleagues about mental health.

Employee Mental Health During Crisis

5. Involve Individuals in the Solution

In times of crisis, people want a purpose – they need to be useful, and to believe that they are contributing towards the solution. Conduct online surveys or anonymous suggestion boxes to welcome ideas on diversification opportunities, solutions to business problems and activities to improve employee engagement. Reward implemented ideas with small prizes such as free takeaways, online shopping vouchers or chocolate boxes sent in the post to encourage ideas generation.

Fun and socialising are core aspects of teambuilding and engagement, and physical distancing need not mean isolation. Virtual events like pub quizzes have soared in popularity during the lockdown – business leaders can also take advantage of the many free technologies on offer to ensure fun and socialising continue to be part of working life.

To maintain staff morale, adapt your internal communications to include weekly company updates via email and video call that celebrate company and team achievements, and run regular social events for employees through video conferencing tools.

6. Take Advantage of Extra Time

With many team and department members being furloughed and client companies reducing budgets to maintain business continuity, many employees have been gifted with additional time or gaps in their schedule due to lack of events, projects and sales opportunities. Utilise the lockdown period as a unique opportunity to develop the skillset of your workforce. Providers such as the Open University are offering a wealth of free professional courses throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and other free and low-cost learning methods include online coding classes, social media and copywriting training.

Virtual mentoring between senior and junior employees is phenomenally effective in developing soft skills and improving both workforce engagement and retention. Employee turnover amongst those who receive regular feedback is 15% lower, and employees who receive regular constructive feedback are 12% more productive than their peers.

One in three people would resign from a job they really enjoyed if it did not help them progress in their career. Learning & Development is vital to employee engagement. The best way to make sure employees are continually challenged and upskilled is to create a Personal Development Plan for each individual. Created in partnership with the employee, this document uses the employee’s career goals and the immediate business needs to outline SMART objectives for the next 6-12 months. A PDP involves workers in their own professional success and continually adds new skills to the business. Investing in workers will ideally position companies to hit the ground running and return to growth ambitions much faster after the pandemic.

7. Publicly Recognise & Praise

A little recognition goes a long way, and this is particularly true when it comes from senior executives. A simple thank you for excellent results, additional effort expended to complete a project or delivering a successful client video call shows your staff that you value them and their work. Public praise, such as a round of applause in a company video call or a leaderboard for top performance displayed on your Intranet can increase motivation and make employees feel part of a real team.

Recognition and praise are particularly effective for middle and senior management. Whilst individuals in these roles will frequently praise the efforts and success of their own teams, senior managers will receive far less face-to-face communication and feedback from their busy Board-level managers. During a crisis, many workers adapt a ‘go the extra mile’ approach to support their colleagues and their employers: highlight and applaud these employees to inspire their continual efforts and encourage those who may be struggling.

Business Success through Covid19

8. Share Future Plans

A crisis is by nature uncertain: in a difficult situation, even senior leaders and seasoned executives cannot predict specific outcomes or end dates. However, we do know that crises will end. Reassure your staff that whilst the past few months may have seemed an eternity, normal life – or even an improved life with better teamwork, greater understanding and empathy, and more flexibility – is on the horizon.

Regular company updates, and shout-outs of individual and team successes, will keep workers focused and aligned with business goals. Communicate the next steps towards goals and achievements along the way to keep employees engaged with the future of the business and their role in it.

Is your business working from home? Read our Guide to Managing Remote Teams.

Help your teams get back to work as quickly and safely as possible with Social Distancing Equipment.

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