5 Employee Engagement Lessons we Learned this Year

Employee Engagement, Leadership

Even though we’ve helped companies measure and drive employee engagement for more than 20 years, with a year as crazy as this one we were bound to learn even more than we ever thought.

We learned a lot during the global recession in 2008 – all around the world, across industries, employee engagement plummeted after the crisis even though it seemed relatively stable during the crisis. We saw a significant spike in employee turnover too, and of course, workplace culture took a knock. 

Covid-19 has obviously been very different. With teams being physically separated, managers having to lead from afar, technology being totally relied upon for communication between teams and management and and and! All these structural changes and ways of working was/is unlike anything we’ve seen before, so it’s certainly been interesting to see how employee engagement has been managed and affected. We are slowly moving towards the recovery phase, and we’re now in a better position to tell if these effects are long-lasting or not. 

Managers slightly adjusted their approach to employee engagement this year; it was less about the fun stuff like workplace culture, motivational incentives, training and development, and much more attuned to the emotional needs of employees – nurturing wellbeing, supporting employee mental health, providing job security, communicating, and establishing new ways of motivating teams without placing added pressure. This year certainly validated the strong relationship between employee engagement and employee emotion. Engagement is an emotional state, and feelings can and do affect an employees’ level of engagement. 

  1. Communication is the key to employee engagement

Whether during a crisis or not, communication is absolutely the key to driving employee engagement. This year has certainly confirmed it. With teams dispersed across different locations, managers inherently knew that without proper communication they’d have huge problems engaging their people, and team performance would drop. They didn’t think about all the ‘fluff’, albeit important too, it was communication they were most concerned about. It shouldn’t be any different in-office.

To improve employee engagement, communication channels need to be established between leaders, employees, HR and senior management. You may be thinking, well I hold many team meetings, I’m always available to chat; I’ve established communication channels but employee engagement still seems to be a problem (absenteeism is high, productivity is low, staff turnover is an issue etc). The secret is providing employees with a variety of communicative channels. Some employees won’t speak up if it means confidentiality could be threatened. Some employees are facing problems they’d prefer to disclose anonymously – especially if it’s with their leader or senior management. During a time as sensitive as this, when job security is a low and layoffs are high, they’ll be less inclined to communicate openly. An anonymous, highly confidential communication channel is vitally important.

2. It is possible to improve employee engagement remotely

We’ve learned that many business functions can be successfully carried out remotely. I’m sure you’ve been pleasantly surprised at what you can do from afar! Employee engagement is possible to improve from afar, too. So long as you can communicate, find out how your people are feeling and coping, and are open to learning and adjusting in order to meet their needs, engagement can be strengthened (even during a crisis).

Once again, it comes down to communication. If you have the technology to be able to communicate similarly to how you would in-office, and you have a way of providing your people with an anonymous, confidential way of expressing their feelings, then you can gather the data needed to make rewarding people decisions. Your employee engagement strategy should always be driven by your people – if you can put your people in the driving seat (from afar) then you absolutely can improve engagement.

3. Leadership style can affect employee engagement 

We’ve done quite a bit of research throughout this year to really understand employee emotions during change and crisis. (We’d highly recommend you read up on some of our research findings. We’re also conducting a survey now about remote working and employee benefits – you can have your say here.) After conducting research and speaking to our clients and even other players in the industry, we found that there are types of leadership styles that are more beneficial than others in times of crisis/change.

We found that employees long for transparency and empathy from their leaders during these times. It’s especially longed for when they’re experiencing work-related anxieties (e.g fears of job-security and various others) on top of personal stresses (e.g a change in lifestyle and worry for family and friends’ health). Leaders who are transparent about what’s happening in the business and the team, and transparent about struggles and plans (personal and in the workplace), and whom are empathetic about how their people feel and committed to supporting their people in the best way they can, see through change and crisis much more successfully. Leaders who demonstrate these qualities see less damage done to employee engagement and wellbeing and in some cases avoid turnover of staff.

4. Change doesn’t have to destroy employee engagement 

Change is often met with resistance amongst employees because of fear of the unknown. This year was filled with uncertainty and the changes that were occuring in most organisations was not entirely positive (think mass-layoffs and shutdowns). We’ve seen some organisations completely transform in order to remain competitive – many changes were made to do this – from restructuring to cutting staff costs and in some cases even moving an entire ‘offline’ business to online, but interestingly they weren’t always the ones experiencing a change in employee engagement. It tells us that if an organisation approaches change in the right way, then no matter how dramatic the changes are, employee engagement can remain steady.

We believe communication is so critical during change – speaking to your people, and having them speak to you. Being open to listening to how they feel and what they need at each stage of the change process is what keeps an organisation unified and strong. Employee engagement is damaged when employees feel their needs aren’t being met and feel trapped in their reality because there’s no way of expressing themselves or flagging concerns. If you’re communicating with your people throughout the changes, listening and learning and doing what you can to meet their needs, it’s unlikely you’ll see a drop in employee engagement.

5. Employee engagement doesn’t plummet due to crisis, but due to poor management during crisis

Employee engagement isn’t ‘doomed’ because a crisis has arrived. Employees are generally resilient during crisis when they’re confident in their leaders and feel supported and cared for. So crisis is not the issue, the issue of poor engagement during crisis/change, is poor management. When management don’t communicate with their people, aren’t transparent, empathetic or interested in nurturing their people’s wellbeing engagement is at risk. It’s also when management have little to no recovery plans. This makes employees feel scared and anxious about how the business is going to survive. There should never be a divide between management and people; the organisation should approach and respond to crisis in a united fashion. 


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