Employee Engagement · Nov 27, 2020

4 Ways Leaders Can Promote Employee Engagement in Challenging Times

As a leader, it can be easy to look at an unmotivated workforce and feel frustrated. You may ask yourself “Why don’t they care as much as I do?” or “Why aren’t they working as hard as I am?”  The problem here is that many leaders ask these questions rhetorically, but never actually take the time to listen to their people and find the answers to them. By getting the answers, you identify how you can support and engage them. We’ll be exploring the key challenges employees may be facing right now and discuss what our experience tells us is most effective in re-connecting and re-engaging your people.

“How can they expect me to work the same way I did before when things are so different?”

There is no question that the eternal challenge around employee engagement will be sharply in focus right now in so many organisations. On top of the ‘normal’ reasons we may associate with this challenge we have the COVID-19 dimension which has created:

  • Uncertainty: People regularly reading stories surrounding the economy and Corona-news can make them feel a loss of control. Businesses have made thousands of employees redundant and they fear they could be next
  • Health concerns: A person’s health and the health of those closest to them has assumed priority or greater focus than ever before
  • Difficulty juggling priorities: They may be splitting time between working from home, looking after kids and/or extended family – they may be stretched thinner
  • A lack of career progression: People have had to push the breaks on goals and aspirations they had for the future
  • Feeling isolated: They feel cut off, and without the office ‘buzz’ they struggle to keep focused, social and productive

The past nine months have been some of the most challenging many of us have ever faced and we are not out of the woods yet. With so much going on, any drop in engagement you are experiencing really isn’t a surprise. It’s not that people don’t care of course, more that we have all experienced profound changes to our lives and lifestyles. More than ever before the whole definition of work and life success is under huge scrutiny and the answers are so much harder to come by.

 

As a Leader, what can you do about it?

For the purposes of this article we are going to largely put to one side the essential wellbeing and care aspects of being a leader right now. Not because it isn’t important, it’s never been more so, but we have offered (and will continue to offer) thoughts on that critical area elsewhere. So, for now we’ll look at what else leaders can be doing to drive engagement, energy and focus.

Arguably now more so than ever, organisations face a challenge to rethink their current approach to effectively engage people when their needs have potentially never been more diverse. A good pay cheque is not enough. Employees need clarity, consistency and support, not sporadic attempts to make them happy.

“A good pay cheque is not enough. Employees need clarity, consistency and support, not sporadic attempts to make them happy.”

Below are four suggestions which focus on what leaders can do to improve engagement, and how they can do it.

  1. Give the Goal Clarity

I remember the first time I read Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ and became truly aware of just how important it is for an organisation to articulate an overarching vision of the future to its employees. So many of us need to know that the work we are doing is meaningful and that our contribution is part of something bigger than ourselves. In the midst of a global pandemic, there has been a shift for both employees and businesses from a time of progress and innovation to ‘survival mode’.

Some companies have had to make hard decisions, be it to change direction, restructure or move away from a future focus and instead concentrate all their efforts on simply staying profitable. This comes at a cost. Employees can lose a sense of the North Star of what their business was really set up to do. No doubt profits are vital in keeping a company afloat, but we cannot emphasise enough after a period of such change the equal value of reiterating and circling the wagons around the reason your organisation was set up in the first place. Particularly if the ‘Why’ has changed – a team, and/or individual role – needs clarity on how they now link to it. Trying to ride out the COVID-19 storm without having a workforce that knows why their role is vital to the overarching vision of the future is like flying an airplane and having no idea where it’s landing.

2. Build Trust

At a time when the world is facing enormous uncertainty, the natural human tendency is a “fight or flight” response. We can tend to navigate to people or situations which feel safe. Trust is complex, but in short, it is the expectation and good faith that both parties will act to secure mutual benefit. It must be built, earned and constantly nurtured.

“Trust is complex, but in short, it is the expectation and good faith that both parties will act to secure mutual benefit. It must be built, earned and constantly nurtured.”

So how do you build trust right now? The impact of Covid resulted in a dramatic shift from the office to working from home, and companies had to trust employees to carry out their work to the same standards as before but in a much more relaxed environment. As we come to the end of another lockdown, it is important that managers do not take away that trust suddenly and begin to micromanage again. You need to keep trusting others yourself – trust is a two-way street. This sounds like a no-brainer, but if you demonstrate that by continuing to ask for their ideas and giving responsibility to run with them, they will likely be empowered by that. We have seen through the pandemic that when businesses have shown that trust, employees have repayed it. We must not lose sight of this.

 

3. ‘Check-in’ before you ‘check-on’, and do it often

Virtual catchups pose a challenge for leaders as it can be harder to get under the skin of any issues, big or small.

Anonymous pulse surveys are useful to gain general trends where you can take a temperature check of your team’s challenges (the anonymity part is important – research suggests we’re not as open otherwise!). This is a win-win scenario because if engagement is low then you have the opportunity to find out why, and if engagement is high then you know you are doing something right. Either way, you gain valuable ‘data’ to see if there are any areas that need to be addressed or homed in on.

Having one-to-one conversations frequently, particularly in a newly remote working scenario, is important. A good place to start in these conversations is to ‘check-in’ on someone’s wellbeing first, before ‘checking on’. This starts the conversation from a point of psychological safety where they feel comfortable to share any issues or performance blockers before any kind of confrontation. If there is a specific issue in someone’s performance, put that second on your agenda after the check-in.

Ensuring consistent regularity of checking in with individuals on specific issues of concern not only shows them you’re there to support them, but ensures any issues get dealt with efficiently and don’t fester with time, ready to pop up again in future like balloons that have been held down. For many right now, they’re not needing perfection, but instead – a regular source of support or sounding board.

Ensuring consistent regularity of checking in with individuals on specific issues of concern not only shows them you’re there to support them, but ensures any issues get dealt with efficiently and don’t fester with time, ready to pop up again in future like balloons that have been held down.

As a team, we’ve also noticed the benefit of creating unstructured time to catch up about non-related work matters. We experimented by putting in informal coffee drop-ins twice a week and protecting that time for anyone to swing by just to catch up, have a good moan about lockdown or talk about their week. Ensuring you create that white space has helped us in terms of team cohesion because although we can’t be together physically, it helps us still feel connected in lieu of the office buzz that some miss. Likewise, if we’re normalising sharing in informal time and in a virtual space, it feels more natural sharing in a work-related context like meetings.

Building team habits around that in a new virtual environment is crucial to a team’s ability to get to the root cause of an issue. When building psychological safety in a virtual world, this is important, as we know a team that can share and challenge each other more openly is one that will be more effective at problem solving and addressing any elephants in the room (whatever size!).

 

4. Have career conversations

Progression is often vital to an employee’s commitment to remain in an organisation, and managers need to be equipped to lead career conversations. It is crucial especially now, to remind your employees that the work they are doing brings value, and that it will not go unrewarded. We are not saying that you need to be constantly promoting, but if you manage others, part of your job is to help your workforce grow by gaining new skills and sharpening those they already have. In the current climate, we know that many businesses cannot afford the luxury of rewarding their staff with big bonuses or financial incentives, but that does not mean that there is nothing to offer. Whether it is an opportunity to mentor somebody, a conversation about an employee’s development at an organisation, or an invitation for someone to work on a higher-level project than they usually do, there are many options available to those leaders who really care about their team’s future.

By asking your employees what you can be doing to better support their work, you’ll not only solidify a good work relationship but also boost their level of engagement and give them an honest feeling of progression within the business. Investing in your employee’s development and longer-term career aspirations really matters.

 

When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.” – Simon Sinek

When looking at the top companies to work for in the UK on Glassdoor, the number 1 spot is taken by Google. One of the first reviews of Google you will see is from a current employee who is asked to list the pros and cons of working there. The pros make no mention of salary or bonus schemes, but rather praises five areas where the company excels, “Culture, Collaboration, Management, Flexibility, Transparency.”

The best companies people love to work for understand that people have a natural desire to want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and carry out meaningful work towards that -and they give them the tools and freedom to do it. The relationship between a person’s work and personal life is changing every day. However, by bringing clarity to their contribution to an organisation, building trust, frequently checking in and helping them progress, you are building a culture that everyone will want to be a part of, and contribute to. That will go a long way to finding those leadership answers we raised initially, and finding routes to support and engage your employees, even with the added Covid dimension of challenges.

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