Employee engagement, always top of mind in any business, has vaulted a little higher now, during the coronavirus pandemic. How do you keep everybody on board when the world around them seems to be falling apart? How do you keep everyone rowing in the same direction when the work environment has suddenly changed -- when remote work is often a reality, for instance, or social distance offers myriad challenges?
There have been many well-intentioned guides for organizations dealing with this new normal. Do some firefighting, one began, its point being that it is important to take employees’ needs into consideration, while understanding that the company’s strategy will no doubt have to be revised. Stay calm, advised another, which certainly matters, since leadership always sets the tone.
But here’s the thing: The companies best equipped to come through this crisis are those that long ago built a solid foundation -- that created a culture in which their employees could thrive. And those businesses did so by hiring wisely, communicating constantly, managing adroitly and expressing appreciation for the efforts of one and all.
It starts with the managers. It is often said that they can make or break a company -- that people don’t leave companies, they leave their managers. And while an employee’s direct manager can certainly drive and influence engagement, there are ways to create an atmosphere in which employees are given more control over how they learn and grow, making them stewards of their own careers.
Yes, hiring the right managers and giving them the proper training is absolutely vital for a company’s overall health and employees’ satisfaction. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that if employees are made responsible for their own engagement and shown pathways toward advancement, they can become more involved, enthusiastic and committed to their work.
There’s a long way to go as far as that is concerned: Gallup data shows that only 34 percent of U.S. workers believe they are engaged at work. The potential upside of a more engaged team is huge. As each employee becomes more invested in their own careers, companies can expect to see lower turnover, higher productivity, and increased customer loyalty.
Here are several ways to make that happen.
Onboarding is Critical
How an employee is introduced and indoctrinated into a company’s culture can mean the difference between that person engaging and simply putting in time. It is critical to introduce them, find ways to include them in bigger groups and make sure they understand the company values.
Other ways to increase engagement can include setting aside time for things other than day-to-day work. Even 30 minutes a day to reflect and recharge, work on improvement projects or simply think about new ideas can have a positive impact. Encouraging people to take five-minute breaks to stretch or reset also creates more engaged and relaxed employees.
The Importance of Flexibility
Another way to motivate employees is to provide flexibility. If they are allowed to work in a different location or have flexible hours, people are often highly motivated to prove they can handle it, resulting in better performances. This also shows trust on the part of your company and that you believe this employee doesn’t need to be constantly present to be valued.
Again, this is especially important now, given the prevalence of remote work. Managing a team from afar is vastly different than it is face to face, but it can be done through video-conference platforms like Zoom and Facetime. It is vital that a manager check in regularly with the entire team in order to clear up any potential misunderstandings -- it’s one thing to say something in an office setting, quite another to express it in an email or text.
How Transparency Helps
Authenticity and transparency remain big factors in whether employees will feel engaged and valued, especially now. If you allow them to know what’s really going on, it will go a long way toward keeping an us-vs.-them mentality from developing. “Walking the walk” from the top down shows that you believe in what you say and are modeling the behavior you’re expecting from your employees. And frequent updates keep everyone feeling like they’re in the loop.
Asking for feedback is also important, as long as you take it seriously and show that you are actively listening to your employees, as opposed to giving the appearance of openness. That is invaluable at a time when misinformation can run rampant. As the long-ago quote (misattributed to Mark Twain) goes, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
An effective manager clears up any misunderstandings -- often proactively -- before they reach so much as the next cubicle.
Goal-Setting is a Worthwhile Aim
Encouraging goal-setting on the part of each employee is likewise critical. Working with managers obviously matters, but when employees feel they have a say in their own journey, they are that much more motivated -- especially when those above them in the corporate hierarchy invest the time to offer guidance, and are careful to place them in the right role.
That investment will pay off now, when, as mentioned, employees are often on their own. If they have everything they need to perform, they are more likely to do so.
Gratitude for a job well done increases engagement as well. Say thank you to everyone who made a project a success -- or, as is the case now, either worked independently or while bridging the gap with others. Everyone appreciates being recognized for their efforts. Making sure each employee knows how they’ve contributed to the company’s mission is vital.
While the talent and enthusiasm of individual managers will always be important, putting mechanisms in place to give employees more responsibility for their own destinies means they aren’t as dependent on managers, and can even increase efficiency and reduce turnover. As important as that was before, it is even more important now, during an unprecedented crisis. And creating such a culture can ensure that a business will ride it out as best as possible.