thank you written on a roll up gate
We've said it once, we'll say it again: a genuine "thank you" goes a long way. PHOTO: Matt Jones

With more states now easing stay at home restrictions, many Americans are wondering what the “new normal” will be for the workplaces and in turn, for work relationships.

Restrictions on the number of workers allowed to return and strict guidelines on how to maintain distancing measures in the office would seem to spell potential trouble for employee engagement strategies. But employee engagement experts agree that the essential elements must and will still remain, even when there are fewer workers in the central office and more employees working from home.

“When it comes to the elements of employee engagement that will carry on, I think it’s important to keep rituals and programs that helped contribute to a great culture or engaging experience in the first place. They may need to be modified, but not throwing away your engagement playbook will be important. It’s about adjusting it to the new environment,” said Rob Catalano, chief engagement officer at Work Tango.

"There will be dramatic changes. Communications will be most challenging. The concept of ‘getting together’ will still happen, but much less to reinforce engagement programs," Catalano said. "Offices will be for building relationships, not for driving accountability."

Employee Engagement Is a Culture, Not a Program

Engagement experts collectively emphasized that successful employee engagement isn’t a program or a project, but a culture. Either an organization has it, or it doesn’t.

"For engagement to grow and stay consistent, it cannot be a ‘program.’ It can’t be ‘one more thing’ — it needs to be ‘the main thing.’ Employee engagement must be part of the strategic goals and initiatives, with executive level support and accountability," explained Vicki Hess, an employee engagement expert, author and principal of Employee Engagement Solutions LLC.

In her book, “6 Shortcuts to Employee Engagement: Lead & Succeed in a Do-More-With-Less World,” Hess shares these six important organizational elements:

  • Commit to a strategic focus on engagement.
  • Live the mission, vision and values.
  • Ensure a safe environment.
  • Communicate openly and honestly.
  • Provide fair compensation and benefits.
  • Provide opportunities for growth and development.

Related Article: Why Organizations Should Care About Employee Engagement

4 Areas Where Employee Engagement Needs a Fresh Approach

As organizations ease into their new ways of doing things, employee engagement efforts are being dramatically impacted in a number of areas, explained Janice Litvin, a workplace consultant and employee engagement expert. The four key areas, and how organizations should address them, are:

Connection

The missing physical connection is an obvious place to start. "Assuming the two have a good relationship, then virtual meetings can work. When I say ‘good relationship’, that means the manager makes an effort to really know their people by spending time with them, showing deep interest in them professionally and personally. They know the names of their family members and are empathetic when there’s a problem. They purposefully drives connection by creating a good team environment that might include team volunteer opportunities,” said Litvin.

Communication

The lack of face-to-face interactions can stress communications as well, requiring managers to develop stronger bonds in this area. “That means checking in with employees at least weekly if not more. It means having meetings that have nothing to do with work, like ‘Friday Funday’ or ‘Mental Health Monday,’” said Litvin.

Mental Health and Support

“Showing support for emotional and mental health at this time is of utmost importance. Everyone is feeling something different. One may have lost a family member, or have a close friend who lost someone. Another might have a critically sick family member to care for while trying to work. Many have school-aged children they need to manage while trying to work. So empathy is even more critical than usual,” Litvin stressed.

Motivation

When stress levels are high, work performance may wane. “Especially because after weeks of being in ‘hibernation” everyone feels fear of the unknown — more potential layoffs. Will their company be able to respond to the new normal? Will manufacturing be impacted? How will reduced revenues impact the ‘work environment as we knew it,’” Litvin said.

Related Article: How Leaders Can Support the Mental Health of Employees Working From Home

Middle Managers Are the Key to Making it Work

The key to making all of this work, the experts agree, are middle managers: the ones who normally have the most direct communication with line employees.

“Senior leaders must champion employee engagement and frontline managers in the journey,” stressed Jill Christiansen, an employee engagement expert and consultant. “Human resources cannot own it and succeed by themselves. Once a senior leader is on board, he/she should direct to do the exact same things in the trenches to engage employees. Consistency is key.”

But achieving this consistency won’t be easy for every organization. Many managers simply aren’t experienced with supervising a largely remote workforce or on-site workers who must keep their distance.

“Employees working remotely pose new challenges for leaders who aren’t used to managing from a distance. Employees also need to adapt to connect as teams given the new social distancing rules and remote work,” Hess explained.

It starts with the communication piece. The methods and logistics may have changed, but the message hasn’t.

“Leaders need to increase their communications to show employees that their concerns are heard, and clearly demonstrate how they are supporting their physiological and safety needs,” said Kristina Baumler, communications and employee engagement leader at CGI. “Many times, this requires leadership to ensure the proper tools exist not only to get important messages from senior leaders to employees but also ways for employees to communicate with them.”

Along with these changes in communication methods, Baumler said management needs to become more comfortable with workers being out of sight, if not out of mind. They need not worry about lost productivity, most experts agreed, since remote workers have regained time previously spent commuting to a job. That regained time often gets added onto the time they spend doing their job.

Still, managers do need to keep their eyes on a number of factors. To help them, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) offers these tips on how to keep the post-pandemic workforce engaged:

  • “Individualization is key. The best managers have always individualized their coaching to the worker, but doing so at a distance requires greater intentionality. Managers need to ask each team member to describe the conditions under which they perform best, their concerns about their workflow and their emotional response to the situation.”
  • “Don't assume because you know how to use online video conferencing tools like Zoom, that everyone else in the office knows how to use these tools. Ask a member of your IT team or someone in the office who is a pro at using remote collaboration tools, to host a webinar and invite employees to attend. Record the webinar so that people can refer back to it, should they need to do so.”
  • “Always keep time zones in mind, especially if you have team members across geographies (I lead a team of more than 50 employees in 16 different states alone). It's unrealistic to require employees to work the same office hours given the reality of how coronavirus may be impacting commitments such as childcare and home care.”
  • “Burnout, which is affecting more and more employees, may be something we associate with working in an office, but for employees who are adjusting to a work-from-home schedule, burnout remains a possibility. Without a commute to bookend the day, employees may struggle with officially 'ending their day' in a way that feels natural and satisfying. Work with your team members to help them establish boundaries to their day in a way that is both productive for the team and helps team members avoid costly burnout.”

Finally, Hess stressed that amidst all the change and uncertainty, organizations should stick to the basics.

“Engagement isn’t sexy. It’s like exercise. You need to focus on it every day and some days are more challenging than others. Weaving the thread of engagement into everything an organization does will create the kind of culture where employees feel supported and want to come to work and do their best,” Hess said.